Wendover • Early explorers and pioneers often found precisely the right words to describe land formations as they named features they encountered while trekking west.
On July 27, 1850, for example, Robert Chalmers led a group of about 300 gold miners headed to California across the Bonneville Salt Flats using the Hastings Cutoff. Seeing a mountain range devoid of perennial streams and with sparse vegetation, he called them the Barren Mountains.
Explorer Howard Stansbury put it another way in 1853: "The plain contained several island mountains, rising from it as from the water."
Today, these bleak peaks are known as the Silver Island range. A 54-mile Bureau of Land Management National Back Country Byway allows modern-day explorers to see one of the West's most remote places in the relative comfort of a vehicle.
"I always thought the mountains were named for the silvery mirage that is created on the salt flats, but apparently it is from the occurrences of silver, which is the foremost metal sought here," said Jim Davis of the Utah Geological Survey.
Thousands of travelers zip past the Bonneville Salt Flats and these barren mountains each year on their way to West Wendover's casinos or, farther west, to Reno or San Francisco. A few might stop to examine the crusted salt at a rest area about 5 miles east of Wendover. The more adventurous drive a few miles off Exit 4 to the edge of the famed Bonneville Speedway. There, an interpretive sign marks where the pavement ends and the salt begins in earnest.
Bart Diaz, of Knoxville, Tenn., remembered stopping on this spot when his parents took him on a cross-country trip. That's why he could only smile as he watched his children, Amber and Derek, frolic on the crusted salt.
"I remember this from my childhood," Diaz said. "You can't come to Salt Lake City and not come out here and see this. It's a little out of the way, but where else are you going to see it?"
Fewer tourists turn north after viewing the salt flats to explore the Silver Island Mountains. Although the dirt road which is best explored by a high-clearance SUV or truck with good tires owns a national designation, it's possible to take the two- to three-hour drive without seeing another soul.
There is a place to register at a BLM kiosk near the start of the byway, which can be reached by taking Exit 4 off Interstate 80 just east of Wendover, driving 1.5 miles north on the paved road, and then continuing north on a gravel road for another mile to a well-marked junction. When one party registered July 4, that marked the first time someone had signed in since July 1.
The mountains are filled with caves, abandoned mines, boulders and eerily shaped rocks that appear to have been placed on the ground by some ancient giant. There also is evidence of ancient Lake Bonneville's shoreline.
"Characteristic of the basin and range mountains, there is a complex geology that spans half a billion years," Davis said. "Looking at the geologic map is like looking at a mosaic of colored tiles, with ancient faults and fractures, and volcanic intrusions. All of the Paleozoic era is represented here, some 300 million years."
Near the start of the journey around the Silver Island Mountains, a man named Butch alerted visitors that he was here once by painting his name in large red letters on a rocky outcropping. Strange as it may seem, ancient peoples also left drawings inside nearby Juke Box Cave. The earliest evidence of human habitation in Utah 11,300 years ago was discovered by archaeologists at Danger Cave not far from this spot. Davis said there are about 20 natural limestone caves in a small part of the Silver Island range.
On a hot and surprisingly humid July day, when temperatures approached 100 and thunderstorms began to creep into Wendover, it was difficult to believe early humans picked this place for their homes.
There are only a few signs of life, mainly gray and tan rodents and birds that occasionally dart across the road. This is a land of tan and beige, where a lone blooming sunflower seems out of place.
There is an abandoned mine shaft, no doubt a hopeful dig by some long-gone silver miner. The highest peak seems to have rocky veins flowing through the darker limestone. The plethora of rock types, said Davis, includes limestone, dolomite, quartzite, shales, conglomerates and sandstone. Boulders like mysterious Easter Island statues lurk near the road. Tiny hints of water glisten in the distance, perhaps standing remnants of liquid that didn't quite make it to the Great Salt Lake.
Every 5 miles, the BLM has placed a small marker letting motorists know they are on the right track. At the 15-mile mark, a mistaken prognosticator put a sticker of President Barack Obama below the byway designation with a note predicting he would be a one-term leader.
Near the north end of the road, a metal sign quotes Chalmers and shows this part of the California Trail as the Hastings Cutoff. The BLM says there is an additional 14-mile loop to Floating Island, a rock formation that, due to the mirages, often resembles its name when viewed from I-80, but that turnoff was not well marked.
Standing out in the desert, far from the nearest human, can be disconcerting, especially to a tourist who might have spent some time in the West Wendover casinos with all their noisy slot machines. Silence and solitude, two rare modern experiences, are plentiful for the few who take time to explore this stark landscape.
How to get there
The 54-mile Silver Island Mountain Bureau of Land Management National Back Country Byway can be reached from Interstate 80 off Exit 4, just east of Wendover. Travel 1.5 miles north on a paved road, continue north on a gravel roadfor another mile to a well-marked junction. Turn right and travel east to circle the Silver Island Mountains. There are sign markers every 5 miles on a dirt road. Vehicles with high clearance are recommended. Cellphone service is spotty. Make sure your vehicle has good tires, take plenty of water and, if traveling alone, let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.