Floating Island: Chasing the Mirage

10 Jan

Wendover has always been a fun destination for me, though for completely different reasons than the busloads of gamers making the hundred-mile trek westward in search of Lady Luck. My parents used to take us there for quick, inexpensive vacations. Many years of bright lights and prime rib buffets endowed me with an odd childhood obsession with casinos and a lifelong fascination with the desert that surrounds this small oasis. They say there’s nothing to do on the Utah side of the border. I beg to differ.

For many, the drive to Wendover is a two hour wrestle with boredom- a long journey along a flat strip of sameness. I-80 spans the continent, connecting San Francisco to Teaneck, New Jersey. The furthest distance between exits on any interstate highway in America is the 37 mile stretch on I-80 between Knolls and Wendover. Interestingly, this stretch also covers some of the flattest terrain on earth. Road signs warning travelers about fatigued driving line the straighter segments of this lonely route. This is where the Great Salt Lake Desert takes on a very unique look and becomes more than it seems.

Before I-80 there was old U.S. 40. And before that, the Lincoln Highway and the earlier Hastings Cutoff- that fateful “shortcut” off the California Trail that led emigrants the likes of the Donner Party westward across the flats. Driving toward Wendover just past the concrete “Tree of Utah”- whose meaning for some reason escapes me- the Silver Island Mountains loom to the northwest. At about mile marker 20, this range appears to part like Moses’ Red Sea, with one mountain drifting eastward until it seems to float a good distance from the rest of the solid range.

Floating Island is the king of optical illusions. The “floating” effect is created by a combination of empty distance and flat land nearly perfectly aligned with the curvature of the planet. From the vantage point of highway, Floating Island’s base is behind the curve and thus is not visible. Once I learned the secret behind this geographic magic trick, I vowed to someday chase the mirage.

My uncle Ted and I had often discussed the historical significance of the Silver Island Mountains and the web of paths that cross them, so we loaded up his truck one winter morning and headed west. We left I-80 at Exit 4 and outside of Wendover and drove north to the gravel road that loops 54 miles around the Silver Island range.

We took a detour to do some hiking near Tetzlaff Peak and discovered a sizeable cave that was mostly concealed from the road by massive drifts of salty dust. The cave was 15-20 feet deep and 12-15 feet wide and its ceiling was stained with smoke. A large rock that was once part of its ceiling lay on its floor. We stood inside the cave and looked out, watching the wind deposit layer after layer of dust on the pile. Whether this cave was the shelter for a nomadic ancient American or a weary modern camper, the stay cannot have been pleasant.

Back on the road, we turned north near the center of the range and climbed to Silver Island Pass. Ted is a nature enthusiast and avid trapper. Where I see bushes, grass and dirt, Ted sees juniper, ricegrass, and gray fox tracks.

“I’d show you what this Mormon tea looks like if we could find some leaves the antelope haven’t eaten,” Ted said, holding a bushel of bare sticks. Mormon tea is a common name for the ephedra plant that grows plentiful in these mountains, and is said to have been used as an herbal tea by early Mormon settlers.

The pass affords a beautiful view of Pilot Peak, the long-awaited pit stop along the emigrant trail. In 1845, Kit Carson found a spring at the foot of this mountain. Later named Donner Springs, these fresh waters marked the welcome end of the 91 mile waterless trek from Hope Wells.

Continuing around the mountains, the fabled road to Floating Island doesn’t come into view until you’re nearly on it. The island (labeled specifically an island instead of a mountain on most maps) is separated from the rest of the range by at least a mile of salt flats. We drove out and looped around the north side, then climbed up the slope to have lunch and take in the view. The Hastings trail passes somewhere below on the flats. The many heavy wagons that crossed this terrain compacted the salty clay, leaving well-defined wheel ruts that are still visible in some places today. The exact locations of these ruts are known but not advertised.

“It’s amazing.” Ted looked out toward the trail. “Here we can do in an hour what took them three days- at a good pace.”

I was glad to be there, on an island in a dry sea- finally inside the mirage, eating Slim Jims and peering into history. This beats a casino any day.


The Silver Island loop is designated as a BLM National Back Country Byway. Mileage markers are placed every 5 miles along a well-maintained grated road. 4WD is and 2 spare tires is recommended. Plan for 2-3 hours drive time to make the loop. Driving out onto the salt and mud flats is hazardous at any time of year and can damage the salt. Do not leave existing roads and use extreme caution, even on foot. The fragile remnants of the Hastings cutoff are part of the California National Historic Trail and are federally protected. Camping in the Silver Island Mountains is allowed within 100 feet of existing routes. Before exploring this area, contact the BLM at 801-977-4300 or visit

Perfectionists and deadlines don’t mix very well, so I’m rarely completely satisfied with how these Transcript Bulletin articles turn out. But if there’s one I’m most satisfied with so far, it’s this one.

Surprisingly, this is also the one article so far that I’ve had to write by hand on paper. Which is a big thing for me because I’m not a paper and pen guy. I don’t buy paper. I don’t print stuff. For a guy who’s always longing for the good old days, I am completely immersed in the digital age (my way of living a balanced life I guess). When my wife compiles a “honey-do” list, she knows the only way I’ll pay attention to it is if she emails it to me. Other than some Christmas cards last month, I can’t remember the last time I actually mailed a physical letter, and I haven’t actually handwritten anything since college.

So without a PC or an Internet connection that day I was forced to break out the pen and paper, scribble it out, then try to read my own handwriting when I typed it up later.


One response to “Floating Island: Chasing the Mirage

  1. Chris Quick

    April 4, 2011 at 2:12 am

    Great article, I plan on going there someday, do you know if you can access it through the southern causeway? It is approx 24.8 miles from Wendover UT. I have noticed a gate while looking at the Google Earth Street View images, and I can’t really tell if that is a gate or not. Please let me know.


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