ALTHOUGH the Syracuse causeway to Antelope Island was closed more than seven years ago because of the high level of the Great Salt Lake, visitors still flock to the eastern end of the eroded highway.
Because the lake level has dropped dramatically and is now well below the original causeway, more of the eroded highway has emerged and the big question on the minds of many visitors is: "How far out does the old road go now, above the water level?"Mitch A. Larsson, Antelope Island manager, said the causeway, once 7.5 miles long, is solid until the start of the first bend, about 3.5 miles out. The water is still as deep as 4 feet in some places because of erosion and washouts. And the 85-foot-long bridge, seven miles from shore, has completely washed out.
The Great Salt Lake could drop nearly 3 feet more by the end of this summer, according to weather forecasters. William J. Alder of the National Weather Service believes the lake is nearing its seasonal peak and won't go up by more than a tenth of a foot this year, since he and his colleagues are predicting another hot, dry summer. This means most of the causeway, perhaps as far as six to seven miles out, will be above water by late summer.
Construction on the original Antelope Island causeway began in 1964, only one year after the Great Salt Lake had reached its lowest level ever - 4,191.35 feet
First opened to the public in 1968 as a gravel road, portions of the road washed out numerous times in nine years before it was finally raised and improved. The road's heyday was a seven-year stretch from 1976-83, after the state purchased the entire island for a state park and visits boomed. Butbecause of flooding and the lake's rapidly rising level, the causeway was indefinitely closed in June 1983.
When the Great Salt Lake reached its all-time peak of 4,211.85 feet in May 1986, much of the causeway, with an elevation of 4,207 feet, was under almost 5 feet of water. By early 1989, the lake level had dropped to 4,207 feet, exposing a continuous 120-yard stretch of the road and other portions beyond. With several years of drought along the Wasatch Front, the lake level dropped 9.65 feet and was only 4,202.2 feet in late November, its lowest level since March 1983. By last March 15, the lake had risen again to 4,202.8 feet.
Now there's a no-trespassing sign, complete with chains, concrete barriers, piles of dirt and several trenches, blocking the causeway about 440 yards out from where the entrance station used to be. Nevertheless, many walkers and bikers daily ignore the posted notice and cross the barriers.
Larsson said the state hasn't really tried to enforce the no-trespassing ordinance on the Syracuse causeway, but he stressed the hazards that exist out there. He said there are dangerous currents in Farmington Bay and estimated the early springtime water temperature to be no more than 35 degrees. He also said sudden winds or a storm could trap those who wade out to reach separated portions of the old causeway.
Parking is limited and haphazard at the start of the causeway. From a visitor standpoint, many simple things could be done to make the start of the causeway look more attractive to tourists. But the state is waiting until the April 17 special session of the Legislature to see if funding to rebuild the causeway is approved.
Unknown to most people, a second causeway connects the Salt Lake area with the south side of Antelope Island, with access near Magna. Larsson said this causeway is closed to public use. The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation has an easement agreement with private property owners at the causeway entrance, so everything except ranger use is strictly prohibited.
Although the division has been saving money on boat use by driving to Antelope Island on the south causeway, hikers and bikers are cited for trespassing there. A permanent gate will soon be erected at the entrance.
"We want to see the park reopened," Larsson said, "but we don't have the facilities open on the island for visitors right now. . . . There's no power and no water."
Road may seem boring, smelly, but island's allure is irresistible
Lynn Arave on the Syracuse/Antelope Island causeway.
I was able to take a hike along the battered Syracuse causeway to Antelope Island before a no trespassing sign was posted there.
Deep gravel and sand make any travel on the old roadway difficult. Mountain bikes get bogged down more often than not by the loose terrain, and even walkers struggle with traction.
Even at a brisk walking pace of about 3.5 mph, it takes just over an hour to reach the severed end of the causeway. Still, since all but 400 yards of the old causeway was under water only a year ago, the additional 6,600 yards that have risen since add to the attraction and help compensate for the work of a nearly eight-mile roundtrip walk.
The pungent lake smell doesn't dissipate either, like it used to, after the first quarter-mile. Because of puddles and lake damage, the rotting smell is now widespread along the causeway.
Most of the asphalt portions of the road have eroded and can be spotted in the lake as pulverized, fist-size chunks, attesting to the power of water, wind and waves to undermine and destroy a hard asphalt road. Somehow there are some paved sections (complete with painted lines) as long as 100 feet that are almost completely intact, up to three miles out from the mainland. Generally speaking, though, the causeway surface gets rougher and wetter the further out you go.
The old power cable that supplied electricity to a causeway street light system and to Antelope Island is also exposed and occasionally visible along the way.
It's a long, sometimes boring walk to where the road is severed, but the allure of Antelope Island increases every day the causeway remains out of service
I found that the old road was indeed solid up to 3.5 miles out, where there's a big breach in a curved portion of the road. At the time, it was possible to continue another 600 yards out, but winter storms have obviously now covered that section with water.
At 3.8 miles out I encountered a breach that was about 3 feet deep. End of trip. No wading or swimming for me. The causeway appeared to continue, intermittently, above and below water, for an additional 2.5 miles, but that still leaves about 1.5 miles of almost completely open water before Antelope Island.