Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats hold a secret that has captivated the world’s imagination. Amidst the vast expanse of white lies a seemingly magical river, its vibrant blue waters winding through the barren desert, creating a captivating contrast against the stark landscape. It appears to lead to the majestic Silver Island Mountains, casting an enchanting spell on all who see it.
However, the truth behind this mesmerizing river is quite different from what social media portrays. In reality, it is a potash canal used for mineral mining in fertilizer production. It doesn’t actually flow to the mountains but instead leads to shallow pools where minerals accumulate as the brine evaporates. Despite this disparity between perception and reality, the images and videos of people paddling and swimming in this ethereal water went viral in 2020, captivating the world and adding to the legend of this extraordinary place.
The stark contrast between what is shown online and the actual experience often surprises visitors. Captain Cody McCoy of the Department of Public Safety describes it as, “What it looks like in person versus what people posted, it’s like not even the same thing.” The canal, located in the saline environment of the salt flats, is far from pristine. It serves industrial purposes, including wastewater disposal from the potash plant.
While the canal’s water is highly saline, it is unlikely to be toxic. It has been running through the Salt Flats unnoticed for as long as McCoy can remember. However, everything changed in the spring of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted people to seek solace in social media and the great outdoors. The canal became an unexpected attraction, drawing countless visitors to its exotic waters just a short distance from Interstate 80.
Scott Taylor, a hobby photographer and videographer, stumbled upon the canal after seeing an image online. Intrigued, he and a friend ventured out to explore and were greeted by a surprising sight. Amidst the endless white salt flats stood a woman in a bikini, perfectly accentuating the canal’s location. Taylor unleashed his drone and captured a scene reminiscent of a luxury magazine shoot. People paddled and played in the serene blue waters, creating a picture-perfect setting. Taylor’s resulting video garnered over 102,000 views on YouTube, a remarkable feat for a creator whose videos typically attracted minimal attention.
The canal’s allure extended beyond YouTube. An aerial photo posted on a nature-focused Instagram account received 123,000 likes, proving the canal’s visual appeal. Countless individuals added it to their bucket lists, fascinated by the idea of experiencing this extraordinary location firsthand.
However, the Utah Office of Tourism does not share the same enthusiasm. Bianca Lyon, the office’s community and partner relations director, explains that they discourage people from visiting the area for multiple reasons. The canal traverses a mix of private, state-owned, and public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Intrepid Potash, the company that leases and manages the area, raises concerns about liability and operational disruptions caused by recreational activities. Safety is also a paramount consideration, given the risks associated with pulling off the busy interstate.
When VisitUtah receives inquiries about recreating Taylor’s viral video, they actively redirect visitors to alternate Instagrammable attractions, such as the Great Salt Lake. They seek to manage expectations and educate visitors about the practical realities of the canal and its surroundings.
Today, the canal’s allure has diminished. Fewer people venture out to explore its waters, discouraged by the cable barrier installed by the Utah Department of Transportation to deter impromptu pull-overs. The numerous no-trespassing signs further dissuade visitors. Even if one dares to approach the canal, they may find that the water is no longer the brilliant blue it once was. Its teal hue, possibly enhanced by dyes used to accelerate evaporation, appears unnatural against the stark white backdrop of the salt flats. The canal’s eerie stillness can unsettle those seeking an idyllic experience.
Moreover, the treacherous salt flats retain their reputation for trapping unwitting motorists. Sheryl Kingsley of Clearfield experienced this firsthand when she ventured to the canal with her visiting cousin. They discovered a less-than-ideal scene upon arrival. Kingsley recounts, “We pulled up to it, and we literally left my car running, and we went over the berm, and it’s just full of trash.” Their brief exploration revealed shallow and murky puddles, a far cry from the captivating pictures that had enticed them. To their dismay, when they returned to the car, it had become mired in muddy seepage from the canal.
The reality of the canal’s allure may not live up to the dream it portrays. Nevertheless, the enduring interest and curiosity it has generated remind us of the power of social media and visual storytelling. While the canal may not be the picturesque utopia portrayed online, it served as a whimsical backdrop in an unexpected chapter of the Salt Flats’ history.
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