Antelope Island, the largest island in the Great Salt Lake, is one of the crown jewels of Utah’s state park system. The uninhabited 42-square-mile desert island in Davis County, sits on the eastern edge of the lake. The state park is renowned for its wildlife watching, including one of the nation’s largest bison herds, pristine ecosystems, and gorgeous desert and mountain vistas. But first-time visitors are often surprised to discover that the island’s history is just as dramatic as its landscapes.
Early Native Americans roamed the landscape over the past 6,000 years, leaving artifacts near the island’s 40 freshwater springs. Earlier human habitation on the west side of the lake dates to 11,000 years ago. Although mountain men visited in the early 1800s, the first recorded Anglo explorers were John C. Fremont and Kit Carson in 1843. They named the dry island for its large herds of pronghorn, the last remaining member of an ice-age family.
At some point in the 1840s, a trapper known as Daddy Stump took up residence on Antelope Island. He built a cabin and planted a peach orchard in a shallow canyon near a spring on the south end, but, according to historic accounts, eventually left his home and disappeared. Some thought he was killed by Indians in 1856 in the Cache Valley after driving a herd of cattle there. That year, Brigham Young visited the island and stopped by Stump’s cabin, claiming that "everything was found just as the old man had left it."
Fielding Garr, a Mormon settler, established a ranch on the island in 1848 for the LDS church’s "tithing herd" of livestock. Garr and several of his seven children ran thousands of sheep and cattle across the island until his death in 1855.
Other early inhabitants include George and Alice Frary and John Dooley Sr., who bought most of the island as the Island Ranching Company. Dooley relocated a dozen bison to the island in 1893, which became the seed of today’s herd of approximately 550 to 700 bison. His son, John Dooley Jr., began running the ranch in 1902 and acquired the rest of the island. The ranch focused on raising sheep until a slump in wool prices in the 1950s forced the ranch to run cattle instead. By the time the state bought the ranch in 1981, it was one of Utah’s largest cattle operations.
In an effort to create a state park, Utah purchased 2,000 acres at Antelope Island’s scenic northern end from the Island Ranching Company in 1963. Davis County and local citizens then built a 7.2-mile causeway to the island’s northern tip from Syracuse on the mainland. The park, then called Great Salt Lake State Park, opened to the public on Memorial Day weekend in 1969 for hiking, picnicking, and camping. Minimal facilities included basic showers and a small boat ramp.
In 1971, the Golden Spike Empire, a civic tourism group in four northern Utah counties, recommended that the state park on Antelope Island be developed for recreation while the rest of the island should become a national monument to preserve its unique ecosystems and wild character. But Davis County commissioners came out against the proposal. According to Earl King, with the Davis County Resources Development Commission: "When you go through a national monument, you look but don’t touch." King advised, “We should have something to do, instead of something to see,” and thought a “nice golf course” would be ideal for attracting tourists and increasing county revenues.
The disagreement kept the island in limbo. Utah bought the remainder of the island, including Fielding Garr Ranch, for $4.5 million in 1980 from its owner, the Anschutz Corporation, which had acquired the rights to the island and planned to mine the island and sell gravel and landfill material for the construction of Interstates 80 and 215. The state legislature appropriated funds to purchase the island in 1978 and began condemnation proceedings against Anschutz since they refused to sell or trade the land.
The tumultuous times continued for the park in the early 1980s, when the Great Salt Lake reached record high levels after heavy snowpack buried the Wasatch Range, causing the lake to rise over 12 feet. Causeways on the north and south ends of Antelope Island were inundated with water, as well as the beaches and park facilities. Without access, the park closed in June 1983 and remained isolated for a decade, with park rangers reaching the island by boat.
Funding to repair the northern causeway came in 1992. The park was eventually renamed Antelope Island State Park, and reopened to the public in 1993.
Most recently, in April of 2017, Antelope Island State Park was officially designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. It was the ninth dark-sky designation for Utah, making it the leading state, province or region in the world for dark skies. While the eastern half of the island faces one of the largest metropolitan areas in the western U.S., its western half looks out over the Great Salt Lake and is relatively undisturbed by artificial light at night. The park has begun to actively conserve its remaining darkness, and has become a popular destination for area stargazers and astrophotographers.
Antelope Island State Park is known as the best parkland in northern Utah and one of the state’s finest natural attractions. In addition to its spectacular mountain views and gorgeous sunsets, the park has a mission to preserve and protect Antelope Island’s unique and irreplaceable natural resources, as well as provide diverse recreational opportunities, including hiking, mountain biking, camping, horseback riding, birding, stargazing / astrophotography, and wildlife watching. Something the lake is famous for is floating on the lake, since the Great Salt Lake is the second saltiest body of water in the world..
Indeed, despite its proximity to populous Wasatch Front cities, the island remains a place of solitude and grandeur. Old Daddy Stump would surely still feel at home today, roaming the rugged mountains and shoreline of his wild desert island.
Written by Stewart Green for RootsRated Media in partnership with Utah Office of Tourism.