Ah, Stansbury Island. A somewhat controversial place that, admittedly, gets some hate. Rocky, remote and barren. A haven for gnats and mosquitos in the summer. Popular with target shooters, and difficult to navigate due to the amount of private land.
But there is another side of it, too, if you’re willing to put in some effort to get off the beaten track and find it. Which is exactly what we set off to do on an exploratory backpacking trip of Stansbury Island.
There are lots of details about the hiking trails and mountain biking trails on the island (Girl on a Hike has a great description of the drive and the initial hike to the ridge, which we more or less followed). There are limited places to car camp on the island. But above the private property that pretty much rings the island at the shoreline, the bulk is BLM land, and backpacking is fair game.
Prior to setting out, we couldn’t find much info or any trip reports about backpacking Stansbury Island. Hiking reports generally agreed that there was no water, which is probably part of the reason for the lack of popularity. But our maps showed a couple of springs trickling down some of the canyons. We were hopeful that, with the wet spring and recent rains we’d had, a little exploring would lead us to running water.
Still, we packed in nearly 10 liters between the two of us, with the plan to stay through Sunday morning if we could find water and to hike out Saturday if we couldn’t.
We drove across the gravel road into the Island (it’s more of a peninsula, with a reliably navigable dirt road in) and left our car at the BLM parking/camping area on the south end.
After making our way up the initial steep hill, we hit the Bonneville shoreline. The ancient lake, which made the Great Salt Lake look like a dried up little puddle, left a series of benches throughout Utah’s mountains, marking the levels of its shoreline at various times.
It was easy, pleasant hiking along the ancient shoreline. Just below the ridge to Castle Rock, we left the shoreline and took a calf-burner of a route straight up the hill to the ridge. Once on the ridge, we rested and considered our options. Castle Rock still looked pretty distant, and with only a couple hours of daylight left, we decided against going for the summit. We were looking east at a steep drop of nearly 1,000’ down to mellow rolling grassland-like hills that stretched to the open salt flats of the shore. A few groves of small trees grew around one of the washes out on the grasslands, maybe a half a mile north of where we were. We decided that would be a likely camping spot for the night, as well as the most likely place to find water. Our map showed a small spring running out of that canyon right through those trees.
The hike up from the west side had been mellow, but the east side was much more rugged and craggy. We continued traversing north above a few gullies that clearly cliffed out until we found one that looked passable all the way down to the rolling hills. The island is remote, and the terrain is rough even on the established route to Castle Rock. On this side of the ridge, there were no trails or even known routes that we were aware of, so we picked our way slowly and carefully.
As we got lower, the ground was damp and muddy, with a rich and tantalizing smell of wet soil in the air. Apart from one stagnant and bright orange puddle in a rock, though, the water search was a bust.
We were nearly down to the shore now, making our way through the grassy plains. It’s a weird juxtaposition here, with this large flat grassland speckled with trees, against a backdrop of the Carribbean-blue of the Great Salt Lake, and craggy desert mountains on the other side. A straight shot across the lake, we could see Salt Lake City, a tiny cluster of buildings dwarfed by the snow-capped mountain behind.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any impacted campsites on this side of the island. After checking our maps to make sure we were still on BLM land, we chose the most open spot we could find where we’d have the least impact to set up our tent and fell quickly asleep.
The next morning, soft sun, a cacophony of bird song, the occasional breeze rustling through the grasses, and an incredible complete lack of insects greeted us.
It’s a rare experience to find somewhere less than half a day out from the city—and within sight of it—that feels like complete and utter wilderness. And for a barren “desert” island, Stansbury felt remarkably alive that morning. I imagine that once summer hits it dries up and earns its desert reputation, but in spring the island is lush with wildflowers and birds.
After breaking down camp, we debated our options. There was no doubt that we’d have to leave this side of the island today—the only way we could have stayed was if we’d found a fresh water source. Down to only 2 liters each, we’d never make it a full day and night with enough water for the long hike back over the ridge on Sunday.
We set our sights for an impacted campsite on the Bonneville shoreline we’d passed early in our hike on Friday. The site was barely a mile from the car. We decided that I’d set up camp while Dan hiked back to the car and brought back another 5 liters of water.
On the way in, we’d hiked almost as far north as Castle Rock, searching for water in each canyon the shoreline cut across, then looped back to the south after coming over the ridge the day before. Rather than retracing our steps northward, we decided to make our way up the much mellower hill directly in front of us, which would cross the ridge fairly close to where we’d seen the campsite.
The trek up to the ridge was quick, especially with a significant amount of water weight gone from our packs. We enjoyed a few more panoramic views to the east, looking across the lake to the marina, the Oquirrhs, and Salt Lake City barely visible in the distance, before dropping down to the shoreline on the other side of the ridge.
We followed the shoreline, tracing faint game trails where the bench was cut by canyons, and were into the campsite by about 10:30am.
Heading back to the car to get more water felt like cheating, but it had always been our backup plan if we wanted to spend a second night out and couldn’t find water. Dan set out with all of our empty water bottles, while I stayed at the site to set up camp.
Despite the rolling hills and canyons, we had radio contact the whole way, and I was surprised when barely 45 minutes after he left, Dan radioed back that he was already at the car chugging water, and was about to head back up.
It wasn’t the most pleasant camping spot. Strong, gusty winds blew up-canyon and the bugs immediately took advantage of any respite. I’ve always thought head nets were silly, but I wished I’d had one that day—even deet didn’t seem to deter these gnats and mosquitos.
Behind where we set up camp, the rock opened up into a small cave. It only went back a few dozen feet, but was still a fun find to explore.
When Dan got back, we got a small fire going to drive off the bugs when thunder boomed across the lake. We retreated to the tent to play some cards and read while we waited out the storms.
I set up every pot, cup, and pan we had under the front awning of our tent to catch the dripping rain, and by the time the storm was over we’d captured a precious half liter to supplement our dwindling water supply.
The storm broke just long enough for us to cook up a pack of mac and cheese, then another bout of rain sent us back to the tent.
For all the unpleasantness of the wind and bugs, and the abrupt intensity with which the thunderstorm swept in, the view of the silvery, stormy light playing across the water was just incredible. One of those moments where the harshness of the desert gives way to a beauty so unexpected and startling in its contrast to the arid emptiness that it stops you in your tracks and sticks with you for years.
The next morning, we packed up quickly, as our bug spray was almost gone. We were back to the car barely an hour and a half after we woke up.
Overall, backpacking Stansbury Island gave us a chance to see a totally different side of this island, rich with beauty and solitude. If you’re looking for a unique adventure away from the crowds, it’s worth investing the time to check it out. There are a handful of places to camp along the Bonneville bench/old shoreline, including where we camped for our second night, which make for a fairly mellow and straightforward trip. Exploring beyond that is well worth it, but much of the terrain is rocky, uneven, and difficult to access. Backpacking Stansbury Island safely requires some route finding and good judgement. Bring water, maps, bug spray (bug nets are even better!), and an SOS device.