What do you know about the Bonneville Salt Flats? If you’re like me, you probably think it’s an empty, salty place where crazy people drive rocket-powered vehicles at speeds normally reserved for passenger jets. Or maybe you know of it from that Anthony Hopkins movie. You know the one: he travels all the way from New Zealand with his rickety old motorcycle only to discover they don’t have his paperwork, and he’s only allowed to race in a rented Ford Escape.
Well, I’ve recently learned something else about the Bonneville Salt Flats: they’re a lot of fun.
Before we get to that, a little background. As you know, I’m taking my CTS-V Wagon on a long roadtrip from Atlanta to California and back with my girlfriend. We’re now in the “and back” stretch, meaning we hit Monterey Car Week, Yosemite National Park, the emptiness that is Nevada (State motto: Watch for cattle on roads!). You’d know all this if you followed me on Twitter, which I highly suggest because I sometimes take some cool pictures of the V Wagon in front of stuff.
Anyway: while the quickest route back from California would’ve been through the southern half of the country, I wanted to return via Colorado to see family. That meant driving through Utah, a state of immense natural beauty and something like five different national parks dedicated to bizarre rock formations. Well, we skipped all of that. Instead, we went to the Bonneville Salt Flats.
For those who haven’t heard of the Salt Flats, here are the basics:
1. There’s a lot of salt.
2. It’s very flat.
Any other information, such as history, is largely unnecessary, primarily because most articles on the topic use boring terms like “Pleistocene” and “prehistoric pluvial lake.” My own theory on its history is quite different: I believe the flats were created when dinosaurs poured large shakers of salt over an empty field so they could go sledding. (DeMuro et al., 2013)
Anyway: we arrived at the flats in the evening. For those who think it’s a place where you have to buy tickets, or stand in line, or hop fences, you’re wrong. That’s only during Speed Week. When no one is there, the road to the flats simply ends and there’s a soft grade down to the salt. Anyone can get on, at any time, in any vehicle.
As we drove on to the flats, I had just one goal in mind: don’t crash. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do anything more than that for many reasons, like the fact that we still had to drive the car across the country; the fact that I’ve already driven at high speeds on the autobahn; and most importantly, the fact that the area is so desolate you get the feeling the local doctor is also the mayor, the sheriff, and the guy who runs the fillin’ station.
So we set out on to the flats cautiously, driving at normal speeds and getting used to the terrain. But while I planned to go slowly, I was quickly egged on by the only other group on the flats: Cadillac. It seems Cadillac was there to test pre-production ELRs, which made me feel a little safer. After all, if General Motors engineers thought this was OK, how bad could it be?
Within minutes of our arrival, the Cadillac crew departed the flats, likely done for the day. Even though they were about 40 feet from my car – and I was the only other person around for miles – they never even glanced at me. Ahh, Cadillac pride.
With the Cadillac crew gone, we made our way a few hundred feet to the “track” that was marked with cones. Speed Week was just a few days ago, which meant the salt was perfectly smoothed and the lanes were easily discernible. So I lined up at the first cone, pushed the accelerator to the floor and … spun my tires.
It turns out driving on the salt is best done from a gentle roll, or else you’ll have trouble getting traction. So I lined up again, pushed the accelerator lightly, and began my first run. Egged on by my girlfriend, I reached 130 miles per hour … while driving on salt.
With no one around and a little daylight left, I decided to try again… then again. The flats have this effect. You think “I can do a little better!” and the next thing you know, you’ve been out there six hours and there’s enough salt on your car to de-ice metro Detroit for an entire winter.
But we didn’t have this problem, largely because it started pouring after my third run. Rain and the flats don’t mix, it seems, and while the government looks the other way if you drive fast in Bonneville, it strongly encourages you to leave quickly if it begins raining. Fortunately, we took this photo about five minutes before the deluge:
After departing the flats, we drove back to nearby West Wendover, Nevada, a town that has roughly the same number of casinos as residents. While the rain took most of the salt off the Wagon, we gave it a thorough car wash – including a heavy underbody spray – and went to dinner.
Climbing into bed that night, the adrenalin was still pumping from hitting such big speeds – as legally as possible – in the United States. It may seem like you’re just driving in a straight line, but Bonneville is a lot of fun. You don’t even need a CTS-V Wagon to enjoy it. All you need is a smooth stretch of salt, a sense of adventure, and a nearby car wash.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He operates PlaysWithCars.com and writes for The Truth About Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.