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What is the largest U.S. lake west of the Mississippi River?

The largest U.S. lake west of the Mississippi River, Great Salt Lake is about 75 miles long, and 28 miles wide, covers 1,700 square miles, but has a maximum depth of only about 35 feet. Great Salt Lake does not drain out to any ocean. It is the 4th largest terminal lake (no outlet) in the world. It is the remnant of Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric freshwater lake that was 10 times larger than Great Salt Lake, which, at its high-water mark about 15,000 years ago, drained to the north, briefly flooding the Snake River and the Columbia River.

Great Salt Lake is located on a shallow playa. Consequently, small changes in the water-surface elevation result in large changes in the surface area of the lake. This is particularly evident when the lake spills into the west desert at an elevation of about 4,215 feet, greatly increasing its area. Satellite imagery shows changes in the area of the lake from 1972 through the high-runoff period of 1983-87 and ending in 1996. At the historic (1847-1986) average surface elevation of 4,200 feet (1975 is an "average year" shown in the images), the lake covers an area of about 1,700 square miles. At the historic low elevation of 4,191.35 in 1963, the lake covered only 950 square miles. The drop of about 8.5 feet in elevation resulted in a loss of about 44 percent in surface area. During wetter times in 1986 and 1987 the lake reached an elevation of 4,211.6 feet and had a surface area of about 3,300 square miles.

Great Salt Lake Facts:

  • Typically 3 to 5 times saltier than the ocean
  • Free of fish; the largest aquatic critters are brine shrimp and brine flies
  • One of the largest migratory bird magnets in Western North America

Learn more:

USGS Great Salt Lake, Utah

Effects of Causeway on Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake Basins and Southwest Principal Aquifers NAWQA Publications

Bonneville Flood in the Snake River Plain

Tags: Ecosystems, Floods, Water, Lakes, Surface Water, Hydrography, Evaporation