In 1843, John C. Fremont and Kit Carson—two of the West’s most famed explorers—navigated a small boat out to an island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. They were the first white men known to set foot on the land, and they named it Antelope Island after the native animals they found grazing on the grassy hills.
Nearly 200 years later, on a recent summer night, I found myself riding in the passenger seat of a blue Ford Ranger along the asphalt causeway out to the north end of the same island, known since 1981 as Antelope Island State Park.
We drove toward a sinking sun and a sky full of cotton-candy-pink clouds. A woman standing at the fee gate leaned toward our truck as my companion and I pulled up. Normally, visitors who haven’t paid the overnight camping fee are only allowed on the island between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.; the day fee is $10 per vehicle. Tonight, however, was an exception. “Are you here for the bike ride?” she asked. Yes, we answered, and were waved through with a smile.
I seem to make a pilgrimage out to the island every few years or so. The last time was for a swimming trip to escape the summer heat. I knew then about the island’s beaches, trails and wildlife, but I didn’t know about the annual Antelope by Moonlight Bike Ride until I received an invitation from a friend early this July. Davis County has been hosting the moonlight bike ride for 20 years—and, judging from the turnout, it’s not that big of a secret.
Running a bit behind the ride’s 10 p.m. start time, we wound blindly down the island’s strange, disorienting roads in the growing dark. Then, cresting a hill, I saw tiny headlights and taillights below; hundreds of cyclists already crowded the starting line. The volunteer who directed us into our parking spot at White Rock Bay seemed concerned. “They’re leaving soon, you’d better hurry,” he advised.
Indeed, the moment we climbed from the truck cab, the line of lights began to move. Luckily, we weren’t the only stragglers. Thirty minutes later, with our wristbands and T-shirts—courtesy of the $25 registration fee—we joined a trickle of other riders finally setting out for Fielding Garr Ranch, the halfway mark and farthest point in our 24-mile ride.
Thousands of years before Fremont and Carson or the Mormon pioneers, ancient humans inhabited Antelope Island. They were able to make their home there thanks to dozens of freshwater springs, one of which later became Garr Spring and the site of the Fielding Garr Ranch. Garr—a skilled mason, rancher, farmer and a widowed Mormon immigrant with seven children in tow—founded the ranch in 1848 shortly after his arrival in the territory.
We pulled up to Garr’s old ranch about 90 minutes after wheels had started rolling from White Rock Bay, resting our bikes against a wooden fence next to the barn. The doors of the building stood wide open, and people flowed in and out. There were families with small children, men and women in racing spandex and shoes with toe clips, a group of adults wearing glowing orange wigs. Someone in the crowd was broadcasting reggae tunes from the back of his bike.
I ducked into the barn on a mission to find the snack table; there had to be a reason everyone was eating bananas and nut bars. Up in the loft, a band played Beach Boys tunes. Though the barn is not one of the original buildings, I was excited to know that the adobe ranch house built by Garr—the oldest continually inhabited Anglo home in Utah—was somewhere nearby.
We turned back toward the truck sometime around 1 a.m. The road was cool, dark and quiet. The riders had dispersed; some were still leaving the barn, and others were already driving away over the causeway, their taillights mingling with the soft, winking glow from Davis County’s nearby shore.