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NOW'S THE TIME TO HIKE OR BIKE ANTELOPE ISLAND

The past several spring seasons have been wet and cool in much of Utah, hindering early year mountain hiking and biking opportunities. But there's still a way to get an early bird start while snow blankets the higher Wasatch - by exploring the trails of Antelope Island State Park.

Snow doesn't linger as long on the island, which sits in the Great Salt Lake northwest of Salt Lake City and west of the communities of Davis County. Many island visitors have tried the short hike to Buffalo Point, which has a parking lot above the state park's most popular beaches - but what about those over the fenceline to the south, where access has been limited until the past two years?These Antelope Island back-country trails extend for 14.7 miles and offer outstanding views of the island and Great Salt Lake in places where only buffalo and other wildlife have roamed in recent years.

But hikers be warned! Those on foot are in the minority. Mountain bikers and those riding horses seem to outnumber trekkers on these trails. Hikers and bikers need to use caution and common sense, as those with wheels are more likely to rapidly overtake those on foot than any wild buffalo roaming about.Rick Reed, Antelope Island State Park ranger, said April saw twice as many bikers as hikers using the trail system. There have also been 25 percent more horse riders than hikers.

"It goes very seasonally," Reed said. Those with horses usually top the list of spring trail users, while from summer on bikers use it the most.

"It's been tremendously more used this year," Reid said of the trail itself. Statistics from 1995 and early 1996 show 30 percent more usage this year compared to last.

Trained mountain bikers can easily have a heyday, covering the entire 14.7 miles of trails beyond the fenceline, where vehicles are not otherwise allowed. A major portion of the trail loops through the benchlands above White Rock Bay and back.

Perhaps the best choice for hikers is a 4.5-mile walk south to the Split Rock overlook and then another 1.5-mile trek to the Elephant Head viewpoint on the west side of Antelope Island. During spring's cooler conditions, this 12-mile round-trip excursion requires three to fours hours and is well worth the time spent. On the other hand, during summer's heat, temperatures and insects can be almost unbearable.

The trail has some level spots but gradually climbs to the Split Rock Bay overlook. All trails have good signage, and hikers and bikers are required to stay on the trail.

"The main problem we're having is keeping people on the trail," Reed said.

The rule is meant is to keep island impact to a minimum, particularly to protect the soils and to avoid disturbing wildlife. Off-trail users will be issued citations by rangers; Reed said he gives out several of those a week.

Buffalo roam freely in Antelope Island's valleys and on the hillsides, and visitors may also catch a glimpse of deer, coyotes and numerous birds - from California gulls to chukars and meadowlarks - along the way.

At 3.5 miles out, heading south on the White Rock Bay Trail, the path splits.

The left section goes north to Beacon Knob and views above the east side of the island. This trail actually loops back to the trailhead, for a total 9.2-mile circuit.

Those who take the right-hand trail climb steadily past Dooly Knob to the Split Rock Bay overlook, which offers a wooden bench for a rest. A trail to the left from here goes down to Split Rock Bay, dropping some 600 feet to lake level, beaches and the base of Elephant Head. "Split Rock" itself is an accurately named broken stone feature prominent in the valley.

The trail to the right from the viewpoint continues another 1.5 miles, climbing (and occasionally dropping) several hundred more feet, curving west and then south around the hillside to the Elephant Head overlook. This perfect snack or lunch spot has one of the best views anywhere on the island. Across the blue water to the southwest are the Stansbury Mountains, with Deseret Peak as their centerpiece. Also visible are portions of Tooele Valley and, to the west, Stansbury Island.

The area also offers a glimpse of the rugged west side of the almost knife-edge ridge between Stringham Point and Frary Peak, Antelope Island's highest prominence.

Reed said he hopes to develop a trail to Frary Peak once a good road is developed along the east side of the island. He's working on a trail master plan, intending to submit an application for a federal trails grant this month. If received, the grant money would be used to construct a new loop trail in Split Rock Bay.

- To hike Antelope Island's back country, take I-15 exit No. 335 and head west through Layton, Clearfield and Syracuse on 1700 South (U-108) about seven miles to the Antelope Island Causeway. The entrance fee for day use per vehicle is $6. It's 7.5 miles across the water to the island.

From there, take the south spur highway about two miles to the White Rock Bay turnoff. There is an unpaved parking area in White Rock Bay and a trailhead registration area below the main road. Sign in at the trailhead and pick up a free map. From there the trail goes through the fence into buffalo rangeland, where motorized vehicles are not allowed (except for patrolling park rangers). There is no water available along the trail, so be sure to have your own. Take the right-hand White Rock Bay section of the trail past the gate if you're headed along the shortest route to Split Rock Bay or the Elephant Head overlook.

Antelope Island State Park is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. However, trail users should be off the paths by 7 p.m. daily. Limited camping is available.