In winter and early spring northern Utah is hugely popular among snowboarders and skiiers, but I've traded my jacket, goggles and skis on this trip for a BC, mask and fins. From November through April, in the same area where you can carve and schuss the 11,000-foot Wasatch Mountains outside Salt Lake City, you can dive in water that's 96 degrees. While the cars on the highway are whizzing past me with skis strapped to their roofs, I've packed dive gear for exploring the dozens of geothermal springs around Salt Lake City, including three warm-water ones less than two-and-a-half hours from the city.
All Utah diving is altitude diving. The crater at the Homestead Resort in Midway sits at about 6,000 feet, just 20 minutes from Park City. The mountain town is dotted with Swiss-style chalets; in the 1880s, a Swiss farmer, who had noticed a "hot pot" on land he'd homesteaded, opened a hotel and spa. That spring fills a 65-foot-deep tufa crater capped by a 55-foot-high dome. Eleven years ago, a 110-foot tunnel was dug through the crater's walls. Today, the passage doubles as a rental shop and fill station.
My first dive in Utah feels like a bath as I descend, and I can see steam rise off the water. (At 96 degrees today, it's no surprise there's also an area off the dock for nondivers to soak.) A hole in the dome fills the cavern with light, while the water's pure shimmering turquoise, even without the pool lights below. At the surface, the hourglass-shaped crater is about 80 feet wide, and I follow the rugged arc of its walls, spiraling down before it narrows at 35 feet and then widens again. Underwater, the walls look like flattened waffles, often with chunky white encrustations jutting out. The spring's high calcium content means there aren't any fish, but a 19th-century wooden wagon wheel found in the crater is suspended at 37 feet, with a blonde plastic mermaid and pink seahorse posed on its rim. (This is Utah. The mermaid smiles serenely, while blue scales rise demurely to cover her breast.) Elsewhere, there's a diamond-shaped swim-through of PVC tubing at 47 feet and underwater platforms for classes finishing certifications and working on skills. But I prefer fine-tuning my buoyancy after my dive at the resort's fudge shop.
The whole point of the Bonneville Seabase is to dive the Utah desert with tropical fish. Seven hundred miles from the coast, there are snappers, groupers, French and gray angelfish, butterflyfish, porkfish, seahorses, tangs and 50-pound pompanos-at least 60 species in all. The "high-altitude mini-ocean" is a haven for aquarium castoffs, although owner Linda Nelson admits glumly, "The porcupinefish got wiped out by some mean Boy Scouts."
First, I take a deep dive in the Abyss, a series of tanks driven down to 62 feet, beneath a broad Lexan canopy, with lighted platforms for safety stops. Phosphates make the water green, and it's like submerging in pea soup with a layer of garbanzo-bean bisque at the top. Each time I pass through a tank, the passage narrows until I'm nested on the last grate like a matrioshka doll. With the altitude correction, I'm suddenly 84-feet-deep in the Utah desert. But I don't see any fish.
Next door, two wider and shallower bays are connected by a channel, and the aquatic life is teeming. In White Rocks Bay, where the maximum depth is just 14 feet, it's amazing to see so many reef tropicals, and surreal to see them against a background of dry, open plateaus and distant, snowcapped peaks. It takes me a while to locate the Seabase's two nurse sharks, which are tucked in a cubbyhole-sized cave, but the real fun starts when Linda hands me a head of romaine lettuce, and the scats and angelfish swarm. With just a few feet of visibility, I figure this is the safe Utah version of what it's like to be set upon by piranhas. In the attached Habitat Bay, I wreck-dive the Sheer Joy, a 22-foot cabin cruiser at 23 feet (penetrating it isn't much more than sticking in my head), and then enter a sunken air-filled enclosure at 15 feet, where divers can remove their regulators and gab. On the way back to shore, the crevalle jacks finning about me are still surprising, but more apropos to Utah, I swim past a three-foot plastic underwater snowman.
It's a two-hour drive west from the Seabase to Blue Lake, across the 30,000-acre Bonneville Salt Flats, where the world's land-speed records are set. I'm driving with local diver Lamont Adkins in his truck, and I'm glad for the high suspension as we cross into Nevada and then snake back into Utah on a rutted dirt road-we go slowly.
Once we park, I'm also glad for my booties as we follow the 200-yard dilapidated boardwalk in full gear across a marsh to the edge of the lake. First, we giant-stride off the pier; then our dive in Blue Lake becomes a tour of a 10-acre underwater sculpture garden. At 40 feet, I swim past an armchair and TV. A dozen feet deeper, there's a hammerhead shark, giant mantis, giant scorpion, giant ant, giant turtle, 55-gallon rhinoceros, and a headless woman pushing a lawnmower. Elsewhere, a road sign points to Bonaire and Fiji, while a parking meter still offers 60 minutes for a nickel, and a 20-foot pleasure-craft sits spiked into the lake floor, its bow pointing straight up. As we tour, there are also real-live tilapia, perch, bluegill and largemouth bass, and hot, bubbling puddles of mud, where springs feed the 58-foot-deep lake at 4,000 gallons per minute. After our dive, we walk back to Lamont's truck through the Blue Lake wetlands, past cattails and mallards, killdeer and curlews. Then once on the main road, we pause in Nevada long enough for a $16.99 casino buffet and to lose a few bucks on the $5 tables.
Water Conditions: Visibility is 50 feet, less if divers disturb silt. Water temperatures range between 90 and 96 degrees. No wetsuit needed.
Location: At the Homestead Resort, in Midway; 50 minutes from Salt Lake City.
Dive Drill: The crater is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; reservations required. There's a $22 fee for 35-minute dives on weekdays, $27 on weekends. Mineral soaks are $11 on weekdays, $16 on weekends. Equipment available. Additional activities extra.
Dive Operator: Homestead Resort (www.homesteadresort.com).
Water Conditions: Average water temps in Abyss hover around 80 degrees all year, with visibility around 10 feet. In White Rocks and Habitat bays, winter water temps average between 70 and 75 at the surface, slightly warmer at depth. In summer, surface temps average about 85 degrees, reaching 90 at the bottom; visibility is three to 10 feet. Check the web site for current conditions.
Location: Near Grantsville, on Hwy. 138, off I-80; 40 minutes from Salt Lake City.
Dive Drill: Open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Night dives and other days available by reservation. There's a $15 daily-use fee. Equipment for rent. There's also a Tropical Illusion snack bar and save-a-dive shop, and freshwater showers with desalinated spring water.
Dive Operator: Bonneville Seabase (www.seabase.net).
Water Conditions: Water temperatures range from the high 60s in winter to the low 80s in summer, warmer at depth. Visibility depends on divers kicking up silt, and generally ranges from 10 to 30 feet.
Location: Follow Hwy. 93A 17 miles south from I-80 in West Wendover, Nevada. At the Blue Lake sign, follow the dirt road 6.8 miles back into Utah; 2.5 hours from Salt Lake City.
Dive Drill: The 200-yard walk with equipment from the parking area to the lake on a dilapidated boardwalk will make you glad to wear booties. In the summer, beware horseflies and mosquitoes. No equipment available.