The sand there is white due to the high concentration of salt in the soil. The salt comes mainly from evaporite deposits left by the extinct Lake Bonneville, of which only the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake remain. Several small mountain ranges crisscross through and along the edges of the desert, such as the Cedar Mountains, Lakeside Mountains, Silver Island Mountains, Hogup Mountains, and Newfoundland Mountains. On the western edge of the desert, just across the border with Nevada, stands Pilot Peak.
The Great Salt Lake Desert is perhaps most historically significant as the location of much of Hastings Cutoff, an alternative wagon route for westward emigration to California promoted in the 1840s. Difficulties experienced by the Donner Party in making the 130 km (80 mile) crossing of this region in 1846 contributed to their becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada later that year.
A large portion of the desert is used by the military. A section of Hill Air Force Base is to the north and the Wendover Gunnery Range and Dugway Proving Grounds are to the south. A large section of the desert is still accessible though, where I-80 (which replaced the Wendover Cut-off) crosses the desert. The interstate runs exactly east-west and is dead straight for almost 50 miles, between the Cedar Mountains to the east and Wendover on the Utah/Nevada border. The Bonneville Salt Flats have a race track that was the location for land speed records set during the 50s, 60s and 70s. The desert is also home to the Skull Valley Indian Reservation.
Certain unusual plants can be found there, having adapted to the harsh conditions. The desert is hot during the summer and cool during the winter. It is warmer than the rest of northern Utah but is cooler than most of the south. Most of the desert receives less than 8 in (20 cm) of precipitation annually.
This region was the site of many unusual experiments made by Dr. Thomas Henry Moray.