Salt flats are dried-up desert lakes. They have some of the unique natural features on earth, a vast expanse of impressive white sheets, glinting facades, and picturesque landscapes. But how do salt flats form? They form in closed hollows where rainfall can’t drain away. In a wet climate, a lake would form but, in a desert, the water is heated and evaporates into vapor faster than it is replenished by rain. The salt and minerals dissolved in the water are left behind as a solid layer. Delicate crystals are easily crushed, and the relatively thin upper crust of salt can break through to the mud layer below, leaving tire tracks and even footprints.
Unsurprisingly, many of them are popular recreation destinations. For your next trip, why don’t you visit the city listed below and check out its salt flats? From Bonneville Salt Flats to Etosha Pan, here are the 11 most stunning salt flats in the world!
Salinas Grandes, Argentina
At an altitude of approximately 3,350 meters (10,990 feet), Salinas Grandes is an enormous salt flat in northwestern Argentina. Actually, it’s the biggest salt flat in Argentina and the second-largest salt flat in the world. The Salinas Grandes is nearly 60 km (37 miles) from end to end and it’s an increasingly important source of income for the region, namely for salt and potassium mining.
Like other great salt flats, Salinas Grandes is nothing short of beautiful, and we’re sure you’ll strongly agree. It’s a blindingly white salt-crusted land that’s dotted with turquoise pools that are Instagram-worthy. While there’s no public transport that takes you to the region, it’s possible to take a day trip from Salta, Jujuy, Tilcara, or Purmamarca. Also, if you decide to visit Salinas Grandes, make sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen as well!
Badwater Basin, California, USA
For your next trip to California, make sure to visit Badwater Basin! The Badwater Basin salt flats located in the heart of California’s Death Valley National Park are the lowest point in North America, with an elevation of 86 meters (282 feet) below sea level. These great salt flats cover an area of nearly 518 sq km (200 sq mi), among the largest protected salt flats in the world. The low, salty pool at Badwater is probably the best-known and most visited place in Death Valley.
The fragile crystals of the flats can easily be crushed. Hence, vehicles aren’t permitted outside of the existing causeway. A tip from us: you may want to visit Badwater Basin during the cooler months, as the temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees during the summer. Yikes! But if you do want to feel the heat, you shouldn’t leave things like sunscreens and sun hats!
Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, United States
Located on the western edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah and west of Salt Lake City are the Bonneville Salt Flats, which were formed 17,000 years ago as a salt lake Bonneville. As the water evaporated over millennia, a thick layer of salt remained on the lakebed. Today the crust is replenished naturally by winter rains, which carry minerals, including rock salt, from the watershed. At only 104 sq km (40 sq mi), the lake Bonneville Salt Flats are among the smallest salt flats in the world.
Thankfully, these great salt flats are stunning! The Bonneville Salt Flats look like a frozen lake covered with snow. Thanks to their eye-catching look, they’ve been used as an iconic setting for car commercials and feature films. Land speed records have been made and broken on its lunarlike surface for more than a century. You can even ski here! So, when you visit Utah, make some time to see the Bonneville Salt Flats!
Chott el Djerid, Tunisia
Chott el Djerid is a large endorheic salt lake in southern Tunisia, close to the Algerian border. Chott el Jerid was some thousand years ago part of the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike the Bonneville Salt Flats, Chott el Djerid is huge. With an estimated surface area of 6,000 sq km (2,317 sq mi), it’s the largest salt pan of the Sahara Desert. “Chott” is the word used in Tunisia for lakes that stays dry through the hot season, but which have some water in the winter.
During the summer, it’s possible to drive or walk across Chott el Djerid, but doing so is extremely risky as the salt crust can crumble. At times parts of the lake appear in various shades of white, green, and purple. In summer, Chott el Jerid is entirely dried up and Fata Morgana occurs. And if you think these great salt flats look familiar, that’s because you’ve seen them in Star Wars. They’re Tatooine, the arid planet where Luke Skywalker was born.
Salar de Arizaro, Argentina
A trip to Argentina won’t be complete without visiting this salt flat. In the arid, high plateau of Argentina’s Salta province, just east of the Atacama Desert and the eastern cordillera of the Andes Mountains, dry lake beds indicate a time when the landscape was bathed in water. Today it is dry rock crusted in salt—the remnants of evaporation, baking sunlight, and fierce winds. This is the Salar de Arizaro.
Unlike the Bonneville Salt Flats, this one is massive. With a surface area of around 1,600 sq km (600 sq mi), Salar de Arizaro is the sixth-largest salt flat in the world and the second-largest in the country. The region is rich in salt formed between 5 to 10 million years ago when a salty inland sea may have covered the land. Iron, marble, onyx, potassium, boron, and copper are also relatively abundant. As evidenced by ancient relics discovered in the cone, the area was a ceremonial site before the Incas arrived. Source: NASA
Etosha Pan, Namibia
If you’re planning a trip to Namibia, Etosha Pan is a must-visit. Yes, it’s an underrated recreation spot, but you won’t regret visiting this salt flat! The Etosha Pan is a vast, bare, open expanse of shimmering green and white at 130 km (81 miles) long and up to 50 km (31 miles) wide. Like other great salt flats, the landscape of Etosha Pan is magnificent. It’s the largest salt pan in Africa, visible even from space!
The pan was originally a lake, but over time, the earth’s climate forced the rivers that once fed the lake to change course and flow into the Atlantic Ocean. The name itself is a Ndonga phrase that means “great white place”, which is certainly fitting when you consider this salt flat covers a huge 4,800 sq km (1,853 sq mi) of area. What a sight to see! Here, not many plant species or wildlife can survive, except the blue-green algae that give the salty crust its green hue. Source: etoshanationalpark
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Salar De Uyuni, the biggest and probably the most popular salt flat in the world, is located in southwest Bolivia near the crest of the Andes, at 3.650 meters (11,975 feet) above sea level and stretches for 10,582 sq km (4,086 sq mi). Some 40,000 years ago, the area was part of Lake Minchin, a giant prehistoric lake. When the lake dried, it left behind two modern lakes, Poopó and Uru Uru, and two major salt deserts, Salar de Coipasa, and the larger Salar de Uyuni.
Salar de Uyuni is roughly 25 times the size of Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States and is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, of which less than 25,000 tons is extracted annually. During the flooding season, it transforms into something really incredible: the world’s largest mirror. During the dry season, you can drive over the desolate landscape to reach locations that are inaccessible during the wet season. You should avoid visiting during December and January, though, as the excessive rain can lead to tours and other events being canceled. Source: rutaverdebolivia
Makgadikgadi Pan, Botswana
Once the site of the world’s biggest island seas is Makgadikgadi Pan. Also one of the largest salt flats in the world, it’s all that’s left of the formerly massive Lake Makgadikgadi that dried up tens of thousands of years ago. According to recent studies, modern Homo sapiens first began evolving in this region around 200,000 years ago! Technically, Makgadikgadi isn’t a single pan. It consists of many pans with sandy deserts in between.
That said, these salt flats cover an area of around 16,058 sq km (6,200 sq mi). This means they’re more than 150 times bigger than the Bonneville Salt Flats! Moreover, these great salt flats are hostile. And since there has been little human involvement, they’ve mostly remained unaltered. However, parts of the grazing land surrounding the pans have been fenced off to stop wildlife from migrating. During the dry season, very little fauna can be found here. But during the wet seasons, you can find migratory birds like ducks, geese, and great white pelicans.
Salar de Atacama, Chile
There are many great salt flats in the world, and Salar de Atacama is certainly one of them. As the name suggests, this salt flat is set in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which is probably the driest place on earth. Clay and carbonate-rich material is the source of the white hue that surrounds the salt flat’s perimeter. Meanwhile, the center is made up of dense sodium chloride crusts.
When it comes to size, this salt flat covers an area of about 3,000 sq km (1,200 sq mi). This means it’s almost the size of California’s Yosemite National Park. No wonder this recreation spot is named the largest salt flat in Chile and the third largest in the world! Surrounded by mountains, it doesn’t have any drainage outlets. On top of that, Salar de Atacama is also the world’s largest and purest source of lithium. It’s the key ingredient in rechargeable batteries.
Devil’s Golf Course, United States
If the Bonneville Salt Flats are some of the smallest salt flats, the Devil’s Golf Course is the biggest one in the United States! It’s situated within the legendary Death Valley National Park in California. Like other great salt flats, this one also has a unique name. Its catchy moniker comes from a line in the National Park Service’s 1934 guidebook, which stated that “only the devil could play gold” on the rough terrain.
Unlike its smooth sibling, the Badwater, this is a salt flat with a myriad of miniature, jagged salt pinnacles that have wild shapes. Moreover, it was once a beautiful lake that evaporated, and the minerals remain on the surface. The salt layer is approximately more than 1,000 feet (300 m). In places, it could reach up to 9,000 feet (2,700 m). Venturing out into this salt flat is nothing short of exciting. But you have to be careful as it’s not that friendly! A fall could result in painful cuts or, worse, broken bones!
Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma, United States
The Great Salt Plains State Park is one of Oklahoma’s best and most unique state parks. The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, which is adjacent to the state park is perhaps the state’s most unusual geological phenomenon – salt flats! Unlike the Bonneville salt flats, the ones here are big. There, you can find a sea of salt left over from the ocean that once covered the state of Oklahoma in prehistoric times.
The 32,197 acres refuge isn’t only made up of salt flats, but also a wide array of habitats like wetlands and prairie. Like other great salt flats, the ones here are nothing short of impressive. The salt flats are the only place where you can get hourglass selenite crystals, which are extremely rare. However, you can’t just anyhow dig the crystal. It’s only allowed in the designated dig area, which is usually marked with bright orange signs. So, the next time you travel to Oklahoma, make sure to visit this refuge!
Just So You Know…
- The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is so flat that NASA uses its surface to calibrate satellite orbits.
- You can see the Bonneville Salt Flats live through a webcam, maintained by the BLM!
- Consumption of too much salt can be deadly. You need to take about 1 gram of salt per kilogram of weight to die, and this was a method of ritual suicide in China.
- Salt is one of the most essential things to the body. Drinking too much water can flush it out of your system and cause fatal Hyponatremia.
What is the biggest salt flat in the world?
The biggest salt flat in the world is Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. With a surface area of around 10,582 sq km (4,086 sq mi), it’s left behind by prehistoric lakes that evaporated a long time ago.
Can you eat the salt from Salar de Uyuni?
Of course, you can. With more than 10 billion tons of salt, locals extract it daily to eat it and export it internationally. Your table salt at home may even come from Bolivia!
What shoes do you wear to a salt flat?
Never, ever wear sandals unless you want to be sunburned! Regular shoes aren’t recommended either, as walking only three feet on the flats will already leave them coated with a quarter inch of salt. We highly suggest wearing hiking boots instead.