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Soaring in Salt Lake City

As an airplane prepares to land at Salt Lake City International Airport, a passenger glancing out a window gains a quick perspective on the valley’s attractions. The Wasatch Mountains on the east rise from the valley floor as if to guard the prosperous valley below. The Great Salt Lake and its bird refuges stretch to the west. A glittering downtown filled with restaurants, museums, and history stands on the valley’s northern edge, almost miragelike in what was once a desolate valley.

The Mormon Zion offers many stories for those who look. This is where Martha Hughs Cannon became the nation’s first woman state senator in 1896. It is a place that once boasted a socialist mayor, and where people eat more ice cream per capita than in any place in the United States. A Salt Lake City policeman invented the world’s first traffic light and Utahn Philo T. Farnsworth invented the television.

A visit to Salt Lake City should include a mixture of the culture, history, and natural beauty of the city. Look for a variety of beehives on the sidewalks and in many of the buildings. Mormon leader Brigham Young, who brought the pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, used the honeybee as a symbol of the new state because early pioneers viewed the beehive as a symbol of industry and the virtues of thrift and perseverance. The beehive is on Utah’s official state emblem. Most visitors begin with the state’s most popular tourist destination, Temple Square, in the heart of Salt Lake City.

A stroll through the square’s manicured gardens and a tour given by one of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) missionaries is a good place to begin. While only Mormons in good standing are allowed inside the granite temple itself, there is plenty to see, including the Mormon Tabernacle, two large museums, an Assembly Hall, and the Seagull Monument.

Make a point of getting inside the Tabernacle. A bridge builder, Henry Grow, designed its famous roof by resting huge wooden arches on top of 44 cut sandstone buttresses. The arches, beams, and supports were pinned together using wooden pegs and rawhide thongs. Since that time, a metal suspension system has been added to reinforce Grow’s work, and the roof of 400,000 wooden shingles has been replaced with aluminum. Plan on listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform inside the Tabernacle to get the full effect of the famous choir, the enormous organ, and the incredible acoustics.

The original organ featured 2,000 pipes. The present organ includes 11,623 pipes made of wood, zinc, tin, and lead. It has five keyboards and a 32-note pedal board. “It took five men to operate a hand-pump mechanism for the original organ in Salt Lake Tabernacle,” says Glen M. Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art. “Sometime before 1875, this mechanism was modified for use with a large water wheel installed in the Tabernacle basement and powered by City Creek, which ran along North Temple Street.”

There is much to see and learn about Utah while visiting Temple Square and the surrounding Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “campus.” This area is to Mormons what the Vatican is to Catholics. A new 21,000-seat conference center, located just north of Temple Square, is worth seeing if only to enjoy the flowing waterfalls and gardens on the roof. For one of downtown’s best views, ride the elevator to the 26th-floor observation deck in the white Mormon Church office building, the tallest structure in the city. (For more information on tours click here.)

If you are curious about the Mormon’s practice of polygamy, you can ask the tour guides at the Lion House, Brigham Young’s original residence. It was home to a handful of his wives and children. Mormons in good standing do not believe in or practice plural marriage. Polygamy delayed Utah’s entrance into the United States until 1896, about the time the Mormon Church’s then-president and prophet, Wilford Woodruff, banned polygamy. Still, pockets of believers living in the Salt Lake area and in more rural parts of the state call themselves fundamentalist Mormons and practice polygamy. A recent crackdown on the practice continues to make big news both nationally and locally.


Join our tour at the Family Search Center in the basement of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and get started researching your ancestors by computer. (Click here for more information.) If you get hooked, you can find more help and family history at the Church’s Family History Library located just west of the Tabernacle. The library includes two billion names, 400,000 microfiches, and 250,000 books.

Visitors to the city often marvel at the width of the streets. One legend has it that the Mormon leader made them wide enough to allow a team of mules to turn around without backing up. Young laid out the city as a grid with the Mormon Temple at its center, making wayfaring easy. Most streets in the city run north-south and east-west. They are numbered according to their direction and distance from the southeastern corner of Temple Square. Thus, the first street to the south of Temple Square is First South. The street five blocks east is Fifth East.

A light rail system called TRAX links downtown Salt Lake with the suburbs to the south and the University of Utah to the east. You may ride free in the downtown area. The Salt Palace, site of the ASEE convention, sits central to major shopping areas and a budding restaurant and nightclub district. Conventioneers using the 365,000-square foot convention facility named after an earlier pioneer-era building can walk to 90 restaurants and three major shopping areas. What’s more, engineers might be interested to note some of the convention center’s quirks. For example, the world’s top roller coaster company—located in Utah—built the curved metal trusses that hold up the ceiling. The major entrances, lit up at night, are designed to resemble salt shakers. And windmills built on the West Temple side of the building are designed to play chimes inside the street’s entrance when the wind blows even slightly.

The Salt Palace offers good access to the ZCMI and Crossroads Malls, sitting across from each other on Main Street. Both feature food courts for a quick lunch. The newest addition to the Salt Lake City scene is the Gateway, a 30-acre shopping, restaurant, and entertainment district filled with upscale shops and restaurants. The Gateway is the newest kind of mall in that visitors walk along wide outdoor sidewalks on two levels. The Clark Planetarium, located at its southern end, features state-of-the-art computer technology found in few other places in the world. It also houses the state’s only IMAX theatre. Retail staples such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap are here. So is a two-story climbing wall inside the Galyan’s Sports & Outdoor Adventure store.

The Olympic Snowflake Fountain, a favorite of photographers during the 2002 Winter Olympics, sits on the northern end of the Gateway. Playful jets of water shoot from the snowflake-shaped fountain, accompanied by music on the half-hour. Take time to watch kids of all ages frolic in its dancing waters. Also consider a look at the murals inside the Union Pacific Railroad Depot Building. They are original to the depot and depict the colonizing of Utah. The depot, once bustling with folks waiting for the train, now hosts social functions and partially houses a Virgin Records Superstore. Ever since the Mormons came into the Salt Lake Valley, it has been a cultural oasis. During late June, for example, those attending the convention might want to see the Broadway Touring Company production of ‘Phantom of the Opera” at the historic Capitol Theatre, a renovated vaudeville gem that makes a perfect place for falling chandeliers. To reserve tickets, log on at

Although a library might seem like a different kind tourist attraction, engineers should take a gander at Salt Lake City’s new city library. Completed in 2003, the library was designed by architect Moshe Afdie. The six-story glass wall of the library was designed to resemble the Roman Coliseum. It features, among other things, a three-story fireplace and atrium lined with shops.


There are dozens of hiking and mountain-bike trails leading up the canyons of the Wasatch Mountains. In fact, trails that lead up City Creek Canyon or along the foothills of Salt Lake City are all within a two-minute drive from downtown.

Plan to attend the ASEE picnic at the Place Heritage Park and the “Old Deseret Town” on Sunday, June 20. (For more information, click here.)

Heritage Park commemorates where Brigham Young looked out the back of a wagon where he lay ill and declared that “this is the right place.” A large monument honors the small band of 143 men, three women, two children, 70 wagons, one boat, one cannon, 93 horses, 52 mules, 66 oxen, and 19 cows that entered the valley on July 24, 1847, as well as the mountain men and Catholic priests who came before them.

The town of “Old Deseret” is located across from the monument. During June, volunteers dressed in period costumes bring the daily hardship the pioneers faced to life. Historic buildings from throughout the state have been moved here, including the home where Brigham Young’s farm wives and children lived. Young chose this valley for his followers because he believed that if they could have 50 years of isolation, their church would survive. They had 20 years until the railroad came in 1869, but it is obvious things went well when one looks from the foothills at “Old Deseret” below at the city’s modern skyline.

Hogle Zoo, the state’s largest, is located south of the heritage park. Visit Red Butte Gardens and Arboretum to gain another perspective of the city. On the University of Utah campus, the gardens highlight native Utah plants as well as drought tolerant plants from throughout the world in brilliant displays of color and fragrance. Outdoor evening concerts are given here throughout the summer.

No trip to Salt Lake City is complete without a drive up one of Salt Lake County’s canyons. Each canyon along the Wasatch Mountains is actually a distinct geologic story. For example, the I-80 freeway winds down Parley’s Canyon past red sedimentary layers of the Jurassic and Little Cottonwood Canyon shows granite once molten hot inside the Earth. This granite was quarried to build the Salt Lake Mormon Temple.

The fact that these mountains provide the city’s precious water has meant that development of homes and resorts in the mountains has been limited. The ski resorts of Brighton, Solitude, Alta, and Snowbird, however, claim real estate in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. If you question your legs’ ability to hike the 9,000-foot plus mountains of the Wasatch, a ride up the tram at Snowbird is an easy and breathtaking way to savor the view from the top.

To the west of Salt Lake City lie the Great Salt Lake and the Oquirrh Mountains. In the Oquirrh Mountains lies the world’s largest open pit copper mine, Kennecott which is visible from space. A visitor center at the mine describes its operation, while outside, house-sized trucks carry ore up the spiral of the ever-deepening pit. How big is the pit? It is twice as deep as the world’s tallest building and is nearly two and a half miles wide. It and the Great Wall of China are the only man-made structures visible from space.

The Great Salt Lake collects water from throughout the Great Basin. It is salty sometimes because there is no outlet to the sea from the lake and the salts carried by its tributaries stay in the lake. Fluctuating lake levels have frustrated attempts to develop tourism around the lake. However, there are two great ways to experience this wonder of the world.

Take a lunch or dinner cruise around the lake hosted by Salt Island Adventures. Chances are you will be the only ship on the lake. Or, visit Antelope Island State Park. Plan a day to hike the island and float in the salty waters off the picnic beach. The heavy salt content makes swimmers more buoyant than in normal water. Floating in the Great Salt Lake with its feathery orange brine shrimp is one of those lifetime experiences that everyone should have. But don’t be surprised if your body and head become encrusted with salt. (For more tour information, click here.)

Salt Lakers love to eat out, and there is no limit to dining choices. Downtown visitors need only walk the area from 400 West to Main Street and South Temple to 500 South to find a sampling of the city’s best dining. (For the restaurant guide, click here.) Nightlife in Salt Lake City is thriving despite Utah’s quirky liquor laws. Visitors to clubs must become members so they may order drinks but that is easy to do. Port O’Call, Squatters, and the Red Door are among the most popular watering holes downtown.

Salt Lake has come a long way from its pioneer beginnings. Skyscrapers define the skyline. Suburbs spread along the Wasatch Front. And yet, visitors to the city can see what the original visitors, the Mormons, saw. The Great Salt Lake still provides wide-open spaces to the west. The Wasatch Mountains still inspire, shade, and refresh all who venture up their canyons.


Gayen Wharton is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City.
She can be reached at

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