A Free Day is a Gift Indeed
Day Trips from Salt Lake City
Perhaps the loneliest moment of my life was spent in full view of a city of one million people.
I was atop a backcountry ski run in Broads Fork, a major tributary of Big Cottonwood Canyon, which leads east from Salt Lake City to Brighton ski area, up higher than 10,000 feet, and had just kicked off a wall-to-wall avalanche on the slope I was hoping to ski. Near the summit of Twin Peaks, the powerful 11,330-foot tall double-summitted mountain that overlooks the valley, I could view the valley from one side, its lights twinkling on, and the rubbled avalanche netherworld zone on the other. It was nearing dusk, I was out of water and food, and I had to somehow get down the slope. The presence of the city, just a few air miles away, made the situation seem all the more desperate.
In one way, that's the beauty of Salt Lake City: You don't have to go very far at all to get what seems like very far away from it all. I had left the city, driven five miles up the canyon, and entered the howling wilderness. Go ahead: try doing that in any other million-person city in America.
You don't have to go risk your neck on some backcountry ski slope, though, to experience the wonderful duality of northern Utah.
So let's pretend, if only for a minute, that we are in Salt Lake City, say for the Olympics or some trip before or after the Games, and that we have an open day, a gift of a day, with nothing in particular to do. What do we do?
A free day in Salt Lake City is indeed a gift, I think, because here there are so many options. A long day trip to the desert? A jaunt out to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where at sunset the sky is unending orange and your shadow seems to stretch across the salt for miles? Or a trip up to Antelope Island, a true desert island in the Great Salt Lake? Or a wilderness trip in the Wasatch Mountains, which rise just east of town?
Some day trip Suggestions
Peer down into one of the biggest holes on Earth.
That would be the open pit copper mine at Kennecott Utah Copper, a gold-rush era mine complex that dominates the western skyline of Salt Lake City. The mine overlook and visitors center will be open through the Games (it is normally closed in the winter due to heavy snow). To get there, head south on Interstate 15 to exit 301 (9 miles south of downtown) and head west. Follow the signs to state Route 48, the Bingham Highway, and from there follow the signs to the mine. Looking down from the overlook, it's difficult to believe that the trucks working down in the pit are so large their tires are taller than a man.
Head up to Antelope Island State Park.
This is what surprises so many visitors to northern Utah. Get off Interstate 15 at exit 335 (about 25 miles north of downtown) head west through dwindling suburbs, cross onto the causeway that leads across an arm of the Great Salt Lake, enter the island and drive a few miles across it to Buffalo Point, park and get out: to the west stretches an ocean, an inland ocean, hazy in the afternoon and studded with whitecaps. To the south, the western shore of Antelope Island curves away in a stretch of coves and cliffs not unlike the Pacific Coast of Oregon. A free-roaming herd of buffalo can often be spotted near here. Want a landscape more manageable? In the island's visitors center, check out the fish tank filled not with fish but with brine shrimp, the only life the lake's briny waters can support.
Follow the traces of the Pony Express Trail.
The Pony Express was used for just a few years in the 1800s to ferry mail from Missouri to California, but it was long enough to capture the spirit of the West and the entrepreneurial might of America. Young men, armed with two guns and a Bible, would race for hours on horseback to deliver the mail in a timely fashion between the two coasts. Across the desert west of Salt Lake City, they made use of stations established every 15 or so miles along the route. The ruins of many of these stations can still be seen. Head west from Salt Lake City on Interstate 80 for 20 miles to state Route 36., then south for another 30 miles to the turnoff, which is near the small community of Vernon. From here, a maintained dirt road runs west for about 100 miles, to near Ibapah, on the Nevada border. Beware: there are no services between Tooele and Stockton on the east end and Wendover on the west end. Along the way, stop off at the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, a true oasis in the desert.
Check out the wildlife up at Hardware Ranch
This wildlife management area, about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City and about 20 miles east of Hyrum in the Cache Valley, is an excellent winter wildlife viewing area.
Snowshoe in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons
Rent snowshoes in Salt Lake City (Try Sid Sports, Wild Rose, Kirkham's or Wasatch Touring) and head toward the resorts of Alta or Brighton (they are in two different, though adjacent, canyons). These canyons have famous snow and magnificent scenery but will not host any of the Olympic events. In Big Cottonwood (home to Brighton) pull off at the Spruces campground and find several easy and moderate snowshoe trails, or stop a few miles before that at Reynolds Flat, which has a large parking area and a variety of trails, including one that leads to Donut Falls. In Little Cottonwood, home to Alta, park at the White Pine parking area and take the trail toward Red Pine and White Pine lakes. Or, park at Alta's upper parking lot and take the trail into Albion Basin. A third great canyon close to town and ideal for beginners is Millcreek Canyon. This canyon starts at the eastern end of 3900 South Street.
See Mt. Timpanogos and Bridal Veil Falls
These gems are east of Provo, which is about 45 miles south of Salt Lake City. Exit Interstate 15 headed east on U.S. Highway 189. Bridal Veil Falls, usually surrounded by thick ice during the winter, is about two miles up the canyon on the right. Timpanogos, one of Utah's most magnificent mountains, can best be seen from the base area of Sundance ski resort, the turnoff for which is another two miles up the canyon. If you fish, throw a fly into the Provo River, which runs along the road and is a blue ribbon trout stream.
Chill out with the Trappist monks.
The Trappist monks live in the spectacular Ogden Valley, about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City and about 10 miles east of the town of Ogden. From Ogden and Interstate 15, take the 12th Street exit east and go first to the great town of Huntsville, then east a few more miles, following the signs, to the monastery. Chanting and prayers begin well before sunrise, but the Trappists also make and sell their own spiced and flavored honeys, and are happy to talk to visitors. Be sure to stop in at the Shooting Star Saloon in Huntsville on the way back for a Star Burger.
See the curve of the Earth at the Bonneville Salt Flats
Head west from Salt Lake City on I-80 for 100 miles to this massive expanse of famous salt. The races that made the salt famous won't begin until summer, but you can drive to a viewpoint of the flats or even walk or bike out on them. There is a rest stop along the freeway that has an observation point, or at exit 4 take the access to the salt flats. Two warnings: don't drive on the salt, regardless of how firm it appears, and remember to get a full tank of gas before you set out, since there is no gas between Wendover and Delle, a 70-mile stretch.
Cross country ski at Beaver Creek in the Uinta Mountains
This easy to moderate area is about an hour east of Salt Lake. Head east on I-80 to U.S. Highway 40, go south to state Route 248, go east to Kamas, and take the Mirror Lake road to the Beaver Creek trailhead, which is on the left. The trail is on the right, and the fee station (a nominal daily fee is charged) is just a few yards further. Rent skis in Park City or Salt Lake City. If any family members have a disability or need adaptive equipment, contact Splore at (801) 484-4128.
The Viking Yurt
At 8,000 feet, with a fresh blanket of snow covering the Snyderville Basin, and with a full moon hanging above the crest of the Wasatch Mountains, you need no lights to see the way.
Fir trees rise black into the sky, bordering a trail that leads through thick woods towards a soft light in the distance. Come around a corner, snow squeeking under your skis, and that sort light is a warm, inviting yurt. Step inside, and Joy and Geir Vik are there with a warm five-course meal waiting.
This is the the Viking Yurt, an innovative dinner and nighttime ski trip located at The Canyons ski area, near Park City, now beginning its third season.
Joy and Geir, who met in Utah and married after college, lived in Geir's Norway for several yets before returning to Park City. The couple loved to throw parties, and combined that passion with a yurt - a circular structure, approximately 30 feet in diameter, that looks like a cross between a tent and a garden gazebo. It is held up by a lattice boby covered in stretched vinyl, has a domed roof and a wide center support that can be opened or closed for ventilation. The feeling inside a yurt is unique - call it super feng shui.
The Canyons agreed to host the yurt in a secluded forest above its mid-mountain day lodge. On the night that I went, Joy and Geir were hosting about 30 guests; we took a 'sleigh' ride - actually a snowcat pulling a sleigh - to the mid-mountain lodge, then changed into skis and kick-and-glided through the forest to the yurt. Actually, Laura and I used 'date' skis - ancient Nordic tradition, Joy said: a long pair of cross-country skis mounted with two sets of bindings, meaning two skiers ski in synchronicity, or at least try to ski in synchronicity. The date skis were used to determine the compatibility of a couple, she said. Non-skiers used snowshoes.
Their yurt in place, Joy and Geir found Iverson Brownell, an award-winning chef who could handle the rigors of cooking at 8,000 feet and having to cart in supplies by snowmobile. Our five courses started with soup, led to a tall-stacked tenderloin main course, and finished up with cheese and pastries. It both an intimate dinner and a small party, with guests mingling among tables and Joy and Geir making the rounds. In a unique way, the dinner combined the solace of wilderness, the comfort of friends, the sophistication of fine dining, the thrill of cross country skiing, and the sort of fantastic views only the Wasatch can afford.
Ours was a late dinner, and it was not until after 10 p.m. that we were putting our skis on and making our way through the forest, using a headlamp, back to the mid-mountain lodge. By that time, the full moon had set, and the Snyderville Basin stretched toward the Uinta Mountains in a soft twinkle of lights.
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