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Five Day Trips from Salt Lake City
by Gerry Wingenbach

Salt Lake City Day Trips

Overlooking the Ogden Upper Valley near the Snowbasin ski resort, a venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

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Photo by Gerry Wingenbach


Whatever Salt Lake City might lack in nightlife and cultural attractions it more than makes up for in epic landscape. The city lies at the intersection of Interstate 80 and Interstate 15, two routes designed to offer the most direct line between two points. But life has a way of confounding geometry, and road trippers with a spirit of adventure will soon find themselves headed down some riparian corridor or scare-you-mother byway, happily exploring Utah's big sandbox and wild mountain country. In life, it is often the dalliances and the detours that define us.

Here are five day trips to get you started. You'll find scenery, wildlife, sports, good food and history along each route - often within an hour of the city. And underneath it all you'll find remnants of the mythical American West that are as real as the day is long.


Alpine Loop Scenic Byway
85 miles, 2.5 hours

Among autumn leaf lovers, the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway is Utah's most talked about excursion. The locals all think it's their secret, some mutation of supersized New England color unknown to the hordes down on the interstates. Prime viewing happens through most of October, when the colors of red maples and yellow aspens become seemingly electric.


View Salt Lake City to Alpine Loop Scenic Byway, Utah in a larger map


To pick up the loop, take I-15 south from Salt Lake City to Utah Highway 92, 25 miles from downtown Salt Lake City. Head east past the wide, picket-fence-lined streets of Highland and into the Crayola-colored walls of American Fork Canyon. This is the start of the 20-mile-long loop. The road, which is a journey meant for IMAX, nips and tucks its way through the Wasatch Range, offering a mountaineer's close-up-view of 11,749-foot Mount Timpanogos, Salt Lake Valley's most dominant peak; at times you find yourself nearing 8,000 feet above sea level. If you stop and gaze the high ridges, you'll likely see mountain goats.

A good place to stretch your legs is at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, where the Park Service operates an information center and offers one-hour hikes to three extraordinary caves overgrown with stalagmites and stalactites. Further along Highway 92, a seven-mile side trip down State Route 114 takes you to Cascade Springs, where a quarter-mile-long boardwalk traverses a mountain spring, exposing natural pools and cascading travertine terraces teeming with aquatic plants and animals.

On the far side of the loop is Robert Redford's Sundance resort, which has evolved into a friendly ski resort and high-end retreat in the years since Redford purchased it, in 1969. The resort offers top-shelf dining in its Tree Room restaurant, as well as wallet-draining excesses in the gift shop and decadent overnight accommodations in well-appointed cabins.

Highway 92 meets State Route 189 a few miles east of Sundance. Head south to Provo, and in about five miles you'll see 600-foot-high Bridal Veil Falls. From here, continue a few miles to the entrance to I-15 North and back to Salt Lake City.


Antelope Island
60 miles, 2 hours

The Great Salt Lake sets the scene: aspirin-white sand, sea gulls and salty water under a china-blue sky. Antelope Island is the largest of the lake's 10 islands. No topiary gardening here. This is the American West the way we envision it - wide open and wild. And it's pretty accessible. The causeway that connects the island to I-15 reopened in 1992 after being submerged for years by high lake levels. (The lake is now experiencing record low levels.) To reach the causeway, take the interstate north from Salt Lake City to Exit 332 (Layton); the causeway lies about seven miles to the west.


View Salt Lake City to Antelope Island, Utah in a larger map


The island's glorious beaches, excellent hiking trails and fine cycling terrain make the journey well worthwhile. And if you yearn for the Wild West of old, you'll be pleased to find a resident herd of about 600 bison roaming the island's 28,000 acres. The herd is managed by the state park and recreation department, and visitors are welcome at the management facilities. The island's biggest annual event is the annual bison roundup held in November.

Facilities on the island include restrooms, beach picnic areas, camping and marina.


Park City
100 miles, 5 hours

That skier on the Utah license plate, the one with the halo that reads "The Greatest Snow on Earth," is Heidi Voelker. She lives in Park City.

If you're not visiting Utah in the winter it's easy to forget that some of the most iconic ski resorts in the world are within an hour of Salt Lake City. In fact, Park City was the site of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. It is also home to the U.S. Ski Team and is one of the most venerable ski towns in America. You've seen this movie before: An old mining town dries up in the early 1900s, a few hundred citizens ride out the ghost-town days, and a generation later you have an Aspen, Breckenridge or Park City (to name a few).


View Salt Lake City to Park City, Utah in a larger map


To get to Park City, follow I-80 east over Parley's Summit. Kimball Junction, on the east side of the pass, is the exit to Park City. Follow State Route 224 another five miles to town. The city's 19th-century Main Street is a historic treasure, but it also offers some eclectic shopping, not all of it hijacked by high-end retail. When in doubt, eat lunch. Given its international winter crowd, this old silver mining town has some pretty good restaurants. Some you can even afford to eat in.

On most good weather days you can ride the town chairlift up the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort. You also can drive over to Deer Valley's Empire Canyon and ogle the $10 million ski-in, ski-out homes. On your way back to I-80 and Salt Lake City, reserve time for some serious shopping at the Tanger Factory Outlet Center in Kimball Junction. It's ranked as one of the best outlet malls in the country.


Ogden River Scenic Byway
130 miles, six hours

The extraordinary autumn colors of the Upper Ogden Valley are right out of a movie. Located just up the valley from the picturesque little city of Ogden, the 44-mile Ogden River Scenic Byway traverses the mile-high mountain hamlets of Eden, Huntsville and Liberty while skirting the Pineview Reservoir. The blazing orange and brilliant yellow leaves of the maples, oaks and aspens are rimmed by summits soaring to almost 10,000 feet.

The road trip really begins in Ogden, which is to Utah what the town of Boulder is to Colorado: an adrenaline-fueled playground and corporate center for extreme sports. Follow 1-15 north from Salt Lake City, then take Interstate 84 to Ogden. Follow 12th Street east to the mouth of the Ogden Canyon. Soon a dramatic 200-foot waterfall cascades into the Ogden River on the left side of the road. The eight-mile canyon gradually widens to showcase brilliant fall colors of oaks and maples contrasting against the gray granite and red rock walls.


View Salt Lake City to Ogden River Scenic Byway, Utah in a larger map


Now you're in the Upper Ogden Valley, a high-mountain, amphitheater-like setting with a scent-of-apples-down-orchard-roads feel and nothing but blue sky overhead. If you head south for a few miles on State Route 167, you will see Snowbasin Ski Resort, site of the downhill, combined, and super-G events in the 2002 Winter Olympics. So grand is the trip in and around the valley that finishing it brings regret.

A great lunch spot is Rooster's Brewing Co., on historic 25th Street in Ogden, where the most popular home brew is chocolate-flavored and the menu more than satisfies.


Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons
50 miles, 3 hours

Just east of downtown Salt Lake City, along the Wasatch Front, high serrated mountains line up in a row. In the late afternoon, the sun peels off the granite walls of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. The mountains' swooping descents are stepped down in cliff and talus from juniper-dotted plateaus. Even crimson-faced hikers well into a day of jaw-dropping views still look amazed. The ragged gorgeousness of it all is hard to take in.


View Salt Lake City to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, Utah in a larger map


There are two separate canyons here - Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons - both entered from Wasatch Boulevard, which is a zinger of a country road that dips along the lower Wasatch Mountains. The mouths of the two canyons are about five miles apart. Both canyon roads end at internationally known, state-of-the-sport ski resorts with bowls the size of the Sea of Tranquility. Brighton and Solitude resorts are in Big Cottonwood Canyon; Alta and Snowbird resorts are in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

This beautiful and echoing road trip is a look backward into geologic time. Sometimes travel begins when you stop moving forward. Across the pink and tan rock of the walls are fossil skeletons of the Paleozoic era. And the scenery is straight off a postcard: the golden summits, the sculptured rock faces, the sense of getting so much of the world in one big gulp. As you drive down from the canyons in the fading light and glimpse the city below, the sunset looks like the dawn of a new day.

Gerry Wingenbach
(Links updated 9/28/20, RTA)


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