Salt Lake City, Utah

All trips have to come to an end eventually. We were approaching the terminus of this vacation, which would involve spending two days in Salt Lake City before flying back to Baltimore. This was a logical place to visit as one of the few cities of any size in this part of the country; Boise, Idaho was the only other option and it was quite a bit smaller in population. We planned to see some of the major attractions in Salt Lake City during our short visit, starting with the Temple Square in the downtown and then heading further afield to check out some of the Olympic venues from the 2002 games. While Salt Lake City may have lacked the natural splendor of some of the national parks that we had visited, it was a fitting way to cap off this trip.

The drive from Jackson, Wyoming down to Salt Lake City took up the better part of one day. We weren't in a huge rush and took our time on this drive, which led us through some truly microscopic little towns before reaching Interstate 15. We briefly passed through the southeastern corner of Idaho as part of this trip, allowing me to claim it as another state that I'd (barely) managed to visit in person. Between Idaho and the sliver of Montana where the town of West Yellowstone was located, I was barely meeting the requirement to say that I had set foot in these states. We stopped to eat a late lunch when we reached the northern suburbs of Salt Lake City, and managed to catch the overtime of the Women's World Cup taking place. The United States lost a heartbreaking game to Japan in which they dominated the run of play but lost in the penalty shootout that followed overtime. The American team had even scored first in overtime only to give up an equalizer and then lose in the shootout. Absolutely gut-wrenching for the players. Fortunately, many of them were on the same team in 2015 when they won the subsequent World Cup that took place in Canada in what became a redemption story.

We dropped my brother off at the airport since he needed to return back to Chicago for work, and then headed to downtown Salt Lake City to see some of the sights. The most famous of these is Temple Square, the complex owned by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the group more colloquially referred to as the Mormons. This is the central headquarters of their faith and the spot where the initial Mormon leadership founded the city of Salt Lake in 1847. It was a desolate wilderness at the time after the Mormons were repeatedly chased away from more populous areas in the eastern United States, and over time they took an empty desert and made a city out of it. The featured building is the Salt Lake Temple, essentially the main cathedral for the Mormon faith. This beautiful building is the largest Mormon temple in the world and it took over four decades to build during the course of the late 19th century. The temple is used for both religious and administrative functions by the leadership of the Latter-day Saints. It is considered holy ground and non-Mormons are not allowed to enter the building without something known as a "temple recommend", which involves a lengthy process of interviews. As a result, while Temple Square is a popular tourist attraction, the only way that anyone gets to see the interior of the Salt Lake Temple is via this little diorama in the visitor center.

Outside of the Salt Lake Temple, the other buildings in Temple Square are open to the public and welcoming to tourists. There's a decent-sized museum that takes visitors through the history of the Latter-day Saints since their founding by Joseph Smith in the 1830s. This museum understandably has a heavy emphasis on Christian doctrine, with numerous exhibits discussing Biblical events and providing accompanying displays. I'm not a particularly religious individual, and the museum tended to take literal interpretations of many Biblical passages that I would contend should be better understood allegorically. I will say that I enjoyed seeing the model version of the city of Jerusalem from 33 AD, that was a neat display. Other parts of the museum focused specifically on events from the Book of Mormon, which is not recognized by other Christian doctrines. The sections that discuss Christ appearing to the Native Americans a thousand years before the arrival of Columbus are, well, unique to say the least. On the whole, the Mormons are much more socially conservative than I am, but I do appreciate their willingness to accept anyone into their church regardless of background, and the wonderful charitable work that they do around the world. I admire them for their good deeds even if I don't necessarily support all of their politics.

Other buildings in Temple Square include the domed hall of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was built in the 1860s to house meetings for the LDS church, and was the location of the church's semi-annual general conference for 132 years before eventually being replaced by a much larger convention center in 2000. This is not an especially large building and I can see why the Mormon organizers needed to move their events to a larger venue. Today the Salt Lake Tabernacle is better known for housing the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir who routinely perform at religious and orchestral events. My only pictures from the interior of this building are unfortunately a bit on the blurry side.

A short distance away is the stately Assembly Hall building, the one with all of the pointed steeples and the Star of David designs in the windows. Assembly Hall was built at the same time as the Salt Lake Temple during the 1870s; it started after the Temple but was finished construction sooner due to its smaller size. Like the Salt Lake Temple, this building was designed in a Victorian Gothic style that was popular at the time. Assembly Hall seems to be used to host smaller events that don't require the larger size of the Temple - and of course it helps that non-Mormons can actually enter this building. The interior was a bit on the bland side and didn't live up to the striking exterior.

After finishing up with our stroll around Temple Square, we returned to our rental car and drove about a mile to the eastern edge of Salt Lake City. We were heading to the campus of the University of Utah, and specifically to Rice-Eccles Stadium to view some of the sports pagentry on display. The university was proudly displaying the banners from their two recent undefeated football seasons, neither of which had managed to put them in the BCS national championship game. (It's too bad that college football didn't have a playoff system at the time which would have surely included these Utes teams.) More importantly for our purposes, the university's football stadium was used to host the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City. We could see the tower where the Olympic flame had been housed and there were lots of signs of the Olympic athletes and "Salt Lake 2002" plastered all over the plaza. I was an undergraduate at the time of these Olympics and I remember thinking about how bizarre that semester must have been for the Utah students. Their dorm rooms were being used to house the Olympic athletes and their campus stadium had been taken over to host the ceremonies. I think the whole university just shut down for the three weeks that the Olympics were taking place.

Rice-Eccles Stadium was the last location that we visited on our first day in Salt Lake City, but it wasn't the last place that we encountered Olympic contraptions. We drove the next morning to the town of Park City, Utah, located roughly half an hour to the east of Salt Lake City. This was where the Utah Olympic Park was located, the place where many of the events took place in 2002. Following the completion of the Olympics, the area was turned into an Olympic training complex where American athletes practice their craft in anticipation of future games. Almost immediately after leaving the parking lot we came across this swimming pool where skiiers were practicing jumps. They were training for the "aerials" event, a lesser-known competition that happens to be my favorite at the winter games. The skiiers were sliding down the ramp and then doing some kind of acrobatic maneuver before landing in the pool below. This was the kiddie version of the jump, with the actual aerials ramp being the steep one with the "Utah Olympic Park" sign hanging off it. It makes a lot of sense for newcomers to this event to start training at a lesser height, and to practice with a pool instead of the hard ground for when they make mistakes. We spent a while here watching a succession of skiiers jump into the pool, and I probably could have stayed here for several hours.

Park City was the home to the bobsled, luge, and skeleton events at the 2002 Olympics on this track. It remains in use today for American athletes who train in these events, and one of the things that we learned is that these tracks are very rare indeed. You can imagine that there aren't many places where someone has constructed a mile-long bobsled track for fun; I'm not sure how much commercial value something like that would have. In fact, there are only two of these tracks in the whole United States, one here in Park City and another one in Lake Placid, New York, leftover from when it hosted the Olympics. Anyone who wants to become a professional luger (if there is such a thing) likely has to live near one of these two towns.

It's the same story for anyone specializing in ski jumping, as the only two full sized ski jumps in the USA are in Park City and Lake Placid. This event has always fascinated me as it doesn't seem possible that anyone can leap into the air off one of these massive ramps without killing themselves. I mean, look at the view from up at the top of this ski jump. It seems totally crazy that someone could go down that ramp - on skis! - and fly 100 meters through the air before touching down at the bottom safely. Ski jumpers are some combination of incredibly brave and incredibly stupid. Anyway, we left the Olympic Park after a few hours and had a nice lunch in the town of Park City. This is an expensive resort town when the Olympics aren't taking place, catering to skiiers who come from far and wide to tackle the slopes. There are plenty of expensive shops and restaurants to cater to the upscale crowds that arrive each year. This is a place where the typical seasonal patterns are reversed: winter is the busy time and summer is the sleepy period.

We drove in the afternoon to Antelope Island, the largest island in the Great Salt Lake and the home of a wildlife preserve. Antelope Island is reached via a lengthy causeway that runs out across the shallow waters of Farmington Bay. The island itself has a semi-arid climate where few trees are able to grow, with most of the vegetation consisting of short, tough grasses. The island famously supports a herd of roughly 500 bison and it's supposed to be a paradise for bird watchers as several dozen species make their homes in this secluded area. The whole island is a state park and there are no people who live on Antelope Island, only temporary campers at the designated sites. This was one of those places that was beautiful in a stark and rugged way.

We spent some time driving on the roads in the park after stopping briefly at the visitor center near the entrance. It was quite hot on Antelope Island and we weren't too interested in going for a hike. Eventually we made our way to one of the beaches at the spot known as White Rock Bay. There were a handful of other people here wading in the waters of the Great Salt Lake, and we strolled out to join them. The water here was very shallow, allowing anyone to walk a long distance out into the lake without the water rising much above their ankles. Unlike the many chill mountain lakes that we had been visiting on this trip, the Great Salt Lake was warm to the touch. The water inside is too salty for fish to live in the lake, but there were lots of insects buzzing around the lake's shores, and that explained why there were so many birds present to feast on them. The water was clear and I could see straight through to my foot at the bottom.

Antelope Island was the last place that we visited before heading to the airport and returning home. I felt as though the desolate, mostly empty island captured the spirit of this trip in many ways. We had spent nearly all of our time visiting some of the splendors of the natural environment, different kinds of mountains and caves and forests and hot springs. This was one of the few trips that I've written about where I barely discussed any cities at all. Outside of Salt Lake City, we hadn't stopped anywhere larger than Rapid City, South Dakota on this adventure. This was a trip that sent our family back to nature. It was a truly wonderful experience and a great way to spend time together before we split up to return home. I hope that you also enjoyed this trip through the Western Rockies portion of the United States. As always, thanks for reading.