The Best Things to Do in Salt Lake City and the Mountains

Temple Square still may be Salt Lake City’s symbolic and geographic heart, but an influx of new restaurants and shops brings some balance to the company town. A short drive away, the beautiful mountain towns and Wasatch slopes beckon skiers and hikers.

10010 Little Cottonwood Canyon Rd, Alta, UT 84092, USA
At the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, above the town of Sandy, Utah, the Alta Resort offers 2,200 skiable acres and an average of more than 550 inches of snowfall a year. While the steep slopes of the Wasatch mountains draw expert skiers, there is plenty of terrain for intermediate skiers and a number of programs within the ski school to get beginners and first-timers out and enjoying themselves. As for families, even those with little ones as young as two months old, day care is available all day long and into the early evening through Alta Children’s Center, and on Fridays and Saturdays until 6:30 p.m. with its Après-Ski Care. To get tykes skiing and on the slopes, Alta partners with the ski school.
1345 Lowell Ave, Park City, UT 84060, USA
Acquired by Vail Resorts in 2014 and combined with Canyons in 2015, Park City Mountain now boasts 7,300 skiable acres with 324 runs accessed by 41 lifts. That includes four gondolas and 32 chairlifts. Those lifts also provide access to eight terrain parks, including six half-pipes. There’s even a lift right from the middle of town. And the fun doesn’t end when the sun goes down, with night skiing on three runs open until 9 p.m. Child care is available, too, for babies as young as six weeks old, while two- to six-year-olds can add on the Ripperoo kids ski lesson. For experts, there’s great tree skiing and off-piste options to explore and enjoy.
8302 S Brighton Loop Rd, Brighton, UT 84121, USA
At the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, only 30 miles from downtown Salt Lake City, Brighton Resort hosts a humble-but-steep 1,050 acres of skiable terrain. Nestled in a beautiful bowl surrounded by Clayton Peak, Mount Wolverine, and the Honeycomb Cliffs, the no-frills ski area focuses on the business of what some think of as the local’s mountain. There are some accommodations and restaurants available. With access to incredible backcountry terrain, the resort offers single-ride lift tickets. But some would argue that with all the cliffs, chutes, and other natural features found within the ski area, dropping into the backcountry is hardly necessary.
301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City, UT 84108, USA
This museum on the campus of the University of Utah is home to more than 1.5 million artifacts that delve into the state’s rich history. From the American Indians who inhabited this land for centuries before any European explorer to the unique and fascinating geological features found in the area, the Natural History Museum of Utah helps contextualize it all. The museum was founded in 1969 and in 2011 was relocated to the Rio Tinto Center, a stunning new five-story building sheathed in locally mined copper. Permanent collections and visiting exhibits grace the halls, and there is a number of interactive activities. The museum is also home to various active research projects that fulfill its mission statement to “illuminate the natural world and the place of humans within it.”
209 E 500 S, Salt Lake City, UT 84111, USA
Affectionately referred to as “the Leo,” this museum explores the intersection of art and science—much like its namesake, Leonardo da Vinci, did. Located downtown in what was once the Salt Lake City Public Library, the Leo is always humming with activity. The programs offered, such as Lego League and the Fix It Clinic, are designed to appeal to families, and After Dark activities, such as trivia night, are meant for adults. The exhibits are constantly revolving, so even locals make regular visits to learn more about flight, science, perception, and more, including a number of hands-on exhibits. The staff at the Leo believes everyone has a hidden genius.
50 N Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84150, USA
There’s no denying the influence of the Mormon faith in Salt Lake City. In 1847, the then-president of the Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young, stood in the desert landscape of the Salt Valley and declared that this was the place where he and his people would build their temple. Once the city was surveyed, Temple Square measured 10 acres. Today the beautiful compound attracts 3 million to 5 million visitors a year. They come to see the intricate architecture and decor of the temple itself, stroll the manicured grounds, and enjoy the concerts and other events held there. (The square has two visitor centers to accommodate guests.) Over the holiday season, Temple Square is decorated with more than 100,000 lights.
210 E 400 S, Salt Lake City, UT 84111, USA
While the Salt Lake City Public Library system includes eight locations around the valley, downtown hosts what is clearly the flagship building: a six-story, 240,000-square-feet structure housing more than 500,000 books and other items available for checkout or browsing on site. The award-winning modernist building is the work of internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie, who has designed dozens of buildings around the world including the Skirball Cultural Center, in Los Angeles, and the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts. The library hosts a number of shops on the ground floor, which opens to plaza space above the walkway along a curved wall. There are ample seating spaces, including a ground-level amphitheater and a rooftop garden with a 360-degree view of the surrounding city, with the beautiful Wasatch mountain range to the east.
131 Main St, Salt Lake City, UT 84111, USA
Eccles Theater is a relative newcomer to Salt Lake City‘s cultural scene, one that has added a vibrant new space for the performing arts. Its opening in 2016 was the result of grassroots participation: The architects invited the public to sit down with them and help shape the kinds of performance spaces the community needed. The 2,500-seat Delta Performance hall hosts everything from Broadway musicals to concerts to spoken-word events; the 150-seat Regent Street Black Box was designed to be a blank canvas, easily adaptable to myriad uses; and the outdoor McCarthy Plaza hosts music, parties, and other events. There’s no need to pack a lunch or dinner—the in-house Encore Bistro is a key part of the experience.
13 N 400 W, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, USA
Tucked into the old Union Pacific Railroad building, the Depot is a fun, intimate 1,200-seat concert venue with an open floor plan and a second-story balcony that surrounds the main space below and provides great views onto the stage. There’s a plenty of room to dance as the spirit moves you, and if you need refreshments, there’s a bar on both floors. The Depot also rents out rooms for social gatherings, parties, and events, including areas with an elevated view into downtown Salt Lake City, perfect for hosting VIP-style private dinners. The Depot also manages the 7,225-square-foot Grand Hall, which was once the main room of the train station.
3419 Olympic Pkwy, Park City, UT 84098, USA
Salt Lake City made its first bid for the Winter Olympics in 1989 and persevered until it was chosen to host the Games in 2002. The city built a number of facilities required to accommodate such a massive event, including the existing light-rail and commuter-rail system. Venues are dotted around the city and up in the mountains, and many of them are still used to inspire and train Olympic hopefuls. A handful of these sites are open to visitors, such as Deer Valley Resort, Maverik Center, Soldier Hollow’s cross-country ski resort, Utah Olympic Oval, and Utah Olympic Park outside of Park City.
Antelope Island, Utah, USA
Just 40 miles northwest of downtown Salt Lake City, Antelope Island, in the Great Salt Lake itself, offers an alternative outdoor adventure, from the steep Wasatch Range that dominates the view to the east (and hoards most of SLC’s outdoor adventure seekers). Established as a state park in 1969, when the state purchased 2,000 acres on the north end of the island, the park now covers 28,000 acres—most of the island itself. There are more than 45 miles of hiking trails (no motorized vehicles allowed), and most of those are open to mountain biking and horseback riding, too. If you want to sleep out under the stars, there are four campgrounds with more than 50 sites to enjoy the wonders of a certified International Dark Sky Park.
Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA
While the waters of the massive Great Salt Lake are too salty to sustain anything more than algae, brine shrimp, and brine flies, the wetlands on its north and east shores are critical habitats for millions of migratory birds, making it a top-notch bird-watching destination. There are three state parks adjacent to the lake, including the Great Salt Lake Marina, where you can launch sailboats and kayaks. And if the water level is low enough, you’ll be able to see the famous Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long art installation made of salt-encrusted basalt slabs.
While there is a single 12.5-mile stretch of trail called the Wasatch Crest Trail, there are actually dozens of miles of additional paths connecting to it, allowing moutain-bike riders to choose their own adventure. The main trail itself runs roughly north to south, with a trailhead at one end of Mill Creek Canyon Road and the other at a switchback on Guardsman Pass Road between Solitude and Brighton. Side trails provide access down into Park City, Park City Mountain (including Canyons), and Deer Valley. There are a number of shuttle services that will help riders connect point-to-point rides, while the more ambitious can tackle the larger loop rides. Naturally, out-and-back rides are always an option.
Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Salt Lake City, UT 84103, USA
Looking at a map of this trail might cause a little bit of confusion considering the name, since the shoreline it follows is that of an ancient lake that covered most of what is now northwest Utah. Lake Bonneville, which was a freshwater lake, existed in its largest form around 14,500 years ago. Today, the Great Salt Lake is all that is left of the Pleistocene-era lake that was nearly the size of Lake Michigan. The trail that is being built along this long-ago shoreline is currently in segments totaling 100 miles, but there is a proposal to expand the trail into 280 continuous miles stretching south from the Idaho border to the town of Nephi, Utah.
515 UT-319, Heber City, UT 84032, USA
If you’re keen to get on the water but want to avoid the crusty salt that will cling to your boat if you go out on the Great Salt Lake, head to the east side of the Wasatch mountain range and hit the Jordanelle Reservoir. Just 40 miles from downtown Salt Lake City, Jordanelle offers five square miles of freshwater fun, including hiking, fishing, and camping. The Hailstone recreation area on the west side of the water is the prime area for day use, camping, and RVs, and also where you can find boat-launch ramps. On the southeast side is the quieter Rock Cliff, which is tucked in among the tall cottonwoods along the Upper Provo River. The campgrounds here are walk-in.
50 S Main St, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, USA
Spanning three city blocks in downtown Salt Lake City, the $1.5 billion commercial area opened in 2012 and blends high-end shopping with business offices, residential units, and tree-lined walkways centered on a simulated creek complete with fountains. The open-air architecture fills the walkways with natural light during the day and is well illuminated at night. A 15,000-square-foot retractable roof provides part of the area with some protection from precipitation. The mall includes more than 500,000 square feet of retail space anchored by a Nordstrom and Macy’s, and surrounded by more than 100 specialty shops.
602 E 500 S. Salt Lake City, UT, 84102
Nestled off the southeast corner of downtown, Trolley Square boasts a history that goes back to 1908, though the use of the land it sits on goes back even further to when it was the designated fairgrounds of the territory. While the streetcar trolley system was dismantled in 1945, the trolley barns remained and were converted into a shopping center in 1972. Today, under the iconic red water tower, the mall houses more than two dozen shops, as well as a museum that preserves the deep history of the area. After the state of Utah added Trolley Square to its own registry of historical sites in 1973, the National Register of Historic Places followed suit in 1996.
Alpine Loop Scenic Byway, Pleasant Grove, UT, USA
For a beautiful summer drive where you’ll find blissful pockets of outdoor beauty, head for this 20-mile byway south of Salt Lake City. The winding mountain road, which circumnavigates 11,750-foot Mount Timpanogos, offers access to miles and miles of day-hiking trails. The route, also called Highway 92, passes Timpanogos Cave National Monument (worth a stop for a ranger-led underground tour). Other recommended detours include Robert Redford’s Sundance Mountain Resort, and turnoff that leads to a quarter-mile boardwalk hike to Cascade Springs. The loop is open from Memorial Day until the first snow of fall.
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