Big Sky Adventure: Salt Lake City

Community Highlights North America Big Sky Adventure: Salt Lake City

Ever since 2019 we’ve planned our winter vacation around a ski trip. Our first ski vacation was to Denver and Steamboat Springs. One of the things I’ll never forget about that trip was reading the first news reports about a strange pneumonia that was sweeping through the city of Wuhan, China. It seemed likely to be just another local epidemic being hyped up by the media, like swine flu or Ebola, but of course it proved to be much more than that. COVID meant there was no ski trip in 2020 but in 2021 we were back on the slopes in Vermont and we added a make-up trip to Utah in March. In the winter of 2022 we went to Quebec which was a great travel experience but a logistical headache for skiing. I knew for 2023 I wanted to stay in the USA and be out west where the snow is more reliable than the northeast, especially early in the season. Our other main criterion was a city with direct flights from Miami because domestic connections are very problematic here. That pretty much meant flying into Salt Lake City or Denver again. Denver and Colorado held very little for potential interesting travel experiences outside of skiing. I didn’t want to stay around SLC again even though the skiing is great because I really wanted to see new places. After a good deal of research I discovered Bridger Bowl outside of Bozeman, Montana. It was a long hike from SLC but I was able to take eleven days off work which meant we could make a nice loop with stops in Idaho and in Jackson, Wyoming.
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We scheduled an early evening departure from Miami the day after Christmas. This allowed me to fulfill my obligation of working overnight on Christmas and then sleep a few hours before getting prepared for the flight. The only negative was that we would arrive too late to eat at a restaurant. We got to the gate with plenty of time to spare. We don’t usually fly Delta and the boarding process was quite confusing. We didn’t get a seat assignment when I checked in online or when we dropped off our bags so I hung around the gate agent’s desk for half an hour until someone showed up. She told me I wouldn’t get a seat assignment until we boarded. Hmmm, so how would we know what group to board with? This question flummoxed the gate agent and after pondering it for a minute she decided she would assign us seats after all. These ended up being in the next to last row of the plane. I didn’t mind this much, even though I knew it would worsen the effect of turbulence, because my kids generally handle air travel pretty well. We boarded just ten minutes late but then sat on the tarmac for almost two hours, which the pilot blamed first on understaffing at the airport followed by a long queue to take off. The worst thing about it was the constant interruptions over the PA with rambling, unhelpful excuses that froze the kids entertainment for minutes at a time. This was the longest delay we’ve had for a while and it was further validation of our policy of avoiding flight connections if humanly possible.
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The flight was over five hours which seemed longer than I remembered to SLC. Despite at least a hundred movies being available there weren’t any that seemed clearly preferable to staring at a blank screen. I watched one about human trafficking in Southeast Asia that was brutally depressing and the first fifteen minutes of a Korean zombie movie that seemed completely redundant to the already excessive zombie canon. I filled up the remaining time with old Anthony Bourdain travelogues that also felt somewhat tired and repetitive. Had I ever liked them? I couldn’t remember. Thank God there was plenty to entertain the kids. The best thing about the flight was that my GPS tracker was working so I knew which cities we were flying over. Dallas was the most impressive, an almost endless forest of lights. As we approached SLC I saw a glowing church within a complex the size of a city block. I’m pretty sure it was Provo. Mormon temples are a breathtaking sight at night.
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After an interminable wait for the entire plane to exit ahead of us we finally staggered into the SLC airport. Mei Ling bought some sandwiches for the kids while I went ahead to retrieve the bags. They were among the last to emerge, but they were there. Being reunited with our bags is the first small victory of every journey. The rental car process was quick and smooth as it usually is in the USA. Our Airbnb was in a convenient location in downtown Salt Lake City but the neighborhood turned out to be a little sketchy. I picked up some water at the 7-11 on the corner and made small talk with the disheveled but jovial dude behind the counter. He told me the neighborhood had some “characters” but he didn’t think it was unsafe as the area a few blocks to the east. Reassuring. It was tough to figure out the house entry. I had the instructions for the keypad but there were two doors with keypads at the back of the house and two in front. The fourth door I tried turned out to be the correct one. The apartment was spartan and dated but it was clean and warm with comfortable bedding. It was one in the morning and we had to be out by ten. We processed the kids into bed and collapsed into our own immediately after. Travel days suck and that one had been a doozy.

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One pleasant side effect of getting older is that my sleep requirements have decreased substantially. On the rare occasions I have to set an alarm to wake up I don't feel much of a lasting effect from having my sleep interrupted. On Wednesday morning I woke up around seven thirty and had plenty of time to organize our belongings and pack before leaving the Airbnb. We stopped at the 7-11 to buy some water and lip balm as well as a couple of disposable razors, since the new blade I had brought with me inexplicably failed to attach to the handle. For breakfast we chose the Park Cafe, a very popular spot just south of Liberty Park. There was a short line outside and people were keeping themselves warm by a small fire that burned cheerfully atop a wine cask. We were allowed in after just a few minutes and were treated to an excellent and filling breakfast to commence our trip. The walls were decorated with vintage Star Wars posters in a variety of languages. The waitstaff was particularly upbeat in a very genuine way. It's always a good sign when our first meal of the journey is a winner.
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My plan was to spend the day in Salt Lake City before heading to Idaho in the evening, stopping in Ogden for their downtown Christmas lights. Finding new stuff do in SLC presented a bit of a challenge since we had already been here twice in the past three years. The first thing I had on my list was ice skating at the Gallivan Center downtown. I learned to ice skate as a kid but no one else in my family is comfortable on skates. We've tried it a couple of times in Boston and in Quebec and they improved somewhat but still got frustrated easily. I knew they wouldn't last long but I thought it would still be good to give them more experience. Driving north from the cafe towards downtown we were treated to the remarkable sight of the Utah State Capitol atop a hill directly in front of us, flanked on either side by downtown skyscrapers. Although SLC is a relatively small metropolis I've always found it to be one of the more visually striking American cities.
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We were due to arrive half an hour before the rink opened so when we passed by a interesting-looking bookstore a block from the Gallivan Center it was an easy decision to park and take a look. It turned out to be one of those classic used bookstores that I've almost forgotten existed after twenty years in Miami, a city where books are anathema. Despite its unassuming exterior appearance the store was quite deep and filled with countless shelves crammed with old paperbacks. Ian quickly found the science fiction section and I was amazed to find many of my childhood favorites from authors like Hal Clement and Larry Niven. Other items like old toys and typewriters were artfully stacked on every available surface to create the impression of place full of treasures waiting to be discovered. Ian and I could have spent the whole afternoon there but that probably wouldn't have been the best use of a day of travel. Eventually we made a few purchases and moved onward to the skating rink.
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The skate rental was quite cheap and we took to the ice. As I expected everyone felt quite awkward and it was hard to coax the kids away from the railings. Spenser and Mei Ling had enough fairly quickly but I managed to keep Cleo and Ian out there for almost an hour. Hopefully we'll keep at it at least once a year and eventually they'll take to it the same way they have to skiing.
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After the skating I had a surprise in store for Mei Ling. Although we never thought of Salt Lake City as having much of a Chinese community, my research had uncovered a place calling itself Chinatown Market. It didn't seem to be a real Chinatown but more of a Chinese commercial district like those we had encountered in other Western cities such as Denver and Las Vegas. The entrance to the parking lot was marked with a large and colorful Chinese gate that framed the imposing peaks of the Wasatch Range to the east. Inside the complex was a large Chinese supermarket that rivaled anything we had in South Florida and an impressive collection of Chinese restaurants including some very authentic appearing hot pot places. We stocked up on snacks and drinks for the drive to Idaho and Mei Ling and the kids had some pho at a Vietnamese restaurant.
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Science museums are always a good bet to entertain the kids for a few hours but Salt Lake Ctiy didn't seem to have a real one. The closest thing I could find was something called the Clark Planetarium, located within a large open-air downtown mall called Gateway Village. I hadn't realized it was free so I was somewhat confused when we walked straight through the lobby into the exhibits. The only thing that required payment was entry to the IMAX theater and of course the items in the well-stocked gift shop. I was immediately impressed by the quality of the displays which included a Foucault pendulum and numerous interactive exhibits that fascinated the kids. Two hours went by very quickly as we landed probes on a foreign planet, constructed multi-stage rockets, and programmed lunar rovers to push balls across rocky terrain. The gift shop gave me some good ideas for educational games I could buy for the kids once we got back home. I eventually relented and bought Cleo a T shirt she liked before we got back on the road.
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We're not huge on Christmas light displays but I thought Salt Lake City might have some good ones considering the area's reputation for religiousness. The most frequently mentioned display was the Christmas Village in Ogden which was on the route to our destination in Idaho that night. From Interstate 15 we had one final view of the State Capitol brightly illuminated against a snowy mountainous background.
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Ogden felt a lot colder than Salt Lake City even though it was only about forty miles north. It was probably something to do with the way the lake and the mountain ranges channeled the air currents. It was easy to find parking adjacent to the Christmas Village, which I thought was quite pretty and worthy of the stop considering we hadn't had to go much out of our way. There wasn't much to do besides look at the lights so we were on our way after less than an hour.
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I had forgotten that Ogden had some pretty good Japanese restaurants. Once we were done with the Christmas Village I made a few calls but none of them had a table available for at least an hour. The next best thing I could find was a Thai restaurant that people seemed to like but it turned out to be average at best. I'm always surprised at how good the reviews are for decidedly mediocre Thai restaurants in rural America and even major cities without large Asian populations. I think Thai food is best left for NYC and LA and of course Thailand. After dinner we had a two hour drive in the dark up to Lava Hot Springs in Idaho. Entering Lava Hot Springs felt a little surreal. The little town was brightly illuminated despite the late hour and the shadowy, snow-dusted mass of Lava Mountain looked close enough to be sitting on the main street. There were orange orbs suspended on the telephone wire that stretched over the main road into town, giving the impression of enormous ringed planets floating in the winter sky. On the town's deserted main street colorful strings of Christmas lights spiraled around the street lamps, giving them the appearance of glowing candy canes.
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The Alpaca Inn was laid out in a motel style so we were able to enter via a keypad instead of having to check in at reception. We liked the place immediately. It had beds and a couch for the kids to sleep on in the living room and a separate bedroom for us. There was a kitchenette with a full size refrigerator that we wouldn't be needing, plenty of ski chalet-type decoration, and tons of pillows and warm blankets. The high reviews that had brought us there were well-deserved and we appreciated the cost savings from having their staff off site in the later hours.
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Unlike in Salt Lake City there was real snow on the ground here which is a big deal for our Miami kids. As jaded northerners, Mei Ling and I had forgotten how to savor the crunch of week-old snow under our boots but the kids felt no such limitation. In the morning it took us quite a while to walk one block over to Main Street where most of the town's businesses and restaurants could be found. The stores were still closed but there were two breakfast places open for business. We chose the Chuck Wagon which provided a very warm and filling breakfast in a perfect small town atmosphere.
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The only real reason to visit Lava Hot Springs in winter is the thermal spring that gave the town its name. The reasonably-priced facility offers five outdoor pools that range from 102 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit. I didn't have enough hot spring experience to know how that would feel so we started out in the lowest temperature and moved our way up. Only Ian and I made it to 112 but I didn't find it uncomfortable as long as we acclimated gradually. One thing that surprised me was that I was expecting to feel miserably cold moving between pools but that wasn't the case at all. The springs warm the skin to such an extent that we didn't feel the bitter cold outside for several minutes after leaving the water.
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Even though the hot springs were more pleasurable and relaxing than I had expected, I was itching to get back on the road after an hour and a half. We drove on US 30 east and soon were passing through a breathtaking landscape of rolling, snowy hills that were often shrouded in mist. The sky was filled with wispy and cottony clouds that hovered at several different levels above the ground. Fortunately Mei Ling was awake to take some of the most memorable pictures of the day from the window of the car.
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Before embarking on the day's drive I had scanned our route on Google Maps for the telltale icons indicating a tourist attraction or landmark. All I had found was the "World's Largest Elkhorn Arch" in Afton, Wyoming so we switched on to 89 North at Montpelier. There was no sign to mark the crossing into Wyoming but the kids were engrossed in their books anyway. Once we reached Afton there wasn't much chance of missing the arch. It spanned the four lane state highway as it passed through the center of town and was quite a beautiful structure. Someone unfamiliar with the Cervidae might instinctively mourn for thousands of elk that had met an untimely end, presumably at the hands of ruthless hunters eager for trophies. In actuality elk shed their horns every spring and the three thousand or so specimens that comprised the arch had been collected by Boy Scouts from the surrounding area.
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As in Lava Hot Springs most of the businesses in town were on one main street, in this case State Route 89. Within Afton it was called Washington Street. We had lunch in a Mexican restaurant right next to the arch and then took a stroll down Washington Street. We found another beautiful bookstore selling a mixture of new and second-hand volumes and I picked up a copy of the Prince and the Pauper for Cleo. It's funny how I completely forget about these classic works for teenagers until I randomly come across them somewhere. Like the bookstore in Salt Lake City the shelves and countertops were filled with little antiques and other miscellaneous items. I wondered how many perfect little bookstores were hiding in plain sight here in the mountain states, considering we had randomly come across two in two days.
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I was quite pleased with Afton considering I had no right to expect anything interesting at all in this sparsely populated region. It was a nice validation of my practice of studying our driving routes to make sure we don't pass by anything interesting between our planned stops. From here there would be just over another hour of driving to Jackson.

This featured blog entry was written by zzlangerhans from the blog Fledgling Explorers.
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By zzlangerhans

Posted Mon, Mar 18, 2024 | USA | Comments