As I stand on a balcony of the 21st floor of Salt Lake City's Grand America Hotel, I am nearly eye level with the 22-karat gold leaf Angel Moroni. Lips pressed to his trumpet, Moroni rises from the highest spire of the Mormon Temple, Salt Lake's compass rose, a few blocks to my north. We share a heavenly view east, the biblical direction from which the Second Coming is anticipated.
I'm contemplating past comings and how my enduring enchantment with Utah's state capital is the collateral reward of a star-crossed romance (blame its demise on my Aquarius rising). From my perch, I can take in the topography that won my heart—the Wasatch Range flanking the city's east with craggy peaks over 11,000 feet high. It's their negative space I came for first. The serpentine canyons—East, Emigration, Millcreek, Little Cottonwood—were where Stephen (a homegrown Utahan) and I pedaled arduous miles, training for triathlons.
You could say that the mix of endorphins and libido was a potent cocktail, guaranteed to cast a spell on anyone. Indeed, even after he and I moved back to San Francisco and our relationship coasted downhill, I continued to make visits to Salt Lake City. The same unlikely combination of attributes that attracted me to him—a rugged physique and an artist's sensibility—brings me back repeatedly to this high valley town majestically bounded by desert and raw mountain.
I've returned in fall to hike alpine trails lit with golden aspens and scarlet maples; in winter to play in the fabled powder of ski resorts minutes from downtown; and in summer to hear Taj Mahal alfresco in Red Butte Garden. I've sped across Nevada's Great Basin desert, the homestretch sparkling with the tidal flats of the Great Salt Lake, to cycle Parley's Canyon to Park City or to attend my first rodeo in nearby Oakley.
My most recent trip is, like many past ones, part walk down memory lane, part discovery. The Winter Games are the buzz and even from this balcony I can see into Olympic Stadium at the University of Utah. (The most oft-repeated news is that the state's liquor laws may relax during the Games.)
Driving the light-struck boulevards—built wide enough for ox-drawn wagons to make U-turns—I find old haunts with mostly friendly ghosts: the Cathedral of the Madeleine with its Gothic interior and Venetian mosaics; State Street with an ever-commanding view up to the flower-laden grounds of the Corinthian capitol; Liberty Park with its Tracy Aviary; and the Salt Lake Roasting Company, an old bohemian hangout where a strong cup of joe could dull the edge of any quarrel.
Returning to the scene of halcyon days, I rediscover the architectural charms of the Avenues district, where I lived that starry-eyed year (1986-87) on, fittingly, L Street. I drive up those steeply terraced streets—we used to run up them—to City Creek Canyon, a startling transition to wilderness. The oaks, elders, and cottonwoods still afford a fine place to chill out.
Old friends are willing on short notice to discover something new with me. At dusk, Larry and I hike up above the Avenues to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. The trail will eventually reach 100 miles, spanning the foothills of the Wasatch Front, from Spanish Fork to Ogden. It follows the preserved shoreline of ancient Lake Bonneville, which dropped catastrophically about 14,500 years ago. On the hill below, Larry points to a log-and-stone mansion, home of Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone. South across the city that sprouted in Bonneville's wake, I point to an old conquest—9,026-foot Mount Olympus.
Despite what you might expect from this predominantly Nordic population, you can find every cuisine here, from Tibetan to Afghan, German to Greek. (I know this from once researching articles on Salt Lake's food scene for local newspapers.) Years after first discovering them, I can still highly recommend the Market Street Grill, Oyster Bar, New Yorker, and Baci, all part of Gastronomy, Inc., a chain that serves good, fresh renditions of seafood, meat, and poultry in chic settings.
New gems we savor include Log Haven, a 1920 pine log cabin with fireplaces, four miles up Millcreek Canyon. In 1998, Bon Appétit magazine named its owner, David Jones, the city's top chef. On the mere strength of his green tea-smoked duck with forbidden black rice cake, I would concur. Chef Scott Blackerby at Bambara in downtown's Hotel Monaco (where pets are welcome to overnight with their people) also conjures up fine "new American" cuisine, including a tender buffalo steak. And you'll need a local's help to find Lugano, way out in a neighborhood, but it's worth the effort for its fresh hand-rolled pasta and other delicious Italian fare.
A stroll through the Saturday farmers' market in Pioneer Park reminds me that Salt Lake, as much a university town as world headquarters for the 11 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is many things. "Salt Lake is unique," says Mayor Rocky Anderson, whom I find chatting with his constituency beyond the fruit stands, flowers, art, and guitar-slung musicians. "As a resort city with access to every outdoor sport," he says, "it has great restaurants, an opera, symphony, theater, and ballet." (The late Willam Christensen, founder of Salt Lake's Ballet West, was cofounder of the San Francisco Ballet.) "You can hear jazz every night of the week," Anderson continues. The free City Weekly's listings bear him out, revealing that I could catch jazz legend Ahmad Jamal as well as great performers such as Paul Winter, George Carlin, and Marcel Marceau. The affable mayor also notes that the city's gays, who once kept a low profile at nearby Stonewall (now called the Gay and Lesbian Community Center), feel at ease these days.
"The alternative is really alternative here," a young man who works for the city's public radio station tells me. He leaves his meaning to my imagination. I think of the slogans of community radio KRCL—"Behind the Zion curtain" and "Radio free Utah"—that playfully ritualize being part of Salt Lake's "other" culture. I decide he means that anyone who strays from the Donny-and-Marie paradigm is really far-out.
The evening's agenda seems to support this as Larry and I peruse downtown's entertainment scene. We stop by Club Manhattan, Dead Goat Saloon, Lazy Moon, the Bull and Bear (D.B. Cooper's, in my day), and the Zephyr Club. It's this last club that packs in the crowds with a hilarious, if hackneyed, El Vez, a Mexican American Elvis impressionist.
But the smoke drives us away. I'd rather be back among the Mormon conventioneers at my palatial hotel. Of late I have more in common with these early-to-bed folks. While I may never embrace their taboos on coffee and wine, I'm sure we could see eye-to-eye on the wholesome thing that first brought me to their city.
This is still the place
Whether or not your trip to Salt Lake City coincides with the 2002 Winter Olympics, the following attractions in or near the city are not to be missed. Our "Beehive Five"—a temple, a national monument, a ski slope, an island state park, and award-winning gardens— provide a visually delightful look at an extraordinary land and its people.
1. Antelope Island
The mountains flanking Salt Lake City provide the lion's share of spectacular scenery along the Wasatch Front, but no visit here would be complete without a look at another major geographic feature, the Great Salt Lake. One of the best ways to experience the lake is to drive right through it. That's what it feels like on the seven-mile-long causeway to antelope island state park, largest of the lake's eight islands. The park's 75 square miles of grasslands, marshes, and rocky slopes are a birder's paradise and home to antelope, deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and a herd of bison that roams the island freely. One thing a visitor must do here, says ranger aid Martha Ann Albretsen, is walk in the beach's oolitic sand. "Unlike ocean sand, it's made like pearls," she says. Mineral deposits build around debris—brine shrimp waste, say—to form the smooth sand grains. Information: (801) 773 2941, www.utah.com.
2. Timpanogos Cave National Monument
An 11,750-foot peak caps a magnificent multichambered womb of living flowstone in timpanogos cave national monument. Three caverns are connected by tunnels and are very intimate, says ranger Suzanne Flory. "The formations, 43 kinds of dripstone, are right there, from basic stalactite columns to helictites [limestone curlicues]," she says. The ivory and alabaster frostwork reminds Flory of Dairy Queen ice cream. The powerful forces of uplift laid the groundwork for these subterranean galleries, but water is the chief architect of the fanciful stone imagery. Getting to the caves is part of the adventure: It requires a steep 1.5-mile hike—with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet—up the north slope of Mount Timpanogos in American Fork Canyon. Breathtaking views are part of the payoff. Information: (801) 756-5238,www.nps.gov/tica/.
3. Alta Ski Resort
Alta Ski Resort opened in 1940 and is the country's second oldest ski resort (after Sun Valley, Idaho). It will not host any 2002 Olympic events. Good thing. The Games might be an unwelcome distraction to this mountain's loyal adherents who bristle when anything changes at their gloriously time-warped Alta. The resort owes its lack of pretension to Alta Lodge owner Bill Levitt, who has been mayor of Alta since 1972. Levitt vehemently opposes the "urbanization of ski areas," which explains how this down-to-earth mountain resort has avoided surrendering to glitz. Until recently, Alta, a serious skier's mountain, had no high-speed quad chairlift and it still has no tram. And no snowboarding. For these, go down the canyon a mile to Snowbird, which, with tram, quads, and many upscale amenities, is a world apart. Information: Alta Lodge, (800) 707-2582,www.altalodge.com. General information on Alta: (888) 782-9528, www.altaskiarea.com.
4. Red Butte Garden
Almost hidden behind the University of Utah is red butte garden, an ecological center with more than 150 acres of gardens laced with paths and hiking trails. Its arboretum boasts more than 9,000 specimens of trees and shrubs from around the globe. Red Butte is unusual in the way that its artfully landscaped gardens weave with natural habitat. Aromatics, perennials, medicinals, and ornamentals thrive side by side with wild grasses, meadows, and native wildflowers. Trails take you up the Wasatch foothills beneath sandstone outcroppings with stunning views to Salt Lake City. With its fountains, amphitheater, stone decor, and sculpture—including a life-size moose—Red Butte has earned its recent award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. Information: (801) 581-4747, www.redbuttegarden.org.
5. The Temple of Jesus Christ of latter-day saints
Evening lights lend the mormon temple a celestial glow. Temple Square, in the heart of Salt Lake City, is the most hallowed 10-acre parcel in the Mormon world. The temple no longer dominates the city's skyline in height but it still looms large in the local culture. Fortresslike in design, it was built of granite hauled out of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Pioneer Mormons, having been forced to abandon their previous temple in Illinois, wanted this one with its stone blocks weighing up to 5,600 pounds to stand defiant against further persecution. Only practicing Mormons may enter the temple. It's used mainly for weddings, baptisms for the dead, and other family blessings. Information: (801) 240-2535,www.lds.org.
Photography by Jason Mathis; courtesy of Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau
This article was first published in January 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Utah Travel Council, (801) 538-1030; Grand America Hotel, (801) 258-6000; Log Haven, (801) 272-8255; Bambara/Hotel Monaco, (801) 363-5454; Lugano, (801) 412-9994; Market Street Grill, Oyster Bar, New Yorker, Baci, (801) 322-2020; Salt Lake Roasting Company, (800) 748-4887; Bonneville Shoreline Trail,www.bonnevilleshorelinetrail.org. For Salt Lake's entertainment scene and the city's many attractions, lodgings, and restaurants, visitwww.utah.citysearch.com; locally, pick up the free City Weekly.
Photography by Jason Mathis; courtesy of Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau