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Scenic and Salty in Salt Lake City

From dinosaurs to drag racers, Salt Lake City is full of big, bold figures.

This Utah metropolis is most often noted for its religious roots, but its appeal extends into numerous areas of interest. The area is home to natural wonders such as the Great Salt Lake, Antelope Island and the Bonneville Salt Flats, as well as geological sites such as dinosaur fossils and copper mines. And echoes of the 2002 Winter Olympics still resound around the region, giving visitors a number of exciting activity options.

Church groups touring Salt Lake City can choose from a variety of itineraries that focus on different themes, or mix and match items to create a customized program. So whether your travelers want to float in the Great Salt Lake or try ski jumping at an Olympic facility, you have plenty of ways to give them big, bold experiences.


An Olympic Legacy

Salt Lake City’s elevation and topography make it a perennial hub of winter sports activity, and in 2002, the city welcomed the world to participate in the fun when it hosted the Winter Olympics.

Today, the area invites visitors to relive some of that Olympic glory. Groups can spend a full day touring Olympic sites around Salt Lake City and even try some high-adrenaline winter sports activity if they’re so inclined.

An Olympic tour of the area begins at the Olympic Cauldron Park on the University of Utah campus. This facility was the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic games, and today, its visitors center gives guests an overview of the 2002 games and their significance to Salt Lake City. The park also features the Hoberman Arch, where many of the event’s medal ceremonies took place, and the iconic towering cauldron where the Olympic flame burned during the festivities.

The next stop on the tour is Utah Olympic Park, the largest Olympic training facility in the country.

“The U.S. team still trains at the Olympic Park,” said Jessica Frederickson, tourism communications manager for Visit Salt Lake. “You might run into an Olympian while you’re there.”

A museum at the park has exhibits that detail the various sports of the winter games and the lives and training practices of the athletes who use the facilities there. After visiting the museum, groups can experience some of these sports for themselves, including a luge or bobsled ride accompanied by professional drivers.

“You can also try ski jumping into special pools with bubbles,” Frederickson said. “Anytime someone jumps in, they blow bubbles into the water from tubes in the pool to make the landing a lot softer. You wear skis, a wet suit and a helmet. They give you an orientation beforehand, and then you ride down the ramp and shoot off into the water.”

The Olympic tour ends at the Utah Olympic Oval, which hosted the speed skating and curling events during the games. Numerous records were set there, earning the facility the nickname “the fastest ice on earth.”

Groups can strap on skates and try the sports for themselves when they visit the Olympic Oval.

“You can take private group lessons and learn how to speed skate,” Frederickson said. “I’ve done it once, and it’s very hard.”

Groups can also take curling lessons to get a firsthand experience of this fascinating precision sport.


A Salty Experience

Many visitors to the Middle East make time during their tours to float in the Dead Sea, but you don’t have to go halfway around the world to experience a supersalinated body of water. The Great Salt Lake, for which Salt Lake City is named, offers natural wonders and wildlife-watching opportunities.

Located just northwest of downtown, the Great Salt Lake has nine islands and numerous opportunities for group exploration.

“Big groups can charter a sunset dinner cruise on the lake,” Frederickson said. “There is also sailing and kayaking, and a lot of rowing teams go out there.”

Sailing excursions give small groups an outing on the lake and an introduction to the science of traditional boat sailing. Various sailing outfits in the area offer cruises that range from two-hour sightseeing excursions to daylong experiences complete with music and fine meals.

Many groups also take ferries to Antelope Island, where a state park preserves beautiful, rocky terrain that is home to plenty of wildlife. Visitors often see free-range bison, mule deer, bighorn sheep and, of course, antelope. The lake itself is so salty that only brine shrimp live in it, but the air overhead is filled with hundreds of species of birds.

The park is also the site of the Historic Fielding Garr Ranch, where rangers offer guided tours. Groups can arrange for ranger-guided hikes on trails throughout the island park or have a barbecue lunch on the sandy shores.

The beaches at Antelope Island also offer an opportunity for travelers to swim in the lake. The concentration of salt in the water creates a high level of buoyancy, creating a sensation uncommon in most other bodies of water.

“You just float right on top of the water, and you feel weightless,” Frederickson said. “You don’t have to do anything to stay afloat. Then, when you get back on land, you feel so heavy.”


A Geological Tour

When dinosaurs roamed the earth, many of them made their homes in the area around Salt Lake City. The area has a rich fossil record, which is on display at several attractions around town.

For an overview of Utah’s geological wonders, start at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

“The museum is stunning — it was just rebuilt a few years ago,” Frederickson said. “They have lots of dinosaurs and fossils that were found in Utah. Utah is pretty hot in the geological world.”

The museum’s Past Worlds gallery has 30 skeletal dinosaur reconstructions on display, including the world’s only display of 14 horned dinosaur skulls. Curators recently unveiled an exhibit of a new species of tyrannosaurs called the Lythornax that was found in southern Utah.

Geological tours continue to Lehi, just outside Salt Lake City, where the Thanksgiving Point education and entertainment complex has numerous attractions for groups. Among the most interesting is the Museum of Ancient Life, which claims to have the world’s largest collection of dinosaurs on display.

Galleries at the Museum of Ancient Life house 60 complete dinosaur skeletons. Guests can also visit a working paleontology lab and watch as workers unearth and conserve dinosaur fossils.

Thanksgiving Point has several other museums, as well as attractions and events that appeal to a wide range of interests.

“They have a theater where they show informative movies,” Frederickson said. “They also have a golf course, and in the fall, they have a corn maze. In the spring, they do a tulip festival. There are also some cool shops that sell homemade taffy and Utah products.”

For more modern geology, head to Kennecott Copper Mine. This mine, also known as the Bingham Canyon Mine, is an open-pit mining operation that is one of the largest on earth and is said to be visible from space.

The mine’s previous visitors center was closed and is being rebuilt in a new location. When it is finished, guests will learn about the discovery of copper in the area, the history of the mine and the mining tools and techniques used in the past and today.


A Need for Speed

Auto enthusiasts will find several ways to enjoy themselves in and around Salt Lake City, including a visit to the fastest place on earth.

About 120 miles east of the city, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a 30,000-acre stretch of densely packed saltpan. Because of the vast expanse of open space and the perfect conditions of the salt, the area has earned the nickname Bonneville Speedway and is the site of numerous high-speed auto events every year.

“All kinds of races go on out there because it’s so fast,” Frederickson said. “They are always trying to break speed records for vehicles out there.”

The 300-, 400-, 500- and 600-mph land-speed records have all been broken at Bonneville. Groups can watch auto competitors attempt to set new records during a number of annual events that take place there, including Speed Week in mid-August and World of Speed in September.

An auto tour of Salt Lake City ends at Miller Motorsports Park, where speed lovers can get a taste of turbo for themselves. The park has a professional racetrack and plays host to numerous high-profile auto and motorcycle races throughout the year.

But the best opportunities for groups come when nobody is racing.

The park offers a number of experiences that get travelers out on the track themselves.

“You can rent sports cars and go out on the track with professional drivers,” Frederickson said. “They also have smaller vehicles, like go-karts, that you can race out there.”

For groups that enjoy friendly competition, the motor sports park can arrange a grand-prix-style racing tournament that gives everyone a chance to race karts around the track and then pits the fastest drivers against each other for a championship run.


Visit Salt Lake


Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.