One sunny day last summer, I jumped on my bicycle at a downtown Salt Lake City hotel and pedaled several blocks to the start of a trail that soon surrounded me in greenery, with the sounds of a babbling brook and signs warning of possible bears and cougars.
That type of access to nature in all seasons is a major attraction for many visitors.
"Outdoor recreation is huge here," said Shawn Stinson, a spokesman for Visit Salt Lake. "Salt Lake is one of those places that people may not be that familiar with, but once they get here, they love it."
Nestled along the Wasatch Mountains and the largest lake in the West, the city is a gateway to a giant outdoor playground with Instagram-ready vistas. Salt Lake was recently named the nation’s healthiest city and one of the country’s best places to live.
While Salt Lake retains a strong Mormon identity (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been based there since 1847), it’s more diverse than the rest of the state. Utah’s 3 million-strong population is about 63 percent Mormon, but Salt Lake County’s share is about 50 percent and Salt Lake City’s is even less.
Dallas resident Clarisa Lindenmeyer recently visited Salt Lake City for the first time with her family, but it won’t be their last. She was more interested in a direct flight and plenty of activities for small children than she was in the city’s religious heritage.
"There’s so much to do in winter and summer," Lindenmeyer said. "We fell in love with the city."
Visitors will see these signs at the top of City Creek Canyon Trail, where hikers can go from downtown Salt Lake City to "bear country."
The Salt Lake area is known for its ski resorts, but spring and summer are the most popular tourist seasons, Stinson said. Summer temperatures average in the 70s.
Eleven national parks and sites — including Dinosaur National Monument, Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park — and many state parks are within a four-hour drive of the city. But you don’t have to go that far; many outdoor activities are in the city or nearby.
The multi-use, paved City Creek Canyon Trail starts downtown at Memory Grove Park. It’s open to bicycles only on odd-numbered days. The trail gently climbs for about a mile along City Creek. You can continue up a steeper 6-mile section, with your reward being a swift, sweet descent.
Memory Park in downtown Salt Lake City serves as the entrance to City Creek Canyon Trail.
Also nearby is the popular 4-mile Living Room Trail, which starts near the Natural History Museum of Utah and really does live up to its name. After the hiking trail rises over 1,500 feet in elevation in just over a mile, you’ll reach "the Living Room," where sandstone slabs are arranged like chairs to offer a stunning view over Salt Lake City.
Can you visit Salt Lake City without going to the Great Salt Lake about 30 minutes away? You can swim — or float — in the lake from one of its beaches. Its high salinity will keep you from sinking.
The lake is a birdwatcher’s paradise, attracting 4 to 6 million birds each year as part of the Pacific Flyway between North and South America. More than 250 species of birds, including the white-faced ibis and snowy plover, eat and nest at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve along the lake’s eastern shore on Farmington Bay.
Ginger Brown, owner of R & G Horse and Wagon, leads horseback tours on Antelope Island overlooking the Great Salt Lake.
Another option to see birds and other wildlife is to explore the unspoiled 28,000-acre Antelope Island State Park, one of the lake’s 17 islands. Try it on horseback.
"We see bison, antelope, deer, all kinds of birds and big horn sheep, if we’re really lucky," said Ginger Brown, owner of R & G Horse and Wagon, who has led horseback trail rides in the park for 25 years.
Snowbird, a ski resort that’s a 40-minute drive to the southeast, has added all sorts of summer and fall activities to attract year-round visitors of all ages. Check out the gravity-fed mountain coaster and the Alpine Slide, a dual-track, 1,300-foot festival of twists, turns and tunnels. Such activities usually start in mid-June and end in mid-October.
To top off your visit, jump on Snowbird’s aerial tramway, which climbs 2,900 vertical feet to an 11,000-foot peak. You can hike at the top, but you may just want to soak up the panoramic view and take the tram both ways.
Sheryl Jean is a California-based freelance writer.