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Friday, July 18, 2014

Beyond Temple Square - A Field Trip Guide to the Salt Lake City Area

This summer we've found ourselves with a lot of time to kill in downtown Salt Lake. Lucky for us, there is A TON of FUN stuff to do there that doesn't cost a lot of money. If you are looking for a fun city stay-cation, OR feel at a loss of what else to do in Salt Lake City that isn't Temple Square (the obvious and traditional go-to hot-spot), bookmark this page, complete with links for more info and directions, for a quick reference. And enjoy all the great learning on the go! (17 destinations reviewed below. Wow!)

Note: ALL of these destinations were enjoyed with my 3 youngest kids, ages 7, 4, and 2. (My oldest came to a few too, but mostly we went on these to kill time while he was in class.) Hence, the brief time suggestions and notes about cool elevators, etc. ;)

Destination: This Is the Place
Time: Open year round - we went early summer and in the morning, stayed for apx 3 hrs
Cost: $11 adults, $8 children age 3-11
Review: This is one of our family favorites. In fact, we volunteered here over 5 years ago, and if you LOVE it too and want to be a pioneer when you grow up, consider volunteering. (In fact, you can SEE me and my big two from our volunteering days on their website - click the link above. Me and my oldest girl are the first picture displayed on their "Jobs and Volunteers" tab, the volunteer page. The second picture if you click the right arrow on the picture itself, is my big boy when he was 4!) Anyway, there are a lot of fun things to do and see - big train rides, little train rides, pony rides, a splash pad, panning for gold, crafts, a petting corral, and mini village play area. We left after 3 hours only because we had somewhere to be. To maximize learning, ask a lot of questions of anyone dressed as a pioneer. They know a lot, but often don't dump info on you - which is nice if you have wiggly kids who want to get to the next thing, but too bad if you are shy or not sure what to ask. More is up and staffed in the summer, but the Candlelight Christmas is also a delight. Note: for free you can check out the monuments outside the park - call it a hike and take it all in!

Destination: State Capitol Building and the Ensign Peak hike
Time: Ensign Peak NOT open in Winter; we did the hike in the morning and capitol in the afternoon in the summer - total 3 hours
Cost: FREE
Review: There are a lot of cool/pretty things to see in the State Capitol building - great murals, busts of historically significant people, painting of Utah's governors. And it seems things are geared up for visitors during the summer. We liked the retro elevators, but my 2, 4, and 7 year olds are into elevators.... If you do the official free tour you get into a few more places than showing yourself around, but we just tried a lot of doors and found enough to interest us. Pop your head into the governors office for sure. I'd like to come back when our state legislature is in session, but I'll have to wait for older kids! (When I do, we're eating in the cafeteria in the House Building behind the main capitol building - just to see who we can see and take in the governmental air! :) Also, the grounds are lovely so be sure to stroll around the outside of the building too!
             Info on the Ensign Peak hike usually describes the hike as easy. I think that is because it is short. But it is fairly steep if you aren't in shape, or are carrying heavier little people. (I carried my 2 year old, but he is a feather-weight.) If you have crazy runners, there are some steep drop offs to mind. But the views are fantastic! Plan this hike taking a good hour if your kids can keep a good pace. If they go slow or like to rest, it will take more. Also, there are no near-by restrooms (at least not when we were there that were open) but there is a nice mini-park directly across from the trail-head. It seems under-used, but is quite lovely - a great spot to rest and enjoy a snack in the shade.
(Note: for a more temperate hike, and with a parking spot on the east side of the State Capitol, you can enjoy Memory Grove. See review below.)

Time: Gardens open May - September - 2 hrs for your first time; Welfare Square - 1 hr tour
Cost: FREE
Review: I grouped these two because they are within 3 blocks of each other, and share the theme of people around the world. The gardens are one of my family's favorite spots.
They are beautiful and a bit undiscovered so you may have the place all to yourselves! We love wandering and playing around the Little Mermaid, the Viking mound and the Chinese and Canadian area, but for your first time, try to make a full loop and see and learn more about all the countries represented. Not to be missed is the Matterhorn in Switzerland and the garden of Japan. (Bathrooms are in another part of the park, not the gardens themselves, so plan enough time to walk to them, should the need arise, or have all the kids go before you enter the gardens.)
          The chocolate milk at Welfare Square is some of the best I've had, EVER! You can sample it and the cheese the LDS church produces at the end of an hour tour of Welfare Square. The tour is guided by sister missionaries who have never worked at Welfare Square so sadly, their knowledge is limited to the script. And the script feels a bit forced at times, so it's more full of a churchy message than cool tidbits about the LDS church's humanitarian efforts. But you leave with an impression of the importance of taking care of our neighbors, by which the church means all the people of the world, and it is an awesome undertaking! Definitely worth the time spent to go once! (Tours start every hour on the hour from 10-3, but more is actively in production in the morning so there is more to see the earlier you go.)

Destination: City Capitol Building and Salt Lake City Downtown Library
Time: 2-3 hours - while both are open year-round, official tours of the City Building run during the summer on Mondays at 12pm and 1pm 
Cost: FREE
Review: Once again, I grouped these because they are across the street from on another and both very cool looking buildings! In fact, if you go THIS summer (2014) you can get FREE lunch for your kiddos by showing up at the library between 11am and 1pm. It's part of a state program, so if you are interested, you just head down the stairs in the main atrium/lobby of the library and the food is passed out near the base of the elevators. (Adults may purchase a meal for $2.50 cash.)
         The library was one of my 7 year old's favorite spots. And, as I mentioned above, my kids LOVE elevators, so these are worth riding! They are encased in glass, all except the floor, so not only can you look out, but you can look up too, and you can observe the workings of the elevator as it moves. The children's area is gorgeous with a fun attic and ice cave to enjoy reading in. We also took the elevator to the roof, which was a lot of fun, and you can picnic up there and walk down the outside of the building. Also on the fifth floor is a window outside of which are two beehives you can look into and see the honey comb with live bees hard at work. My 4 year old thought this was awesome! And with any library, there is always something going on, which is why the link above takes you to the events page.
          Anyway, the City Capitol Building is directly west of the library, and if your kids are anything like mine, they will want to check it out. My girls thought it was a castle. On the official tour you get to see the catwalk and how the entire building sits on giant springs to make it earthquake safe. But once again, we just walked around and found plenty to be interested in including portraits of all the Mayors of Salt Lake City. A sweet intern in the mayors office hooked us up with key chain flashlights, which then became the best part of the day. (How do my children develop such a love of cheap swag?)

Destination: The Living Planet Aquarium (and Scheels)
Time: WE spent 1 hr and 15 minutes at the Aquarium  
Cost: almost $16 for adults, kids 3-12 are almost $11 each!
Review: So considering my husband wasn't with us and my littlest guy was free, this STILL cost our family $50!!! NOT WORTH IT for just over an hour of entertainment and learning! To help you determine where I'm coming from in this review, let me mention a few things. First, we had Aquarium passes 5 years ago when it was at it's old location, so I think I had a pre-set "bigger and better" expectation. Also, on the particular day we went, we had already been to another destination so I was tired and didn't have the energy to milk the kids' engagement level. If I had tried harder, I might have stretched our time there to about 2 hours. Though the new building is bigger, I don't feel much has been added in value - just more space. (As the billboards say, "Room to explore." Sadly, that's all you get: room.) Many of the exhibits are yet to be installed. And the existing exhibits have younger/smaller animals in them. At this admission rate, you are paying about $1/cool thing your kids can see per kid. (The adult rate is more because I don't know that there are 10 cool exhibits in the whole place.) Some of my dissatisfaction may be due to the nature of aquariums: exhibits are indoors and the glass makes them 2 dimensional, so you feel like you are wandering in a line through the dark and waiting for the folks in front of you to step aside so you can see whatever is behind the glass. Also, I'm not into the ocean or animals in general, so it probably just will never hit the spot. Certainly NOT at the current pricing. (I'd pay $15 for my family to go through. For $15 I might have nicer things to say.) 
         If you want to save the money, check out Scheels. Yes, I know it's a sporting goods store. But from Salt Lake it's a shorter drive and more convenient. They have a cool salt-water aquarium inside, plus a bunch of stuffed animals on display. AND you can take a huge ferris wheel ride there for $1. You can probably spend about the same amount of time in the store as the aquarium, and get a ride to boot for A LOT LESS MOULA!

Destination: Clark Planetarium and Gateway Mall's Olympic Plaza Fountains
Time: 2-3 hours - I'm sure they don't use the fountains as a splash pad in the summer
Cost: FREE
Review: We love the Clark Planetarium. Though we have enjoyed shows at the dome theater and have yet to see an Imax show there, there is a TON to take in for free! (The shows cost extra.) Go and learn about tornadoes, cloud formation, the earth's rotation, the planets, Newtons laws, space travel, and take a walk on the moon and on Mars. Tons of interactive displays make it one of my kids' favorite spots. Afterwards, head North down the main corridor of the Gateway Mall and find yourself at the Olympic Plaza fountains. They come on for a choreographed showing with music every half hour - on the hour and half past. Mostly, the kids will enjoy the very exciting and unpredictable splash pad play, so bring suits and towels and prepare to get very wet. (The bathrooms nearest the fountains are in the kids area of Barnes and Nobles - and it's a great kids area btw, with a train table and Winnie the Pooh stage.) I forgot to use it this time around, but I believe the Planetarium validates parking. But if not, underground parking is still relatively cheap. (I use the Winter Parking garage for it's proximity to the planetarium and the fountains.)

Time: 2 hours
Cost: FREE on the FIRST WEDNESDAY of each month
Review: It's just hard to beat free. For free, this is a very cool museum. I don't know how often displays change, but we were able to catch a big one about the Bingham Copper Mine, which is nice because the actual mine is presently closed to visitors. Generally, the museum seems to be a good mix of old and new art and even some artifacts. Almost nothing to do (probably typical for an art museum) but plenty to see. I liked looking at painting dates and telling my kids what was happening in the world at the time the art piece was created. One other successful way to engage them was to pick a space (like a room or wall) and ask them to find their favorite piece in that space, stand by it, and tell me why it was their favorite. This helped them to have an interest in seeing it all, and allowed me as I shared my favorites, to model different things to note or appreciate in a piece of art. AND it was fun!

Time: We spent the better part of 3 hours here including eating, but could have spent more time, if we had it.
Cost: 4 times a year, the museum has a free day - if you don't go on that day, I recommend getting a membership. There is more to see than you can possibly take in on one day unless your kids have a 4+ hour attention span
Review: This really should be a review of going for the first time on a free day. So let me say that the museum offers tickets for free days. You can reserve up to 6 seven days in advance by visiting their website. I was away from a computer when the tickets became available and asked my husband to do it for us. He didn't have nice things to say about the reservation process. Said the site was clunky and it took him several attempts to get it to work. But in the end, we had 6 tickets waiting which we didn't appear to need. We arrived at 11. My friend who came to meet us before 10:30 found a parking spot in their smallish lot. At 11, there was no space left. I won't reveal how I came to NOT enjoy an uphill hike from parking in the heat or take a shuttle from many blocks away. But I would strongly advise getting to the Museum early. When we left at 2, new groups were stalking folks in the parking lot to find a spot.
            I was a big fan of this museum way back when it was in an older building near the University of Utah's main campus. Back then, they had a free day once a month similar to the art museum. So the free days were not over-crowded. I am not a huge fan of crowds. Probably as an individual, or with another adult, I don't mind them as much. But trailing 2 very young minors while managing a stroller can be a challenge.
            THAT said, this museum had a lot to see, and the kids loved seeing it! I recommend to families pushing strollers to take the elevators to the 4th floor and work your way down through the exhibits. Everything is nicely arranged around ramps. Exploring this way, you work backwards through history, instead of progressing from dinosaurs to animals today, but certainly the kids don't mind. The dinosaur bones were my kids' highlight, and walking down through, you finish with a "grand finale." The displays are huge and as you wind your way down (or up) you get to see them from multiple angles, which is GENIUS!
           There is a fair amount of hands-on learning to be had. If you can find a quieter time to go, kids would likely enjoy quite a bit of exploration and learning. When things get crowded the last thing you want to do is hang around waiting in a line to try something. Also, while there is TONS to see, there are only tiny signs explaining what you see, so in a crowd, you hate to stop and read and hold up the line, or wait for people to step aside to allow you to get to the sign.
            After you work from floor 4 to floor 2, if you have more time, take the elevator to level 5 to see the displays on the Native Americans and check out the view from the outside deck. The whole floor is worth seeing, but doesn't connect physically to the rest. It's a bit quieter up there. AND I discovered after pulling up a random bench to nurse that the bathrooms on the 5th floor have a nursing chair in them. NICE! (Other bathrooms may. Didn't check them all.)

Destination: Tracy Aviary
Time: 2.5 hours, Summer morning and early afternoon is when we were there
Cost: adults $7, kids 3-12 $5 (groups over 10 get $1/person discount so bring friends!)
Review: I am afraid of birds. Odd, I know. One of my worst nightmares involved John Travolta and a bird flying near my head. SCARY! That said, I LOVED the Aviary. Probably because my kids seemed engaged and excited the entire time we were there. We didn't purchase any of the extra bells and whistles, but still had a great time! We were most wowed by Andy, the Andean Condor. HUGE! But we delighted in walking around, taking the birds AND nature in. The whole place is lovely. The kids found a lot to interact with AND the displays were a great mix of at-a-glance cool info and details for the slower, info-driven explorer. Were it not for a pick-up deadline, we could probably have stayed to enjoy the place for another hour or more. LOVED it!

Time: 3-4 hours - the Nature Park would be terrific any season, and check with or call the synagogue before going
Cost: FREE
Review: Once again, these are lumped by proximity - the synagogue is a stone's throw from the nature park. However, we did not do them on the same day. The nature park is a fun and flat city hike (outside of the incline to get into and out of the Nature Park.) We enjoyed the fun trails and the adventure and discovery that came with it. It IS an off-leash dog area which is something to note if you have little ones afraid of being discovered by a fast moving, large canine. (Also, some dog owners apparently think their dogs' "business" left about in public places is cute. I'd like to find these owners and leave my kids' poopy diapers on their lawns. Be aware of the possibility of these "mines" and give your little ones a heads-up.) One final note: restrooms are a good walk west of the nature area trail head (100 yards-ish), so go before you head down.
       Anytime I can get an informative tour geared to the interest and pacing of my little kids, I'm going to give it two thumbs up, and I must say, we LOVED Kol Ami. Our tour lady (whose name over a year later I don't remember) was fantastic and we learned so much about the Jewish faith which I found beautiful and inspiring! We did just happen to show up one day with our Culture Club so we lucked out, but if you don't want to chance it, call to be sure someone will be there and available to show you around.
        (another field trip grouping suggestion for older kids: check out the Imax film "Jerusalem" on the same day as a trip to Kol Ami. Cool!)

Destination: The Leonardo (Museum)
Time: a lot to get your money's worth
Cost: Adult $8, kids over 12 $8, kids 6-11 $7, kids 5 and under FREE
Review: Museums have a hard balance to strike. They need to engage all learning types, all ages, and offer enough to see and do to make a visit worth it, but not so much the mind goes on overload and doesn't retain any info. The Leonardo is a newer museum, and MY take is it's still working on finding this balance. On hearing positive reviews, we got our family memberships without having gone ever. I hope at the end of one year it feels worth it. The upside of a membership to this museum is that you have more time to explore. And being named after Leonardo da Vinci, one would expect a lot of exploration and hands-on fun. MY challenge was accompanying multiple children who all have a different idea of where they would like to spend time. The hands-on areas were also well used and messy - this didn't bother the kids, but my feeling was that SOMEBODY was a genius to charge all this money so kids could play with other people's garbage scraps. And the less interactive displays were way too wordy to bother with if you go with anyone under age 10. (Who wants to stand there and be read to when there are cooler things to see and do? Probably why I equated the word Museum with BORING 'til I was in my teens - because some well meaning teacher was trying to help me learn something by standing and reading to ME. Yeah. Boring!) So, if I didn't have a membership, I think this would fall in the NOT worth it category. THAT said, the kids had a lot of fun, and we DO have a membership, so we will be back for more and I hope to report we missed a lot and I was totally wrong.
           One final note: We totally lucked out and went to check out the Leonardo exhibit Animals Inside Out on a day when admission was just $2.50. Totally worth it at that price. The kids thought it was very cool! However, regularly it would cost us members $10, and $15 for an adult non-member. It was worth the $5 I payed for my crew to go through. It would NOT have been worth the $20 it would cost the same people to go. BUT my 11 year old missed out, and I WILL pay $7 to have him check it out when we are there next. It's all cool. But there just isn't $15 worth of cool. Certainly not for kids much younger than 7. I guess I'm basing that on the fact that I did spend time and energy to engage the kids and we learned a bunch. Still, there isn't more there than about an hour of stuff to see and learn. So for a family, it's a really pricey hour.

Destination: Memory Grove
Time: 2-3 hours, Meditation Chapel opened summers on Wednesdays from 12-3
Cost: FREE
Review: This sweet spot with the creek that becomes THE creek of the City Creek Mall is so fun. Next to the International Peace Gardens (see above), it is my second favorite. But I'm a history junkie and have an incredibly soft spot in my heart for those who have lost their lives in the armed forces. So I loved the Meditation Chapel and the other monuments. The beauty of the park was not lost on my little ones. And there is a nice tranquility there, maybe because it's off the beaten path. On the far north end of the park (look for a small cement and stone bridge spanning the creek) there is a trail head for a well shaded path that winds through the ravine. We didn't make it far at little-people pace - which I suppose means there is a lot to explore and lots of "doggies" to stop and pet and shy away from.
            We had come on a different day of the week and came back on Wednesdays with the purpose of checking the buildings out. We only saw the chapel, but there was a sweet woman there who explained some of the building - who built it, when, with what, and why - and gave the kids a sheet of photos making up a scavenger hunt of the rest of the park which was perfect to engage them in what else was there. (We missed the carriage house, but usually it is also open for tours on Wednesday afternoons.)
         There were a few picnic tables, but no bathroom that I am aware of, so go before you go, if you know what I mean. Also, you can park on the street approaching the park. It is zoned for a 2 hour time limit, which should be plenty to do the hike, or take all of the monuments in. But may stretch it if you want to do both. However, if memory serves (and it may not!) the parking across the street to the east of the State Capital Building has no time limit and is in good supply. There you will find a trail and staircase that descends into Memory Grove.  (If you only have 2 hours on a hot day anyway, park below where there is shade.) The gates to Memory Grove itself are usually closed, which is fine because parking inside would ruin the feel, and be incredibly limited anyway.
          Final note: You can also grab a free sack lunch from the government near this park from 11:30-12.


  1. A friend sent this suggestion, which I appreciated because I'd never been, but had always been curious:
    If you are there again, may I recommend the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum? I remember loving it as a youth history junkie, and I forced my kids inside, hoping I would get 10 min before they dragged me out. 2 HOURS later, I had to drag them out so we could get to our other plans. It was like an "I spy" book come to life. They even had a scavenger hunt for the kids to find random things, like a carved wooden leg, or a leather mask. My 5-yo boy, 7-&10-yo girls, and my 12-yo boy all loved it. I was surprised, but that is one of our highlights from our SL stay-cation :)

  2. What a great list, Steffanie! Thanks so much for taking the time to put this together. We are headed to Salt Lake for the next few days and had planned to go to the aquarium. I was really nervous about the cost, so I'm glad to have read your opinion. We may need to change our plans. Luckily we have PLENTY of other options!