Mormon pioneers established a university in their short-lived town of Nauvoo, Illinois, and they brought its books with them to Utah. The University of Deseret opened in 1850, just two and a half years after the first colonists reached the Salt Lake Valley. It was renamed the University of Utah (201 Presidents Cir., 801/581-7200) in 1892 and moved to its present site on a terrace east of Salt Lake City  in 1900. The state-assisted institution now sprawls across a 1,500-acre campus.
A giant “U” on the hillside lights up during sporting events, and if the university team wins, the lights flash.
About 28,000 students study in a wide range of fields including the liberal arts, business, medicine, science, engineering, and architecture—some 16 colleges and schools in all. The adjacent Research Park is a partnership of the university and private enterprise involving many students and faculty.
A center of culture, the University of Utah is home to the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, concerts, and theater. Visitors are welcome at cultural and sporting events, libraries, the bookstore, movie theater, and Olpin Union food services. Most recreational facilities are reserved for students.
For a campus map, a list of scheduled events, and other information, drop by the Park Building (801/581-6515) at the top of President’s Circle or the Olpin Union (801/581-5888) just north of Central Campus Drive. On-campus parking is available at metered spaces around the grounds and in pay lots next to the Olpin Union and the Marriott Library; free parking can be found off campus on residential streets.
On the way to the university from downtown is one of the newest, and oddest, of Salt Lake City ’s public parks. The Gilgal Gardens (749 East 500 South, 8 a.m.–dusk daily, free) is a colossally weird sculpture garden created by an LDS bishop whose spiritual seekings led him to create stone-carved monuments and engrave stones with Biblical and other religious verses.
Thomas Child began Gilgal Gardens in 1945, and work on the gardens and its sculpture continued until his death in 1963. The carvings and statues reflect a curious mix of Mormon, Old Testament, and Egyptian influences: A sphinx has the face of LDS founder Joseph Smith, while other sculpture vignettes represent Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and a monument to the masonry trade.
In all, there are 13 carved stone sculptures, plus innumerable flagstones with etched quotations within a garden setting. It’s all very strange and oddly moving, and if you’re attracted by people’s curious spiritual journeys, you should make this one of your SLC stops—there’s no other garden quite like this one.
The large and varied collection of geology, biology, and anthropology exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Utah (301 Wakara Way, 801/581-6927, www.nhmu.utah.edu , daily 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Wed., 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., $9 adults, $6 children 3–12, $7 youth 13-24 and seniors 65 and up), tell the natural and early Native American history of Utah.
Impressive natural history models include dinosaurs, early mammals, and the varied wildlife of the present day. Look for the exhibit of California gulls (Larus californicus) devouring the plague of grasshoppers. Exhibits display artifacts and trace the development of prehistoric cultures and their replacement by modern tribes such as the Ute and the Navajo.
A reproduction of the huge Barrier Canyon Mural pictograph shows early Native American art. Other exhibits illustrate Utah’s mining history and feature specimens of the state’s more than 600 minerals. A gift shop sells animal souvenirs for the kids, fossil and mineral specimens, books on Utah and natural history, and posters. Limited free parking is available in front.
The ambitious Utah Museum of Fine Arts (410 Campus Center Dr., 801/581-7332, www.umfa.utah.edu , 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Fri., until 8 p.m. Wed., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat–Sun., $7 adults, $5 youths 6–18 and seniors) displays a little of everything, from 5,000-year-old Egyptian art to works by contemporary artists. Permanent exhibitions include art of China, India, Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, the pre-Columbian Americas, and the early American West.
Three large galleries host visiting exhibitions; there’s also a pleasant café. Limited free parking is available in university parking lot 11.
Utah’s largest botanical garden, Red Butte Garden and Arboretum (300 Wakara Way, 801/581-4747, www.redbuttegarden.org , open year-round with irregular hours and days, $6 adults, $4 seniors and children 3–17, free access to hiking trails in the natural area) offers 30 acres of floral displays, ponds, waterfalls, and four miles of mountain nature trails in a 200-acre natural area. The garden visitor center features botanical gifts and books, and the Courtyard Garden is an excellent place for a family picnic.
To reach the garden from I-15, take the 600 South exit, which will take you east, then turn north and go two blocks to 400 South, and head east past where 400 South merges into 500 South. After rising up a hill, take the left onto Wakara Way and continue east to the link Red Butte Garden and Arboretum exit.
Hogle Zoo (2600 E. Sunnyside Ave. 801/582-1631, www.hoglezoo.org , 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, until 4 p.m. in winter, $9 adults, $7 children 3–12 and seniors 65 and over), Utah’s state zoo on the eastern edge of Salt Lake City  and across from “This Is the Place” State Park , is an especially popular spot with the kids.
Children like to ride the miniature train ($1.50, closed in winter) and see exhibits in the Discovery Center. Many of the large-animal enclosures have natural settings; here you’ll see the familiar elephants, rhinos, and hippos. The apes and monkeys carry on almost all the time, though mornings are best to hear the songs of the white-handed gibbons of Southeast Asia.
Exhibits on tropical, temperate, and desert zones contain deadly cobras and vipers, aardvarks, Australian kookaburras, brightly colored birds in a walk-in aviary, and dozens of other exotic species. The cats include lions, leopards, tigers, and ocelots.