The sign read “Mystic Hot Springs” next to a chain that blocked access to a dirt road leading toward the hills in Monroe, Utah. We parked next to a line of tired buses faded from a life on the road and now resting dormant under the incessant sun.
“Next time we can stay in one of those,” I said as I doled out swimsuits, goggles and towels to my husband and kids. I got no answer. I remembered that my sons don’t know what a Grateful Dead bus is, nor how far out it is that you can stay in one.
Meanwhile, my husband was watching a gaggle of peacocks scramble out of some bushes. It was a sign: Our road trip to Utah was about to get a lot weirder.
On top of the hill sits seven bathtubs that capture hot, mineral rich water from the nearby springs. The tubs are engulfed in red-orange mineral deposits, just waiting for a soak. The owner, “Mystic Mike,” a self-described Deadhead, diverts water spilling into the tubs from flowing channels in the mountainous deposits above. The temperature of my tub water was perfect, and the views past my toes looked out onto central Utah’s majestic Sevier Valley.
We eventually moved out of our own separate — and very hippie — paradises and into the large concrete pools below. The scene there had me wondering if we’d stumbled upon a lost Burning Man project. The main pool is connected above to a large, rust colored arch — calcium carbonate deposits gone wild. This is what we have come for — something new to marvel over, an experience we haven’t done, or even heard of, before. As happens with familiarity, our fully-explored backyard destinations — Palm Springs, San Diego and the Central Coast — have lost their magic. Each one is a beloved destination, certainly, but this corner of Utah (which is the same driving distance as the Bay Area from L.A.) is our new chosen flavor.
As tempting as the Grateful Dead buses were, we were Midway bound, a small Swiss-style enclave in the Wasatch Mountains between the better-known resort towns of Sundance and Park City. Aside from what was sure to be stunning scenery, we were heading to another hot-water anomaly: the Crater at Homestead Resort. This beehive-shaped limestone formation is an underground geothermal pool 10,000 years in the making and one of the reasons there is a town here in the first place.
Passing quaint alpine chalets on our way, we pulled up to the expansive, rustic property and immediately saw the looming hump in the ground dwarfing the grand, historic entrance of the Homestead Resort. Coffee and fudge waited for us inside the airy lobby, something I should have expected from a place once known as Schneitter’s Hot Pot resort, which has been honing hospitality for nearly 200 years. As soon as we settled into our modern and roomy farmhouse-style room, we donned our suits.
The Crater is accessed by a door in the side of the hill, which allowed us the convenience of not having to rappel our way down into the pool as earlier visitors have had to do. The evening darkness added a veil of mystery. Steam rushed toward us as we opened the door. We followed a tunnel that led to a spot where visitors can swim, snorkel, take a paddle board yoga class, soak or scuba dive in the only warm water diving destination in the continental U.S. We walked past diving equipment and scuba gear to get to a small dock where we gently let ourselves into the mystifyingly warm and tranquil water.
Snowboarding history and neighborhood charm
The next day in nearby Park City, we were belly laughing at the ridiculous ski fashions of the 1980s. “Who would wear that?” my 12-year-old son exclaimed at a pink women’s ensemble on display at the Alf Engen Ski Museum inside Utah Olympic Park, where Utah hosted the 2002 XIX Olympic Winter Games.
His amazement grew at the snowboard evolution display, starting with a snowboard predecessor called the Snurfer. Who knew? Like any good sports venue, Utah Olympic Park is a thrill seeker’s dream. The most adventurous we got was to slip into the bobsled and skeleton equipment in the museum lobby, but the daring are in for a real ride here with a summertime alpine slide course, extreme tubing, extreme zip line, airbag jumping and — for bucket listers — the ability to attempt the bobsled (available summer and winter for riders ages 16+).
Instead, we barreled towards Salt Lake City on I-80. Our first stop was Liberty Park, a charming neighborhood near the trendy 9th and 9th intersection, known for bungalow homes, tree-lined streets and plenty of front lawn support for LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter movements. The homey feel and location make the neighborhood the perfect basecamp for exploring this vibrant city. Much like L.A., this is a town of distinct neighborhoods, and we found gems in each: the thickest, smoothest hot chocolate at Hatch Family Chocolates in The Avenues; an enormous and fun-filled park of the same name in Sugar House, and, right at our doorstep in Liberty Park, a delightful children’s bookshop and boutique called The Children’s Hour Bookstore.
In between neighborhood exploring, we visited the Tracy Aviary & Botanical Garden, This is the Place Heritage Park and the renowned Natural History Museum of Utah, all included in the Visit Salt Lake Connect Pass. For us, a two-day pass provided a wonderful value and no-pressure access to the best of the city (16 attractions total, including guided tours of the Utah Olympic Park).
Ancestry in Salt Lake City
On our final day in Salt Lake City, I learned that there are approximately 54,478 other people in the U.S. who share my surname. This is just a sampling of the zany factoids we discovered at the Family History Library, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This five-floor facility is located just off Temple Square, the spiritual center of the faith. On the ground floor, you’ll find seven “discovery experiences,” such as “Where I Come From” or “My Famous Relatives,” each with an information superpower to explore fascinating custom facts about your ancestors. With the help of a volunteer, we signed up for a free FamilySearch account and were given a device that can hook into an interactive screen at the different stations. Turns out, I am a 10th cousin of the friendly volunteer who had been helping us and eight other individuals who had visited the building that day! I’d have never guessed family history was this interesting, weird or fun.
Eyes open for more marvels
With a new sense of self, we headed off to see the Great Salt Lake. This is the last remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville, which once covered about a quarter of Utah. On its southern shores stands a remake of the turn-of-the-century-era Saltair resort, now a concert venue for rock bands.
The Great Salt Lake State Park Visitor Center displays pictures of Victorian bathers in front of this ill-fated “Coney Island of the West,” evoking another time altogether. In contrast, we mostly have the gorgeous views to ourselves as we walk the watery shore and look for brine shrimp at the water’s edge. Child of the ’80s? You might know brine shrimp as Sea-Monkeys, those novelty aquarium pets. A good view of them is at the state park visitor center or at the Natural History Museum in the city proper. While we didn’t come home with Sea-Monkeys, I did snag a $12 box of Taffy Town saltwater taffies, made in the area since 1916. Hands down, it was the best saltwater taffy I’ve ever had.
As we drove toward Nevada, the landscape was flat and dry, marked by salt-processing operations, smelting stacks and funky art projects. The 87-foot-tall retro sculpture called “Metaphor: The Tree of Utah” by Swedish sculptor Karl Momen looms at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, where speed freaks top speeds of 600 miles per hour. Here, we could see the curve of the earth under a vast, blinding whiteness, and we wondered: What other unexpected marvels await us?
Elisa Parhad is a travel and lifestyle writer, author and photographer based in L.A.