20 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About Utah
1. Utahns are the most generous people in the country (in the most generous country on Earth).
Out of all 50 states, people from Utah give the most of their time and money, according to a recently published Gallup poll. Of those asked during the second half of 2013, 71% had donated money and 56% had volunteered their time (48% did both). And this is in the US, the most “civically engaged” country in the world, with 65% of those asked having donated money, 43% having volunteered, and 73% having helped a stranger.
(As a Canadian who prides himself on the stereotype of being polite and kind, I’m shocked! Canadians rank quite a ways down this list.)
2. Utah has a belly button.
A town of less than 1,000, Levan sits in the geographic center of Utah. There are different theories as to the origin of its name, but the most interesting and entertaining is that Levan is “navel” spelled backwards. Besides being rich in history (it was founded in 1868 as an agricultural community) there are two nearby canyons — Chicken Creek and Pigeon Creek — that provide plenty of options for hiking, camping, fishing, and off-road excursions.
3. It’s the “Wild West” as you know it.
Near the state’s southern border is a little town of around 3,500 called Kanab. It’s sometimes referred to as “Little Hollywood” because it’s been the setting for many a television series and motion picture: big-screen flicks like The Lone Ranger, Stagecoach, Pony Express, and The Outlaw Josey Wales; and TV series including Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and How the West Was Won. It was also the filming location of some non-western movies like Planet of the Apes (the original) and Arabian Nights. (Check out a full list of Hollywood projects shot in Kanab.)
Kanab’s Little Hollywood Museum has movie sets you can immerse yourself in, and the staff perform skits.
4. Utah gave the vote to women half a century before the rest of the country did.
It took over 70 years, from the birth of the national movement for woman suffrage in 1848 to the signing of the 19th Amendment, for American women to get the universal right to vote. But in 1870 — 50 years before the US Constitution was amended — Utah granted its female citizens this right. Sarah Young, grandniece of Brigham Young, was the first woman in the Utah territory to vote.
5. It’s home to the heaviest known organism in the world.
Spread over 106 acres, Pando (aka The Trembling Giant) is a male quaking aspen tree that comprises an entire forest. It’s believed that the tree is 80,000 years old, although there are other theories that place it closer to a million years old.
All of the more than 40,000 “trees” you see above are actually stems of Pando that have an average age of 130 years; they share a single root system and have identical genetic markers. As a whole, the entity is estimated to weigh around 13 million pounds. Forest fires, which Pando survives easily due to its protected root system, have kept other tree species from moving into the area, which is located in Fishlake National Forest a short drive northwest of Capitol Reef National Park.
6. There’s a successful and growing microbrew scene.
It’s a common misconception that you can’t drink alcohol in Utah — or at least that it’s hard to get your hands on a decent drink. But while Utah’s liquor laws may differ from those of other states, it’s certainly not difficult to find somewhere to enjoy a locally brewed beer.
Today, there are 21 breweries and brewpubs in the state, including several that have won national awards — Wasatch, Squatters, Moab, Uinta, Red Rock…the list goes on. As a whole, Utah is the state with the lowest beer consumption in the nation. But hey, that just means more for you and me, right?
7. It’s rich in dinosaur history.
In the San Rafael Swell near Cleveland, Utah is the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry — home to the densest concentration of Jurassic-era (around 201 million to 145 million years ago) fossils ever discovered. More than 12,000 bones — from at least 74 dinosaurs — have so far been excavated. One of the big mysteries of this ancient grave site is the presence of so many animals, and that around 75% of the bones found came from meat-eaters.
Visitors can check out the museum, walk around a large excavation area to view partially uncovered skeletons, and hike on designated trails.
8. It’s on track to end homelessness by 2015.
Almost 10 years ago, Utah set in motion policies with the goal of ending long-term homelessness by 2015. Since then they’ve managed to reduce it by 74% by, essentially, giving homes to people without homes. Sounds ludicrous, right? It was a decision based on sound logic — the policymakers realized it’s cheaper to provide a home and a social worker to someone than to pay for their emergency room visits and jail stays.
9. It’s home to some of the best powder on Earth.
Because of their inland location, the snow that falls on Utah’s 15 ski resorts is unusually dry. Add to that the fact that the Great Salt Lake never freezes, resulting in the “Salt Lake Effect” — storms passing over the lake pick up moisture and drop it over the mountains as dry powder.
The top four ski areas for snowfall are all within a 45-minute drive of Salt Lake City: Alta gets an average of 560 inches, while the other three — Snowbird, Solitude, and Brighton — each receive around 500 inches per year. “The Greatest Snow On Earth” isn’t just a marketing slogan for the state; they mean every word.
Pro tip: On average, April sees 6.7 feet of snowfall, making for phenomenal spring skiing.
10. Provo, Utah has the highest level of well-being in the US.
Of 189 cities and metropolitan areas, the Provo-Orem area tops the list for the second time in six years. Healthways (partnered with Gallup) has been publishing a well-being index for half a dozen years running. The findings are based on over 500,000 interviews in which questions about “emotional and physical health, job satisfaction, community safety, and access to food, shelter, and health care” are asked.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that only 7% interviewed in Provo were smokers (the lowest rate in the nation), or that the city is ideally positioned as a gateway to world-renowned outdoor adventures like ice climbing and blue-ribbon fly fishing up the adjacent Provo Canyon. That’s a lot to be happy about.
11. One of the most scenic highways in America runs through its backyard.
In 2002, State Route 12 was designated an “All-American Road.” Spanning 122 miles, and connecting Capitol Reef National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, it took almost 40 years (from the ’40s to the ’80s) to complete construction. The scenic byway crosses some of the most magnificent scenery on the Colorado Plateau: red-rock desert, mesas, buttes, cliffs, and even lush mountain forests.
One of the highlights of the drive is the Hogsback, a four-mile stretch between the towns of Boulder and Escalante that curves along a narrow spine with sharp dropoffs on either side. You definitely want to drive attentively through this section!
12. On average, Utah has the tallest mountain peaks in the country.
“Utah is the rooftop of the United States,” writes Paula Huff in Hiking Utah’s Summits. Averaging the tallest peaks in each Utah county works out to 11,222 feet. The highest elevation in the state is King’s Peak, located in the Uinta Mountains in northeast Utah, at 13,528 feet.
13. One-third of Utah was underwater until relatively recently.
Around 15,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville, of which the Great Salt Lake is a remnant, was as big as Lake Michigan and covered a third of present-day Utah. The giant lake shrunk to levels below its outlet and eventually dried up, leaving salt deposits now known as the Bonneville Salt Flats. This 30,000-acre alien landscape is under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and is used for recreation and commercial interests (Independence Day and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End are a couple movies that were partially filmed here). The salt flats — most easily accessed via the town of Wendover — are open to the public for visiting, but keep in mind that in 1985 it was designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Follow the rules when visiting this unique and precious place.
For the anglers out there: Utah’s native trout, the Bonneville cutthroat subspecies, is making a comeback in local streams, reservoirs, and other freshwater remnants of the ancient lake with help from the Department of Wildlife Resources.
14. A motorcycle reached speeds of over 375mph here.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are also home to the Bonneville Speedway, a site where numerous land-speed records have been set. One of those is the fastest motorcycle, which averaged 605.697 km/h (376.363 mi/h) over one kilometer. While this average was measured over two runs, Rocky Robinson — the driver of the streamlined motorcycle — hit a top speed of 634 km/h (394 mi/h). The net horsepower of his machine is between 700 and 900.
There are several annual speed events at Bonneville, including Speed Week (mid-August) and World of Speed (mid-September).
15. It was the final link in the world’s first transcontinental railroad.
On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads were joined at Promontory Summit, an hour northwest of Salt Lake City, completing a transportation system that helped reduce transcontinental travel times from six months or more to one week. In 1942, the rails at Promontory Summit were salvaged for the war effort (by this time, a shorter route had been built that bypassed it to the south).
The location where the “Last Spike” was driven to connect the two railroads is protected as the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
16. Its most famous lake is way saltier than the ocean.
The Great Salt Lake — which lies just west of Salt Lake City — is saltier than the sea. Its salinity fluctuates between 5% and 27%, compared to an average of 3.5% for the world’s oceans. Covering an average area of 1,700 square miles, it’s the largest salt lake in the Western Hemisphere.
The reason it’s so salty is because it has no outlet; salt minerals are deposited by tributary rivers, and when the water evaporates it leaves the salt behind. Fish can’t survive in this environment, although the lake is home to other wildlife like brine shrimp and various waterfowl.
There’s lots of recreation to be had on and around the Great Salt Lake: boating, sunbathing on white-sand beaches, swimming in turquoise waters, and hiking and biking on craggy Antelope Island (shown above).
17. It’s home to the nation’s first department store.
While this fact may be up for debate, the Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution — founded in 1868 by Brigham Young — used the slogan “America’s First Department Store” for many years. Young’s idea to pool together smaller independent Mormon businesses was a reaction to discriminatory practices by non-Mormon suppliers, who raised prices for their LDS customers. By banding together, the Mormon merchants were able to place larger orders with the wholesalers, who quickly saw that it made financial sense to keep their business. ZCMI was eventually sold to Meier & Frank in 1999, and subsequently to Macy’s in 2006.
For a modern take on this legacy of innovative shopping experiences, check out the new City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City. The 700,000-square-foot shopping center is designed to promote walking and wandering, features a retractable roof to take advantages of SLC’s plentiful sunshine, and beautifully complements existing shopping options at Trolley Square and the Gateway, all connected by TRAX light rail.
18. There are 5 (5!) national parks in Utah.
The country’s 50 states average just 1.18 national parks each, but Utah gets five — a good indication of just how remarkable its landscapes and flora and fauna are.
Zion is by far the most visited (and one of the top 10 most popular in the US). This isn’t a surprise given its immense scale, beauty, and opportunities for adventures like biking, canyoneering, rock climbing, and some of the best and most unique hiking in the country (The Narrows and Angels Landing, for example). But the four other national parks — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon — are nothing to shake a stick at. They share a common geology, being part of the Colorado Plateau, but each is distinct and demands a visit in its own right — Arches for its gravity-defying sandstone formations, Capitol Reef for its near 100-mile monocline, Bryce Canyon for its unmistakable red and orange hoodoos, and Canyonlands, which actually has three very different and vast areas ripe for exploration.
Not to be missed are other nationally recognized sites like Natural Bridges National Monument (the world’s first International Dark Sky Park) and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which covers 1.7 million acres, the largest in the country.
19. Utah has more boatable water than most other states.
Yes, we’re talking about the second driest state in the US, and it’s that “desert mystique” that defines Utah’s most iconic landscapes and draws us to them. At the same time, there dozens of lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and streams — from the mind-bogglingly vast to the rough and narrow — just waiting to be explored by boat.
Rent a motorboat and strap on some skis to enjoy the expansive waters of Lake Powell, Bear Lake, or the Flaming Gorge Reservoir; grab a rod and cast into the placid ponds and cool mountain streams of the High Uinta; set up an epic kayak or whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado, Green, or San Juan River. There’s a lot more water in Utah than what’s sitting in the Great Salt Lake (though that’s fun too!).
20. It’s the youngest state in the nation.
No, not in terms of how long it’s been part of the US (although it was the 45th state to join in 1896), but by far it has the lowest median age. At the last major census (2010), Utahns were an average 29.2 years old; in comparison, Texans — the second youngest state — had an average of 33.6 years (the national median is 37.2 years old).
Research economist Pam Perlich attributes this to “the dominance of the Mormon culture region and the high value placed on having children.” She also suggests that in-migration plays a sizable role — that Utah is seeing an influx of younger Americans who are ready to start a family. The average household size in Utah is 3.1 people. Nationally it’s 2.58.
All this adds up to a vibrant energy among the population you won’t find anywhere else in the country — Utahns are incredibly proud of their state, and equally proud of the chance to share it with the rest of the world.