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The 7 strangest places in Salt Lake City

Every city has its secrets, and Salt Lake is no exception

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Water fountains covered in snow stand in front of an abandoned cabin in Allen Park in Salt Lake City, a 7-acre span of land along Emigration Creek.

Water fountains covered in snow stand in front of an abandoned cabin in Allen Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Allen Park covers a 7-acre span of land along Emigration Creek.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

The past year saw some of the most significant outmigration of residents from the coasts, urban jungles and “keep (place name) weird” fiefdoms. Many of those individuals have taken up residence in Utah, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. They can regularly be seen shuffling around downtown with nary an idea of whence to go.

I fell into this very category, moving to Utah in 2021, and through careful research and exploration, decided to identify not just the mainstream attractions of “normies” but the edgy locations that longtime residents only tell you about in whispered tones after sharing a sloppy Cobra Dog at a farmers market by Pioneer Park. Here is what I found.

Allen Park (aka Hobbitville)

Before this unusual property became a Salt Lake City Park, it was a vortex of local rumors. Did a hermit live among the abandoned small dilapidated buildings and houses dotting the sprawling land? Was it home to mythical creatures or hobbits?

The truth, as it turns out, is almost stranger than fiction.

Allen Park covers more than 7 acres along Emigration Creek, purchased by Dr. George Allen and his wife Ruth Larson Allen as early as 1930. Allen was a “distinguished naturalist and collector of rare and ornamental birds,” contributing to the founding of Hogle Zoo and the aviary at Liberty Park, according to the Public Lands Department of Salt Lake City.

In the ’60s, the Allens transformed the parcel into a hub of art and Salt Lake counter-culture. They added small residences for friends and as rentals. Though the residences eventually fell into mild disrepair, the Bohemian-style communal life of the wild little slice of the city gave the Sugar House neighborhood character. But all the dirt that was hauled in to fill the canyon on the property made for unstable ground. Buildings shifted, upkeep fell by the wayside and by the early 2000s, the number of residents dwindled.

In 2018 the city purchased the property for $7.5 million and began historic restoration, per KSL. Now it is a city park, where you can walk around and read about the different buildings and see the art scattered around the property. And enjoy the sweet serenade of the park’s many peacocks squawking.

The Public Lands Department reports that “Allen did not have a background in development, planning, architecture, landscape, or art, but utilized them all in the development of Allen Park over the next thirty years.” The quirky buildings, pervasive artwork by Ruth Allen (an accomplished fashion illustrator for noted department stores, and later a wildlife artist), and wide variety of flora and fauna contributed to the unique feeling of the parcel that continues to attract visitors.

Gilgal Sculpture Garden

Thomas Battersby Child Jr. was a successful masonry contractor, raised a family, and served as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Still, he felt something was missing in life ... maybe a giant stone sculpture of Joseph Smith as a sphinx?

At 57 years of age, he began gathering boulders and carving his passions into stone. His son-in-law Bryant Higgs, a skilled welder, pioneered a method of cutting rock with an oxyacetylene torch, which leaves these sculptures with a polished look.

According to Megan Weiss of Utah Humanities, Child undertook a “spiritual and philosophical experiment” without thinking of himself as an artist. Now, his garden is a little gem in the heart of Salt Lake City, waiting for visitors to walk by.

9th and 9th Whale

When someone describes a public art project as “a full-size sculpture of a humpback whale breaching out of (a) roundabout,” you might think to yourself “this public art project is likely located in a place that has whales. Maybe it’s in Wales, where roundabouts are used often. Or near the Pacific Ocean, where whales can be seen.”

When you are told that the aforementioned whale art is in Salt Lake, you might think “hmm, I don’t understand what I just learned.” That is exactly what residents of the city’s 9th and 9th neighborhood thought when the Arts Council announced their selection from a number of artists’ bids for the project.

Some were even angry because a large population of gnomes had been growing in the middle of the affected roundabout. The artist, Stephen Kesler, was grateful that his 23-foot-tall sculpture, “Out of the Blue,” was selected and understood hesitancy on the part of residents. “You drop a whale in someone’s neighborhood, they’re going to question it,” Kesler told Salt Lake Magazine.

The community, the gnomes, and the whale (featuring a colorful mural by Mike Murdock) have seemed to reach an agreement in recent months. Though the sculpture initially made waves, it seems that many Utah transplants have identified with the out-of-place feeling this work has come to represent.

The curtain of pedal cars

The Land Cruiser Heritage Museum, just west of Capitol Hill, is “believed to be the world’s most diverse collection of Land Cruisers,” according to its curator — Greg Miller, former CEO of the Larry H. Miller Group.

“When I’m in a Land Cruiser, I’m usually in a place I love, with people I love, doing what I love,” Miller is reported to have said. It is the motivation behind the museum’s collection of over 100 vehicles, with its earliest model being the 1953 Toyota BJT.

Land Cruisers are cool, but life expectations need to be managed. For those of us who cannot afford to collect kitted-out off-road vehicles, there is a collection of toy pedal cars nestled in a corner. These little metal contraptions were the Barbie cars of yesteryear, and the museum has strung them together into an avante-garde curtain of steel that could easily belong in the Utah Museum of Fine Art’s modernist quilt exhibit.

It’s best to stand before the waterfall of metal and ponder the symbolism of the little toys — how they were pedaled around by the elites during the Great Depression while farmers’ children rode dust to school.

Bobsled trail’s car graveyard

From the 11th Avenue Park, follow the Bonneville Shoreline Trail up to the top of Salt Lake City’s premier mountain biking line. Drop down into tight, single-track lines and washed-out ravines, through fast corners and rocky terrain, to the lower portion of the trail. On Mountain Bike Project, Gaelen Schiedel-Webb gives a warning: “Keep your eye open though, as a slight misjudgment might have you wrapped around a tree.”

Many have crushed their collarbones going over the handlebars of this track, and be careful, there have been reports of wasp swarms along the path!

The final section of the trail features a few mysterious, rusted-out vehicles from the ’50s. Where did these cars come from? No one knows.

50-foot Matterhorn replica — International Peace Garden

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Entrance to Salt Lake City’s International Peace Garden — one of two such gardens in the United States.

“Another Believer” via Wikimedia Commons

Otto Wiesley, citizen chair of the Salt Lake Council of Women, founded the International Peace Gardens in 1939, in hopes that country-themed slices of a city park would promote “understanding between nations,” according to the Salt Lake City Public Lands Department.

The actual opening of the park took place in 1952, and the land has been developed so that 28 nation groups are now represented, and can beautify their proscribed sections of the park (at their own expense).

Charming sections include the lilacs of the Swedish Garden, the Olmec Head replication in the Mexican Garden and the Japanese Garden’s stone lanterns from the Emperor’s Palace. Arguably the most impressive garden belongs to Switzerland, where a 50-foot replica of the iconic Matterhorn towers over alpine chalets.

Unfortunately, this park has been plagued with vandalism. Someone recently tried to steal the metal harp from Wales, and now many of the art pieces have been removed until the city can properly secure them.

In terms of garden politics, it seems the Tongan Garden has been waiting for funding since 1997. I would love to hear what the country’s representatives think of the newest Scottish addition. There’s always juicy drama at the Peace Gardens!

Gravity Hill

Before 1983, a young person could cruise Bonneville Drive with a date, heading toward Memory Grove, and reach a magical point in the road. They could say “watch this,” turn off the engine and put the car in neutral. It would then roll, uphill...?

Spooky I know. This optical illusion has been noted all over the world, but that didn’t stop local legends from sprouting up. Some residents attributed the phenomenon to the ghost of a farmer who tipped his tractor and died or blamed the builders of the nearby Capitol building for placing magnets in the walls. Others thought it had to do with one of the most tragic car accidents in state history, where a school bus was hit by a train on this stretch of road on a foggy night.

Then, in 1983, flooding forced the city to close the road to two-way traffic. Now, you are only able to drive southbound, a shame since the trick only works heading north. Still, if you head up there on foot or on a bike, you’re still able to experience Gravity Hill, to a lesser degree.

Honorable mentions

Many exceptional Salt Lake City sites did not make the list. This is definitely not because I’m not cool enough to know about them, or because I don’t get out much, but because I’m told seven is the best number of items for an online list.

If I wasn’t restrained by the aforementioned barriers, I would definitely include the Christian School on State Street. Ralphael Plescia has created a house full of (haunting) sculptures based on obscure biblical passages. Another interesting downtown site is Anthony’s Fine Art & Antiques. Located in a 25,000-square-foot historic church, the gallery boasts a large collection of jewelry, paintings, antique furniture and high end secrets.