Provo, Utah, is a wild town. A college town. If anyone tells you it’s not a wild college town, they’re wrong. While BYU is consistently ranked the No. 1 most sober university in the nation, you can find adventure if you know where to look.

As a Utah transplant, I had to ask around, dig deep into the archives and talk to locals to find the strangest sites to visit. Three sites on this list hold world records, another is a national first. With a surprising amount of unique history, here are Provo’s hidden gems you may not have heard about.

1. Bird Island, Utah Lake

In case you didn’t know, Utah Lake has an island. According to the Utah Lake Commission, it’s a “large travertine structure” created by the deposits from underwater springs. I personally think it could be the crusty skeleton of the infamous Utah Lake Monster. But that’s just one man’s well-informed opinion.

The legendary tale of the Utah Lake monster — yes, different from the Bear Lake monster

Either way — boy do birds love travertine structures. Paddle your kayak through the mildly toxic waters of Utah Lake to this tiny slice of paradise. Take a pair of binoculars to spot cormorants, herons, cranes, snipes, stilts, grebes and gulls. Be careful, you might be attacked.

Some Google reviews about the mysterious island:

  • “Stinky, smelly, the armpit of Utah lake.”
  • “Many birds, a must-see.”
  • “We have never been there, but looks like heaven on earth.”

2. Bridal Veil Falls

Driving north up Provo Canyon, you might look off to the right and see a 607-foot waterfall cascading gracefully down the stone face, almost like the lace headdress of a blushing bride.

Following the water down the rock, you may see a parking lot at its base, filled with shameless nature lovers snapping pictures of the impressive natural feature. BYU students can be found whispering their nuptial wishes into the rushing current — “ring by spring, O’ my thalassic faerie!”

Ice climbers check out frozen waterfalls near Bridal Veil Falls in Provo Canyon.
Ice climbers check out frozen waterfalls near Bridal Veil Falls in Provo Canyon on Dec. 11, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The area used to contain the Bridal Veil Resort, featuring the Eagle’s Nest Lodge which was constructed at the top of the falls in 1967, according to The Daily Herald. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the lodge functioned as a restaurant, dance hall and event center with possibly the world’s steepest arial tram bringing customers up and down the face of the rock wall.

On New Year’s Day 1996, the tram and restaurant were destroyed by a massive avalanche. In 2008, a fire swept the area, burning the remaining structure and tram house. Remnants of the site were removed in 2017 by Utah County.

In the winter you might be able to catch ice climbers scaling the bluff. In the summer you can cool off in the falls, wondering if you will ever meet someone who likes you enough to don a bridal veil and walk down the aisle to a different kind of waterfall — one filled with salty, happy tears.

You can picnic there too.

3. Ruins of Nunns Provo Power Plant

After seeing the lovely, lonely Bridal Veils Falls, make sure to stop by Nunns Park (a two-minute drive south). It was built on the ruins of the Nunns Provo Station Power Plant, which at the time, was the first 44,000 volt hydroelectric plant in America.

The plant was constructed in 1897 by Luclen L. Nunn using the Provo River’s current to power the mining town of Mercur, Utah, 32 miles away. When built, this project was almost “three times the voltage of any existing line in the nation at that time, and was by far the longest,” according to Utah County.

To staff his Provo plant, Nunn created a work study program. Upon completion, many graduates received scholarships to Cornell University, where Nunn was deeply connected. Look for remnants of the plant as you explore this bosky glen.

4. The Lakeside Museum at AAA Lakeside Storage

LaVorn “Sparky” Sparks has petrol in his veins. He worked at a gas station as a teen. Back in the 1970s he began restoring antique cars, and learned how to go scrounge for car parts. In the process, Sparky picked up a few old gas pumps, which he got for basically nothing.

In 2013, when Sparky and his wife were getting ready to serve a mission to Guatemala for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, they left their Lakeside Storage business under the care of their eldest son.

Sparky’s son suggested they “dress the place up” by restoring some of the antique gas pumps in storage. When the couple returned from their mission, their son was exploring the Utah Valley University annual swap meet, when he realized that gas signs have to go with the pumps. Sparky agreed, and that’s when the real collecting started.

Now the Lakeside Museum at Lakeside Storage boasts what is likely the world’s largest collection of pole signs (215 visible pole signs, with 14 waiting to be installed), generating interest internationally. Sparky told me he believes the second largest collection is in Lubbock, Texas, with around 150 signs.

He didn’t stop there, however. The museum displays a 1942 White brand half track military vehicle that he found in Fairfield, which he claims was in the Battle of the Bulge. Making only right turns from Rutherfordton, North Carolina, to Provo, Sparky also drove a carbon fiber P-51 Mustang fighter jet across the country. He painted the tail red, to celebrate the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. “They were awesome pilots — among the best.”

Why did he build this museum? “Kids grow up and are hardly aware of anything. The point is to stimulate questions that enable learning.”

When people see signs for Bay Oil, Frontier or Malco, they have the chance to learn about the young cash-strapped entrepreneurs who started these businesses, not the rich old men everyone imagines — “they had a dream and were willing to do what was necessary.”

Sparky is building an event center across the street that will hold 500 people, housing airplanes (like the tiny BD-5J featured in a “James Bond” movie), antique vehicles and hundreds of signs. He tells me it’s opening this spring.

5. Startup Candy Co. Chimney

In 1894, William, George and Walter Startup (grandfather of LuLaRoe founder DeAnne Startup Brady Stidham) revived their father’s Provo candy business. Their father, William Daw Startup, had been tragically killed over a decade earlier when he was lifting a sandstone cooling slab in his little candy shop and ruptured a blood vessel in his stomach.

According to family legend, William’s wife Hagar walked into the candy store after her husband’s funeral and found the cooled candy in a cold stove, untouched after the accident. She started a fire, heated the candy and sampled it. It was perfect. In this moment she felt the business would survive.

Despite raising her four children, two more from a second marriage and one baby girl she found abandoned on a train, Hagar managed to keep some semblance of the business afloat until her sons came of age to take over.

The three sons, using the tools their father had taken from England across the plains to Utah, and the recipes remembered by their mother, built a factory at 69 South 300 West. The Startup Candy Company claims to have made the first filled candy bar in the U.S., the Opera Bar, with three flavored layers of cream filling (it sold for 10 cents).

At its peak, the Startup Candy Co. employed “more than 175 people and covered half a city block” according to previous Deseret News reporting. Now, the old factory has been converted into coworking spaces and a wedding venue, but murals and the old factory chimney still remain visible. And the Startup Candy Co. has relocated its storefront to American Fork, where you can still buy the jumbo pops, chocolates and sugar toys.

6. ‘Castle Theatre’ —  Utah State Hospital

On 1300 East Center Street, nestled among the 3-acre grounds of a psychiatric hospital run by the Utah Department of Human Services, you can find a 800-seat, 18-tier stone amphitheater with various medieval battlements and towers scattered about the stone work. This was all built through federal New Deal programs such as Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.

Unemployed? Eating dusty maize? Try hauling boulders.

The amphitheater was envisioned as “the nucleus around which will be developed play areas, including four tennis courts, a handball court, and many other improvements of the sort,” according to Dr. Garland H. Pace, the superintendent of the hospital during the construction. He said “there will be picturesque paths winding over terraces and into gardens sheltered by retaining walls.” Most of those things never happened, but we have this stony staircase and grounds that have served as the backdrop for many wedding announcement photos of cash-strapped BYU students and the site of local bohemian concerts.

If it’s good enough for the Greeks (Medieval Greeks?), it’s good enough for us.

7. Provo’s Victorian Mansions

In the absence of anything else to do, the Provo City Landmarks Commission suggests a walking tour of historic homes. There are a number of Victorian mansions built by influential early families between 1893 and 1908.

The Reed Smoot home built in 1892 is on the Freedom Festival’s Provo Historic Tours pictured on June 25, 2010. | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

The National Register of Historic Places labels these houses as “the “Entrepreneurial Residences of turn-of-the-century Provo.” The mansions “All derive from the high style popular at then end of the 19th century: Eastlake, Italianate, Shingle, Craftsman, Moorish and the Classical, Romanesque and Colonial Revivals.” In the boom of Western expansions, these business owners used their new money from mining, banking, transportation and finance to construct exotic residences. If you have a keen architectural eye, enjoy the pentagonal fanlight gable windows and tin scalloped roofs, just remember — these are actual people’s houses so don’t be creepy.

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The Soap Factory deserves an honorable mention. Squirt a choice of 150-plus essential oils, and into a choice of 400-plus mold shapes to make your own soap. It’s like a blend of “Master Chef” and “Fight Club” except you can’t eat the final product, and you’re not rendering human lard. Take a date, a family or some corporate pals to have good clean fun.

The Provo Beach, which is not a beach but actually a family fun center, draws arcade lovers and laser taggers from all over the state. I’ve heard it’s fun to hang out, snack on popped corn and look for Midwest families with bathing suits and beach towels, who thought it was, in fact, a beach.

If you’re more into looking at metal objects, there is an interesting trail marker at 40° 13.954′ N, 111° 39.493′ W. Two Catholic priests of the Franciscan Order and their attendants, while looking for an overland route to Monterey, California, camped in Provo on Sept. 24, 1776. According to the engraving, they were the first known travelers to leave “a written record of the geography of the country and the character of its people.”

Now you know.

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