Utah State Railroad Museum

Image: Shutterstock

It seems hard to believe, but there was once a time in the not-too-distant past when Park City worked hard to erase all evidence of its boom-and-bust silver-mining roots. But thanks to the efforts of a few history-loving natives and transplants—the folks who founded the Park City Museum, Historic Preservation Board, Friends of Ski Mountain Mining History, and more—history is now a celebrated part of this mountain town’s identity. Acts of citizen historic preservation are not unique to Park City, however. Unexpected museums, filled with fascinating artifacts curated by locals with a passion for everything from bullets to bugs, dot the landscape throughout Utah. Following are some of the more memorable collections waiting to be found, both nearby and slightly farther afield.

Tom Whitaker, founder of the Heber Valley Western Music & Cowboy Poetry Gathering (October 24–27), opens his Cowboy Museum (510 N River Rd, Midway) to the public only twice a year: once during the gathering and again on the Fourth of July. Whitaker’s astounding personal collection includes the railroad room, Indian and cowboy room, and a Western brothel, set up out back in a restored pioneer cabin. Even the museum’s exterior, decorated with cacti and a windmill from Iowa, reflects the Wild West.

Immortalizing the big birds of World War II and sharing the past with plane buffs are the goals of the Heber Valley CAF (Commemorative Air Force) Wing Air Museum (Heber Valley Airport, 630 Airport Rd, 435.709.7269, open Thursday–Sunday, May 1–October 31). There you’ll find aircraft like the Boeing PT-17/N2S Stearman. Volunteers will graciously guide you through displays on women in aviation and commercial aircraft as well. You can also book a ride in a biplane, if you plan ahead.

Heber Valley CAF Wing Air Museum

Image: Shutterstock

For those with a thing for wheels over wings, there’s no better ode to vintage race cars than the Price Museum of Speed (165 E 600 South, SLC, 801.906.0157, tours by appointment only). Ogle more than 30 international speedsters—including the 1929 Bugatti 35B Racer and 1938 Mormon Meteor III—housed in downtown Salt Lake City.

The Robinson Transport Museum (875 W Main St, across US 50 from the Robinson Transport Yard, Salina, 435.529.7472) is a truck fancier’s paradise, housing such lovelies as a ’72 Brockway and a ’44 Mack. The museum is open by appointment only, except for the second weekend of September, when truck lovers from across the country converge on Salina for the Antique Truck Show, held this year September 7–9 (Salina City offices, 435.529.7304, salinacity.org).  

The West was won by John Ford and John Wayne, so say the curators of the Moab Museum of Film & Western Heritage (Milepost 14 Hwy 128, Moab, 866.812.2002, redcliffs lodge.com, open daily 8 a.m.–10 p.m.), located inside the Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab, which served as a backdrop for cowboy classics like Wagon Master, Rio Grande, Son of Cochise, and more. The self-guided, free museum displays movie posters and costumes from the early films to the present. When you’re done looking around, cozy up to the Castle Creek wine bar, also inside Red Cliffs, for free wine tasting noon–7 p.m. 

The small Goulding’s Trading Post Museum (1000 Main St, Monument Valley, 435.727.3231, open daily 8 a.m.–8 p.m.), located inside Goulding’s Lodge, tells the story of the lodge’s beginnings as a trading post, famous Old West movies filmed there, and Navajo tribal art history. Bonus: classic John Ford films are screened in the movie room there. 

John Wesley Powell River History Museum

The Denver and Rio Grande railroads established Helper, Utah, as a hub for coal miners and their families in the late 1800s. Their story continues to be told through the exhibits housed in the Western Mining and Railroad Museum (294 S Main St, Helper, 435.472.3009, open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., free tours upon request). The three floors, plus the basement, are filled with railroad and mining memorabilia, as well as exhibits on the company store life and the war years. The third floor is said to be haunted.

One-stop historical immersion best describes Ogden’s Union Station (2501 Wall Ave, 801.393.9890, open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.), where four museums reside under one roof. All are worth the trip, but two are particularly well done: the Utah State Railroad Museum, loved by kiddos, fantasy conductors, and general train buffs, begins outside with a display of rare full-size locomotives and autos, including a gas-turbine train. And then, even if you’re anti-gun, the John M. Browning Firearms Museum, a tribute to Mr. Browning and his original firearms from mini pistols to sporting rifles, is worth the time to experience the tremendous array of guns and family history.

On your way to Moab or after a float through Desolation Canyon, be sure to stop at the compact John Wesley Powell River History Museum (765 E Main St, Green River, 435.564.3427, open Monday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Sunday, noon–5 p.m.), a celebration of the explorers who first discovered and mapped the Colorado and Green rivers. This museum includes photos and interactive displays, as well as dinosaur replicas and fossil records in the basement.

Monte L. Bean Life Science  Museum

The free Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum (Brigham Young University, 645 E 1420 North, Provo, 801.422.5050, open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.) is a taxidermy zoo featuring hundreds of animals, including full-size giraffes, a bull elephant, and Shasta, a liger that was born and lived at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo from 1948 to 1972. There’s also a touch-and-feel area for kids and a free weekly live-animal show.

You don’t need to stray far from Park City, to envelop yourself in Utah history. For a look back at the rough-and-tumble silver mining heyday, ski resort revival, and 2002 Olympic Winter Games, stop into these two well-curated local museums.

See this mint-condition 1926 Graham Brothers Dodge fire truck at the Park City Museum. 

The Park City Museum’s (528 Main St, 435.649.7457, parkcityhistory.org, open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–7 p.m., Sunday, noon–6 p.m.) colorful, interactive exhibits showcase the heart and soul of this silver mining town, including clothes from the time, ore carts, a pristinely restored fire engine, and the actual territorial jail. The museum’s Tozier gallery hosts temporary exhibits, including Once Upon a Playground, on display through October 16.    

The 2002 Olympic Winter Games Museum is chock-full of memorabilia, from the actual torch from the Torch Relay to Closing Ceremonies costumes. 

In 2002, the world had Park City in its sights. The Alf Engen Ski Museum and Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games Museum at the Utah Olympic Park (3419 Olympic Pkwy, 435.658.4240, open daily 9 a.m.–6 p.m.) are filled with flashbacks to those Winter Olympic Games, as well as a detailed account of the history of skiing in Utah, from the infamous skier subway to profiles of Park City’s current hometown ski heroes.

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