The Natural History Museum of Utah opened in 2011 and it’s been a favorite outing for our family ever since, especially because it’s just a short drive from our home. Located on the University of Campus (near Red Butte Gardens), this gorgeous building features 5 floors of Utah-focused science exhibits and has a lot to offer everyone…even the littles.
If you’re planning a trip with a toddler or preschooler, the best time to visit is in the afternoon on a weekday, when the school groups are finished and the museum has quieted down. Our favorite time slot is 2pm – 5pm, although two hours is about as much science as my kids can handle at one time without getting antsy. Parking is free, but unless you have a family membership any children ages 3 and older are $9. They do offer the occasional free day, but in my opinion the crowds make those days not worth it. There are so many hands-on activities that it’s really better to be there when you aren’t competing with all the other kids!
When you enter the museum and go up to the 2nd level to enter the exhibits, they usually tell you that most people take the elevator to the 5th floor and then work their way back down. I prefer to go the opposite direction, making a right toward the “Our Backyard” kids play area. This is a place where the kids can move around and be a little crazy in a safe space, so we usually hang out for a bit until some of their energy is tapped and we can move on. There are also a few live animal exhibits in this part of the museum.
From there, we go toward the Past Worlds exhibit, a huge room featuring a very impressive collection of fossils. On the left, you can peek into the Paleo Prep Lab and see scientists working on real materials. When I was younger, my favorite science teacher joined the museum team as a researcher and I remember that she was thrilled about it because it was kind of a big deal. I still look for her whenever we’re at the museum.
I love all of the different ways the museum has worked to engage kids. They have exhibits above and below and many of the exhibits have interactive features that engage the senses.
The kids still love the huge dinosaur exhibits the best though and we make a game out of trying to count the bones or coming up with silly names for the dinosaurs. I’m sure that as they get older it will be handy to have these exhibits on hand for that part of our homeschool journey, but for now I’m just happy to let them play in the dinosaur dig area.
As you walk up the ramp that leads you out of the Past Worlds exhibit, there’s a landing that has a lot of exhibits related to the Great Salt Lake. It’s all pretty interesting, but there isn’t a lot for little hands so my kids usually breeze right through and head to the First Peoples exhibit.
Utah is the home to many famous dinosaur digs, but I don’t think that people realize how many archeological sites are actually dedicated to the prehistoric people who lived in the Great Basin area. This exhibit has a nice collection of things found here in Utah (baskets, tools, jewelry, etc.) and they’ve recreated an archeological site in concrete that the kids can climb around on. Mom tip: the site is authentic (i.e. uneven) and it’s easy for little feet to trip and get twisted in the holes so if your kids aren’t careful climbers you’ll probably want to climb down there with them to be the spotter.
If you make it to this area earlier in the afternoon, they do occasionally have museum guides on hand with extra exhibits or just to answer questions. We’ve seen basket weaving lesson, examined artifacts to guess what they once were, and even had the chance to “discover” some artifacts in the dig area. Most of the time, though, the floor is quiet and it’s just another place to play.
Here’s where the next step in your museum tour is up to you: if you continue moving up the ramp, you’ll encounter a lot of exhibits about the land in Utah. They’ve done a great job with them and you can see rock samples, explore how water and wind currents shape the terrain, and play around with your own earthquake-making seismic waves. My beef with this area is that it’s the least little-hands accessible area and somehow the most appealing, so when we walk through it there are always a ton of things that the kids want to mess with but there isn’t much they can really do on their own. So, we do go through this area occasionally, but I only take them through when it’s not crowded or we have a lot of time because it’s mostly just them fighting over who gets to play with the experiment they’re too little to understand anyway.
Most of the time, we head to the elevators from the First Peoples exhibit, go up a floor, and enter the Life exhibit from the beginning.
I love the Life area because there’s so much for the kids to do. The best is when the classroom area is open (as it is most of the time in the afternoon) because they leave many of the materials on the tables and you’re free to explore. Some of the baskets contain puzzles and puppets while others have curated specimens to study. Eva’s favorite basket has a bunch of different animal droppings and she likes to guess which poop is which poop.
Outside of the classroom area, the Life exhibits are divided by topic and each area has at least one interesting element that’s easily accessible.
Note to locals who haven’t been in the museum since it reopened: the Life exhibits are also where you’ll find the taxidermic animal displays we all grew up with at the old museum down on President’s Circle.
Once you’ve been through the Life exhibit, you can head back to the elevators and go up to the 5th floor for the Sky exhibit and the Native Voices exhibit. I like to end with the 5th floor because (A) the kids are always a little wiped out by the time I’ve made them climb all the way up here, (B) at the end of the day it’s pretty empty so they’re less likely to bug people by running around, (C) the sunset views from the Sky terrace are the best, and (D) these two exhibits have the least to offer little hands in terms of a hands-on experience.
That last point is important because if you don’t make it to the 5th floor, your kids aren’t likely to as disappointed as they would be if you had to miss the dinosaur fossils on the 2nd floor and if you are ending the day up there, your kids aren’t as likely to whine about leaving as they would be if you were trying to peel them out of the Our Backyard kid discovery place.
One last thing to mention: the museum admission often includes access to special exhibits and they do a great job with them, but they aren’t always there. If you are visiting during a special exhibit, they usually give you information about that when you pick up your ticket and the exhibits are located on the third floor past the (awesome!) gems and minerals wall over by the elevators. There are also terraces on each level that are accessible when the weather is nice, but you have to be sure to hang onto your ticket or you won’t be able to get back into the building.