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All That Glitters

Astronauts in space can identify just two man-made objects on earth. The Great Wall of China is one. The other is the Bingham Canyon Mine, the world's largest open-pit excavation, located 25 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

While most people are familiar with the Great Wall, Bingham Canyon Mine is virtually unknown. More than 2.5 miles wide and 4,000 feet deep -- it's so vast, it produces its own weather patterns -- the mine is open to visitors from April through October.

I recently traveled there and discovered the surreal splendor of this mine, which, in a bizarre way, rivals Utah's natural wonders.

The hills here hold the richest copper deposit in the world, so far yielding more than 17.5 million tons over the past century. Mine operations are planned through 2018 to make the pit wider and deeper; after open-pit mining ceases, underground mining is expected to commence.

On the visitor center's sky-high promontory, I met similarly intrigued tourists from across the U.S. and around the world.

Jan Jorgensen and his wife, Kirstine Dahl, both 38, knew of the mine before traveling from Denmark. Other Danes raved about it and insisted they visit, Jorgensen said.

"It's amazing -- so, so huge," he said. "I've never seen anything like this before."

As Jorgensen and Dahl spoke about the mine, we watched as dozens of specially-designed trucks -- each the size of a large house, with wheels nearly 13 feet in diameter -- continuously hauled loads of up to 320 tons of rock from that day's mining site, about two miles away.

Bingham Canyon Mine is owned and operated by Kennecott Utah Copper , a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto Plc (RTP). Kennecott posted profits last year of $1.037 billion, driven largely by higher mineral prices and demand for metals in China, officials say.

Mining and tourism are top industries throughout Utah. The state lures millions of people to its main attractions, such as winter ski resorts, national parks and Temple Square, the Mormon hub in downtown Salt Lake City.

By comparison, the Bingham Canyon Mine Visitor Center attracted just 154,000 visitors last year. But this hidden gem, with an admission price of $5 per car, offers great value and a unique experience.

Food and Board

For tourists, a trip to Bingham Canyon Mine is, by necessity, a day trip from Salt Lake City or a stopover en route to another place, such as Zion National Park near Cedar City, Utah. There are few services near the mine.

For accommodations in downtown Salt Lake City, try the luxury Grand America Hotel (executive suites range from $249-$329), or the boutique Hotel Monaco ($119-$209). The New Yorker restaurant offers a good variety of seafood and steak entrees; the parent company also has excellent sister restaurants across Salt Lake Valley.

A Rich History

The Bingham Canyon Mine Visitor Center is located in the middle of the pit, at 6,200 feet above sea level; the highest peaks above soar to 9,000 feet. Since 1906, miners have been carving the canyon into the shape of a funnel, laced with a spiral of terraced roads.

Before getting enticed by the vistas, though, do watch the 16-minute film in the visitor center, which details the canyon's geology, the mine's history and current operations.

Mining began at Bingham Canyon in 1863, after gold was discovered there. Copper mining followed years later, to meet new demand for copper wiring for electricity.

But extracting this copper would prove to be a mammoth task. The ore here is of an extremely low grade, averaging a purity of less than 0.6%, and deposited throughout the entire mountain.

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