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.

Open-pit mining became practical with the invention of steam-powered shovels and railroads, which soon replaced picks and wheel barrels at Bingham Canyon Mine. Financing for the project came from the era's industry titans, including Meyer Guggenheim and John D. Rockefeller.

The day of my trip, the visitor center security guard -- Rosella Rauer, an 87-year-old grandmother who is also a history guide -- shared some of her recollections of the once-vibrant communities scattered across these hillsides.

In 1941, Rauer and her husband, a geologist, moved from Iowa to the company town of Bingham Canyon. She lovingly described the steep, narrow, one-lane community as "20,000 people and 40 nationalities -- we had everything."

At one exhibit booth, Rauer pointed out a photograph of her old home on Main Street across from the Gemmell Club. There, she attended dances, concerts and sporting events.

But the town had its seedier side. Like other Western mining communities, it was known for its bars, gambling joints and brothels. I couldn't help smirking when I discovered these dens of iniquity were frequented by allegedly upstanding Mormons from nearby Salt Lake City, according to Bingham Canyon's long-time mayor.

However, the residents of Bingham Canyon didn't own the land beneath their homes. Kennecott did, and decided to extract the minerals in the early 1970's; the town has since disappeared.

Decades before the visitor center and gift shop opened in 1992, the mine was a popular local attraction. Mary Poulson, 89, of Salt Lake City, last saw the pit when visiting friends living in the defunct town. She returned recently with her son, Steve Poulson, 63, also from Salt Lake City, and two of her great-grandchildren from Kentucky.

"I figured it's about time I came to look it over," Poulson explained.

What Lies Beneath

Steve Poulson, a retired stockbroker, praised Kennecott for cleaning up its operations. For decades, the concentrating, smelting and refining processes emitted a nonstop cloud that blew southward along the mountain range, and "it was really ugly," he said.

Unlike Salt Lake Valley, I couldn't see any smog hovering above Bingham Canyon.

The plume Poulson used to see along the mountain ridge was mainly sulfur dioxide, the primary byproduct of the copper-smelting process.

Kennecott says its new smelting plant, opened in 1995 (reportedly at a cost of $880 million), is the cleanest smelter in the world, capturing 99.9% of the emitted sulfur dioxide, a noxious gas, which is then used to generate power for plant operations or converted to sulfuric acid for agricultural uses.

Further, in the pit itself, trucks spray a million gallons of water a day on mining sites and dirt roads to reduce dust; company vehicles run on biodiesel fuels; and Kennecott's electricity plant operates with low-sulfur coal and natural gas.

But despite Kennecott's efforts, a century of smelting and refining copper ore has left an ugly legacy. Areas around the Bingham Canyon Mine are on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list of the nation's most polluted sites, as they contain dangerously high levels of lead, arsenic and selenium.

In recent years, however, Kennecott has attempted to "reclaim" thousands of acres by replacing polluted soils with clean topsoil and sowing thousands of native plants, such as sage, scrub oak, aspens and wildflowers. The southern waste area has become home to wild turkeys, owls, coyotes and other wildlife. North of the Bingham Canyon Mine, Kennecott has expanded an area to safely store polluted rock.

Bingham Canyon Mine

Back at the visitor center in the pit, as the methodical mining continued, I pondered the value of this rock and its role in the global economy.

Besides copper, Bingham Canyon Mine ore has produced a staggering treasure trove of other rare minerals, including more than 1.4 million pounds of gold, 12 million pounds of silver and 850 million pounds of molybdenum, a metal used for hardening steel or in special alloys.

Then I met the most animated visitor at Bingham Canyon Mine, 68-year-old Wolfgang Muller of Coswig, a small town near Dresden, Germany.

As a retired printing-machine technician, he enjoys "all things technical," he said. He and his wife, Ursula, learned about Bingham Canyon Mine in a chance encounter with a German tourist at a Utah state park.

Pointing across the pit's expanse, he said he was glad they visited, because "it's absolutely crazy."

Muller stole my words.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.

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