Family Vacation Ideas Inspired by Family History

About five years ago, my wife and I realized we didn’t know as much as we wanted to about our family history, so we decided to learn more. As we gathered journals and old photos from our grandparents, it was fascinating to learn about the joys and struggles our ancestors endured as they laid the foundation for our family. Now that most of our kids are older, my wife and I have started sharing family history with them and have loved watching their interest in their family history grow.

Last fall, we had the opportunity to take our kids to New York City for the first time and while visiting Ellis Island, we were able to locate my wife’s great grandpa’s name on the Immigrant Wall of Honor. Seeing his name and hearing the story of how he traveled all alone from Italy to America at the age of 16, sparked our kids’ interest in learning more about their great-great-grandpa.

Heber City Railroad Heber City Railroad

After returning home from our trip, my wife and I dove into even more research about her great-grandpa. We quickly learned that he and his wife eventually settled in Utah where he became a boilermaker for the Union Pacific Railroad. We were excited to find that one of the original steam locomotives that he worked on was located at a train station in Heber City, Utah, just a few hours from our home. After calling the train station, we discovered that the old locomotive was no longer in operation but was on display in their train yard. The railroad also offered a 90-minute train ride on a diesel train that followed the original route and in the original train cars from Heber City to Provo Canyon. The route winds around Deer Creek Reservoir and turns around at the base of the beautiful Mount Timpanogos. We immediately started making plans to take a trip out to see the old locomotive and take a ride down its old route, knowing it was the perfect way to extend our kids’ excitement about their ancestor.  

Our family has a tradition of visiting Salt Lake City every winter. We stay downtown for a couple of nights and go ice skating, shopping and skiing. Since Heber City is less than an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, this was the perfect opportunity to weave our family history into our traditional family vacation. We added one more day to cruise up the mountain, visit the train station and go for a ride. 

Heber City Train Station Heber City, Utah, Train Station

On the last day of our family trip to Salt Lake City, we woke up early, quickly ate breakfast and began our drive toward Heber City. The ride up the mountain was so beautiful! I would recommend to anyone who is traveling to Salt Lake City to pick up your Alamo rental car at Salt Lake City International Airport and take the drive up Parleys Canyon to Heber City.  As we pulled up to the station, we immediately spotted the old locomotive. We walked up to the train and no one spoke (a rare moment in our family of eight). We all just stood there, gazing up at the massive mechanical monster. I wondered what thoughts were piercing my kids’ brains as they imagined their great-great-grandpa building the heart of this giant beast.

Inside the Heber City Railroad train Heber City Railroad souvenir ticket (left), and inside the train (right)

Soon the whistle of the diesel engine blew, and the conductor yelled “all aboard.” It was like we had stepped back in time for a moment, and I was loving every minute of it. We entered the old train cars and the train pulled away with my kids glued to the windows. The train’s slow pace was perfect after our fun, fast-paced days in Salt Lake City. The backdrop was almost surreal as we curved around Deer Creek Reservoir and drew closer to the base of the looming Timpanogos.

View outside the Heber City Railroad train View from the Heber City Railroad train

While walking from the food car back to our seats, I noticed the perfect spot between cars to snap photos as the train wound up and down the mountainside. My oldest daughter received her first DSLR camera for Christmas, so I hurried back to tell her about the spot. We both grabbed our cameras and spent the next 10 minutes talking and snapping photos. She has recently found a love for photography, and it was a moment I hope to never forget.

Inside the Heber City Railroad train Inside the Heber City Railroad train

As the train paused during its turnaround point, my older boys and I scanned Mount Timpanogos for the route that leads to the top of the 13,000-foot peak. Last year, my boys and I hiked the two tallest peaks in our county, and by the time the train started on its way back to the station, we had added Timpanogos to our list of peaks to bag this summer.

Mount Timpanogos Mount Timpanogos

For those of you wanting to ride the Heber Valley Railroad, the train runs almost every day and leaves the station in the late morning or early afternoon. Heber City is just a few miles north of great skiing or shopping at Park City. If you need a place to stay in Heber City, we recommend the Zermatt Resort and Spa in Midway. This resort is styled after a Swiss mountain lodge and is located near the base of the Wasatch Range. It's a 30-minute drive to several ski resorts, and the hotel runs a shuttle to many of them. The resort also offers two nice restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As the train pulled into the station and our adventure came to an end, the excitement of the ride could be seen in my kids’ smiles, and they were eager to add the train ride to our annual family trip. As parents, we never know which moments with our kids will turn into priceless memories. I had no idea that when we decided to add this train ride to our standing tradition that we would build a new one. One that is even more meaningful because of the sense of pride the kids feel, knowing that their great-great-grandpa was integral in building that same train many years ago. It must have been this sense of pride that gave us an entire 90-minute ride with no fighting, even though there was no Wi-Fi or TV! This trip was an opportunity for us to disconnect from our devices and reconnect with each other. We love traveling with our kids because not only does it give us new adventures, but it creates amazing memories that we would never have if we just sat at home.  

If you are looking for other ways to make memories that last, check out these family vacation traditions to consider.

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About the Author

Alan Lawrence

Alan Lawrence is the father of six incredible kids and married to his best friend. His family is his number one pastime, but he also enjoys photography, tech and the outdoors. He started his blog, That Dad Blog, in October 2014 shortly after his son Wil was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. He hopes to inspire others to find joy in every opportunity in life.