Coffee And Mountain Culture Converge At Higher Ground in Salt Lake City

The nexus of ski, bike, climb and coffee culture in Salt Lake might just be Higher Ground. Positioned on a corner micro-lot, it sits just minutes from the base of Wasatch Boulevard, a thoroughfare connecting Utah’s Cottonwood canyons on one end and spilling onto a freeway whisking tourists to the ski town of Park City on the other. Outdoor shops are sprinkled about its vicinity, catching Salt Lake’s active with last-minute needs before they tear free from the city’s confines to pound dirt or undulate through powder. All considered, it’s no wonder Higher Ground, a coffee shop owned by alpinist Kyle Dempster is frequented by a “crunchier” clientele.

Step in the door and you’ll find lacquered pallet tables and periodicals from Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy lining the wall, along with license plates, clay mugs and local art. Stacks of books fill the recesses of a rustic coffee table, including a pictorial apology to the world for the reelection of George W. Bush (“Sorry Everybody”), a vintage copy of “Conan the Barbarian” and a worn volume of “Calvin & Hobbes.”

Tree branches frame the chalk menus hanging above pastries and a lone barista. I maneuver past open-backed chairs and order what never fails: a small chai — “Hot, please” — then pull a ham and cheese croissant from the plastic display on the counter and take a hungry bite.

Planting myself between a space heater and the wall, I sink into the atmosphere. The place exposes too many air ducts to be termed “cozy,” but its rustic elements fend off the term “cold.” Higher Ground’s environment lies somewhere on the edge, not unlike the P-tex and duct tape-filled lives of the adventurers filing in.

I’m dressed in ski wear which invites conversation. Three different people approach me to discuss backcountry conditions, concerned about the high avalanche danger. I alleviate worries by explaining I’m hiking low-angle slopes and saving the skiing for later. Holding their coffees in one hand, they leave me with updates on road restrictions and friendly, but unemotional goodwill for “safe travels out there.”

One woman forgets her gloves. Though I didn’t take the opportunity to learn her name in our exchange, the barista needs no help. Spotting the crimson pair on the counter, she leaves her station to head off the customer, calling her by name. It’s not uncommon in this shop for folks to know each other. After all, they sew their lives together with the same thread that weaves throughout this region: the outdoors. Conversation is easy.

Realizing I’m still holding an unsipped cup of warm chai, I rectify my neglect and take a careful sample of the spicy, rich liquid. And since the cafe’s chai never fails, I know I will yet again see the micro-lot on the corner, remember the unattached kinship found there and stop to place an order with the barista, who, at this rate, will soon need no help remembering my name.

Check it out at 2005 E 3300 S Salt Lake City, UT  84109.