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Utahns know the major attractions in our own backyard, like the Mighty Five National Parks. But with these parks attracting many millions of visitors a year in 2021, you might want to venture off the beaten track and away from the crowds. Think outside the box with four overlooked gems of the Beehive State.
Before you set off, stop at Maverik for gas and don’t forget your favorite snacks and drinks along the way.
Tattoo? No, only Vernal, Utah.
It may have sand planet vibes, but Fantasy Canyon is about 40 miles southeast of Vernal. It consists of fantastically shaped and colored rock formations rising from clay beds. The area is only about 10 acres but has some of the most unique geological features in the world that wouldn’t look out of place on a Star Wars set.
Early explorer Earl Douglass first brought the site into the world picture when he published photos of it in 1909. The US Bureau of Land Management states that the sediments that make up these rock formations were deposited about 50 million years ago during the Eocene. At that time the Uinta Basin was completely covered by water and loose silt and clay was deposited and hardened over the years into this geological marvel.
Kids will have fun exploring these desert wonders, while adults can brush up on their geology by reading the self-guided tour signs scattered throughout the attraction. To make a day out of it, Fantasy Canyon is the perfect stopover after a rafting trip on the nearby White River.
Rising from the earth like ancient sentinels, Goblin Valley’s hoodoos will capture your imagination. In fact, they have captured the imagination for millennia, as evidenced by petroglyphs left by Native American tribes such as the Fremont, Paiute, and Ute. These rock formations – nicknamed the goblins – are made of Entrada sandstone deposited during the Jurassic period more than 140 million years ago. In modern history, cowboys looking for cattle first encountered the remote valley.
Goblin Valley is an adventurer’s paradise with opportunities for camping, hiking, mountain biking, rappelling and star gazing. Hiking is particularly family-friendly. There are four popular loop trails, all under two miles that gain less than about 200 feet in elevation, making it a great option for first-time hikers or hikers with kids.
The area is designated as a state park and is located south of Interstate-70, about an hour from Capitol Reef National Park. Just don’t be surprised if it feels like you’re on another planet!
If you long to go far off the beaten path (literally) to where the tarmac ends, Horseshoe Canyon might be for you. On a map it sits squarely between Goblin Valley and Moab, but is almost impossible to get to. The National Park Service warns, “Don’t rely on a GPS device to guide you to Horseshoe Canyon. Use a map instead.” Several other bold warnings describe the total lack of water at the trailhead and along the trail, and the strenuous hike involved.
Those who rise to the occasion, however, will be rewarded with the chance to see perhaps the most spectacular existing rock markers in North America.
The “Grand Gallery” contains huge, life-size pictographs (painted figures) and petroglyphs (figures etched into the rock with a sharp stone). These date from between 2000 and 500 BC. Archaeological evidence of early mammoth-hunting humans found there dates to 9000 BC. Chr.
As if this story wasn’t rich enough, outlaws like Butch Cassidy used the canyons as a labyrinthine hideout in the late 1800s. The 1900s brought ranchers who built cattle trails through the ravines and a water pumping system to allow cattle to forage in the barren area. In 1971, Horseshoe Canyon was added to Canyonlands National Park to provide protection for future generations, but it is a separate area and not part of the main park.
Southern Utah may get all the attention for its red rock formations, but northern Utah boasts 10 square miles of incredibly unique granite boulders. The best part is that it is relatively unknown. Skip the neighborhood playground and head to Devil’s Playground in Box Elder County instead.
Climb boulders, dive into caves, and weave through arches and ledges. The formations are a combination of Tertiary (about 38 million years old) granitic rocks on top of Paleozoic sedimentary rocks. Coarse-grained magma later worked its way through the surface, resulting in long veins of harder rock that eerily resemble giant ribs or spines.
Millions of years of weathering have sculpted the softer parts into arches, towers and niches that invite closer inspection. But be warned, the site has no designated hiking trails or restrooms and is more of a choose-your-own-adventure experience. Visitors may drive OHVs or other motor vehicles on designated routes within the area, and primitive camping is also permitted.
To get there there are two routes. Motorists can take I-80 West from Salt Lake City to Wendover and then travel northeast on Nevada State Route 233 for approximately 60 miles. The other option is to drive to Tremonton and take I-84 and then Highway 30. Whatever you choose, you’re almost guaranteed crowd-free and panoramic views of the nearby Grouse Creek Mountains.
Start every Utah adventure with Maverik
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