Fantasy Canyon is an area composed of unique erosional features located about 27 miles (41 miles to drive) south of Vernal, in northeastern Utah. Even though the area is only about 10 acres in size, it contains some of the most unique geologic features in the world. The site was officially documented by early explorer and paleontologist Earl Douglass, who recorded the area by other names such as “The Devil’s Playground” and “Hades Pit.” He published photographs of this area in a 1909 publication called “The Columbian Magazine.”
The rocks of Fantasy Canyon were deposited during the Eocene Epoch. The age of the rocks date around 38 to 50 million years ago. During the geologic period, the Uinta Basin was occupied by a large lake called Lake Uinta. The lake extended 120 miles west to Heber City, 30 miles east to Rangely, south to the Book Cliff Divide, north to the Unita Mountains, and was about a half mile deep.
Fantasy Canyon is along the east shore of what was once Lake Uinta, where the sediments eroded from the surrounding high lands.
Sediments were deposited and the once loose sands, silts, and clays were forged into sandstone and shale.
Because of different rates of weathering, the more durable sandstone remained while the more easily weathered siltstone
and shale washed away, yielding this spectacular scenery.
Today’s geologic formations of Fantasy Canyon will eventually give way to weather and then topple and erode into sand, but new formations will appear as the topsoil washes away. Because the delicate formations are so fragile the area is referred to as “Nature’s China Shop.”
There are black ribbons of coal-like material along the small washes on the trail or as horizontal stripes in the rocks. This magnetic material is called magnetite (iron oxide). It is the only mineral which shows strong magnetism. Magnetite was named for Magnes, a Greek shepherd, who discovered the mineral on Mount Ida, Australia. He noted the nails of his shoes and the iron ferrule of his staff clung to a rock.
There are inch-wide black vertical northwest – southeast running veins in the formations. This material is called "Gilsonite" (hydrocarbon), named after U.S. Marshall Samuel H. Gilson. Gilsonite was discovered in the early 1860’s, but it was not until the mid-1880’s that Gilson began to promote the mineral as a waterproof coating for wooden pilings, as an insulation for wire cable, and as a unique varnish.
The Uinta formation is an important keeper of a portion of the fossil record for this area. It contains the widely scattered bones of creatures, mostly mammals, which roamed the Basin during the Eocene. Fossilized turtle shells are visible in the area.
Ca. 41 mi (66 km) drive from Vernal, Utah.
Leave Vernal, head south on 40 for ca. 3.9 mi. At junction to 45 take the 45 South for ca. 20 mi until you reach CR-3260 where you turn West. From here on you should find signage directing you to Fantasy Canyon. Follow CR-3260 for ca. 12.6 mi and turn East onto an unpaved road and drive 4.4 mi to Fantasy Canyon.
Note: Route and distances are official information given by the Bureau of Land Management, Vernal, Utah.