Treasure chest: Utah is a cornucopia of exciting outdoor sites

Published: Wednesday, March 23 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

A mountain goat stands on a ledge in Little Cottonwood Canyon. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News archives) A mountain goat stands on a ledge in Little Cottonwood Canyon. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News archives)

Lake Powell, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Flaming Gorge.

All well-known. All popular attractions. All in Utah.

The big four are among the state's most visited wonders.

But then there are Fisher Towers, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, San Francisco Mountain, Waterpocket Fold, Peak-A-Boo Gulch, Jarvie Historical Ranch, Black Dragon Canyon, Valley of the Gods and Crystal Ball Cave.

Certainly not as well-known. Certainly not as frequently visited. But, again, all in Utah.

Utah is, indeed, a treasure chest of natural wonders that some people are well aware of, but many more that they are not so familiar with.

Valley of the Gods in the morning. (Jennifer Ackerman, Deseret News archives) Valley of the Gods in the morning. (Jennifer Ackerman, Deseret News archives)

Some of those lesser-known sites include:

In Salt Lake County: There's the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which will someday stretch from Idaho to Nephi, roughly 280 miles. It runs along the eastern bench of the valley. The trail follows closely the shoreline of old Lake Bonneville, which once covered most of Utah.

The trail is open to hiking, biking and running, and offers spectacular views of the valley. About 100 miles of the trail have been completed. The most improved section, consisting mostly of dirt and paved pathways, runs from Farmington to Parleys Canyon.

In Grand County: there is one of the state's more well-know rock-art panels — Newspaper Rock south of Moab. But there are a number of rock-art sites closer to town, including the Golf Course Rock Art, which is only 4 miles from town, and the Kane Creek Site, which is about 3 miles from town.

The last light of day spotlights a colorful peak above the Wilcox Ranch in the Book Cliffs' Range Creek, Utah. (Ray Boren, Deseret News archives) The last light of day spotlights a colorful peak above the Wilcox Ranch in the Book Cliffs' Range Creek, Utah. (Ray Boren, Deseret News archives)

A backdrop for many Hollywood movies is Fisher Tower, located east of Moab. There is a popular hike — 2.2 miles — leading to this landmark site along the Colorado River.

In Washington County: There's Zion National Park, which tends to grab most of the headlines. Kolob Canyons near the northern border of the park is no less spectacular but draws far less traffic. The rugged sandstone canyons come with a very unique geological history and beautiful formations. The entrance to the canyons is south of Cedar City.

Inside the park, there is a 14.5-mile hike that takes visitors to Kolob Arch, the largest natural arch in the world. It spans 310 feet.

In Juab County: One of the more remote sites in Utah is Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. It is an oasis in the Great Basin Desert. Even thought it's in the desert, even in the driest of years, the water supply varies very little, which is good because 278 different species of birds make annual stops at the wetland refuge. The refuge holds the only trees within 25 miles, which makes it a natural draw to passing birds. Fish Springs covers about 17,992 acres, of which 10,000 acres are marshlands.

Gordon Creek Bridge located 9 miles southwest of Helper in Carbon County. () Gordon Creek Bridge located 9 miles southwest of Helper in Carbon County. ()

The water supply to the refuge comes from nearby mountain snowpack that melted anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 years ago.

One of the state's most popular rockhounding areas for amateurs and professionals is Topaz Mountain, located near the center of the county. It is, of course, where that Utah state gem, topaz, can be found. On sunny days, the topaz crystals, which are nearly the same hardness as diamonds, sparkle like diamonds. There are also other gems found on the mountain, including garnets, red beryl, pseudo-brookite, needles, bixbyite and hermatite. Visitors are welcome to pick up these rock gems on the surface or dig with their fingers, but they need a permit if opting to dig for the gems with tools.

In Piute County: Visitors can pan for gold. Several years ago, Bullion Canyon, which flows into Bullion Creek, experienced one of those 100-year floods. As a result, a new batch of minerals flowed down into the creek. An increasing number of people have been visiting the creek and panning for what they call "black sand," which contains very small traces of gold.

Hikers leave the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and search for the perfect lunch spot for valley views. Trail views up Dry Creek Canyon and over on the Shoreline Trail. (Steve Baker, Deseret News archives) Hikers leave the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and search for the perfect lunch spot for valley views. Trail views up Dry Creek Canyon and over on the Shoreline Trail. (Steve Baker, Deseret News archives)

This is also a popular area with rockhounders. A rough count shows there are approximately 30 semiprecious stones that can be found in the area that rockhounders are able to cut and polish. There is also a number of sites where early craftsmen chipped arrow and lance heads. There is also a number of caves that were used by the early Americans and can be explored.

In Beaver County, west of the town of Milford, along U-21 in the San Francisco Mountains, and what remains today of the town of Frisco. It once held a population of more than 4,000 people. Still standing are some of the kilns used in the processing of gold and silver.

The San Francisco Mountains also hold herds of wild horses that freely roam the area.

A few miles outside of the town of Beaver, along U.S. 153, next to the road, is a number of ice caves, some big enough to allow upward of three people to stand and be cooled. Early residents used to store their fresh game in the caves to cool before heading home.

The many shades of autumn speckle the canyon walls in Zion National Park, below a window cut for the roadway. (Ray Boren, Deseret News archives) The many shades of autumn speckle the canyon walls in Zion National Park, below a window cut for the roadway. (Ray Boren, Deseret News archives)

In Carbon County: Range Creek Canyon is located behind the Book Cliffs near the Carbon-Emery county border approximately 130 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Concealed in this remote Utah canyon is a string of ancient Indian settlements that are remarkably well-preserved.

Archaeologists estimate as many as 250 households occupied this canyon. They left half-buried stone-and-mortar houses, arrow shafts, cob houses, granary caches and colorful figures painted on canyon walls.

A rider cruises past the sunset on her mountain bike along the Slick Rock Trail in Moab. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) A rider cruises past the sunset on her mountain bike along the Slick Rock Trail in Moab. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

In Wayne County: One of the rarely seen sights is Horseshoe Canyon, which is detached from Canyonlands National Park. The canyon is along the road leading into the Maze District. It holds one of the greatest galleries of early Indian rock art in the world. The canyon is about 30 miles inland over the Maze road, which is dirt. There is a parking area near the trailhead to the canyon, and primitive camping is permitted. The hike into the canyon is about six miles round-trip.

The Maze road also leads to some of the lesser-seen splendors within the park, such as the Doll House area, which overlooks the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

In Garfield County: Find the Waterpocket Fold, which is a landform that truly defines Capitol Reef National Park. The fold itself extends for roughly 100 miles and can be accessed by three routes within the park. One of the more noted landmarks is called Golden Throne. During the daytime, the sandstone give off a golden glow.

Visitors can also find a number of slot canyons in the county. Two of the most popular are Peak-A-Boo and Spooky Gulch. They are about a mile apart. Hike up one, cross over and hike down the second.

The canyons are very narrow in places with walls reaching up hundreds of feet that, at times, block out the sun. This is an area rich in very early history, too. Paleontologists searching near Cannonville found remains of a hadrosaur (duckbill dinosaur) whose skull is on display at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

In Box Elder County: Visitors will find the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Few people, however, realize the history of the section of old railroad grade from the monument to the town of Lucin near the Utah/Nevada border.

The railroad grade was built primarily by Chinese laborers who helped complete the transcontinental railroad. Along the way is a number of bridges, each with its own signature design. There is a couple of old-town sites that were strategically placed to provide comforts for the passengers and fuel and water for the trains. There is a dirt road alongside the grade that four-wheel vehicles can follow, first to Locomotive Springs and then to what was the town of Kelton and on to Lucin. From there, the road turns south to Wendover.

In Sevier County: There is the Paiute ATV Trail, which covers 260 miles and runs over three mountain ranges — Monroe Mountains, Pahvant Range and Tushar Mountains — and rises from a depth of 5,100 feet to a height of 12,000 feet.

What makes the loop so unique is its accessibility. There is a number of towns in the area that have access to the trail, which means people can actually leave the trail to spend a night, then return and resume the ride for a drive over new terrain.

In Daggett County: Located near the junction of Highways 44 and 191 is the Swett Ranch Historical Site, which represents historic Western homesteading at its best. The original cabins still exist, as do many of the old farming artifacts. Near Brown's Park is Jarvie Historical Ranch. Restored for visitors to this old ranch are several early building: a stone house, dugout, blacksmith shop and corrals.

One of the central figures to this area in the outlaw era was Jarvie, a Scottish immigrant. In the 1880s, he operated a ferry, was the postmaster, storekeeper, moonshine maker, livestock owner, blacksmith, prospector, musician, athlete and scholar. In 1909, Jarvie was shot in the back by two thieves who ransacked his store and shipped his body down the Green River.

In Iron County: Located between I-15 and Highway 30, a little west of Little Salt Lake, is Parowan Gap, which is a long, slender section of sedimentary rock sheared from the earth's crust along parallel fault lines dating back some 15 million years. Within the gap are the Parowan petroglyphs, which are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The importance of this rock art is that it is believed to be the work of several cultural groups.

In Tooele County: Out in the middle of nowhere is Blue Lake, located along the old Pony Express Trail and past the old ghost town of Gold Hills. It is a spring-fed pool of water that has become popular with swimmers and divers. There are fish and structures to explore, including old sunken boats. Fall and winter are great times to dive. The lake itself is an interesting stop on the way to Wendover any time of the year.

In Kane County: The newest of the country's protected areas — Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — stand in splendor. There are 959 miles of open roads within the Grand Staircase, of which 565 are open for off-highway vehicles. This is an excellent place to explore. One tour is the 46-mile Cottonwood Canyon dirt road from Cannonville to U.S. highway 89, which links Lake Powell and Kanab. Notable points of interest include Kodachrome Basin State Park, Grosvenor Arch and the Cockscomb, one of the park's most startling geological features. Ten miles west of the junction with 89 is the Paria Road, which leads to an old movie set and to the abandoned town of Pahreah.

There are also two slot canyons in the area that are not on the map — Round Valley and Bull Valley. The easiest one to reach is Bull Valley. Access is about a mile off the main road. From a perfectly flat entrance, it drops down into a canyon several hundred feet deep in places and is narrow enough to touch both walls at the same time. These are but a few of the slot canyons to be discovered in the county.

In Emery County: Fifteen minutes from the heart of the town of Green River is Crystal Geyser, located on the eastern banks of the Green River. The geyser came to life in 1935 when a petroleum test well was dug. Instead of oil, what gushed from the ground was cold water. Carbon dioxide-powered, cold-water geysers are rare. Over the years, minerals from the geyser have created beautifully colored cascading steps down to the water's edge. When it erupts, which is about every 14 hours, give or take a few hours, it rises upward of 90 feet. The geyser is accessible both by water and roadway.

There is a number of very impressive walls of early American rock art within the county, most notably Black Dragon Canyon, located near the junction of I-70 and the Hanksville turnoff at milepost 147. A dirt road, which is not a traditional freeway exit, heads north toward the canyon.

Also accessible from the town of Green River, but in another county, are Tusher and Coal canyons, both of which hold excellent panels of rock art.

In San Juan County: Find the Valley of the Gods. While a lot of attention is paid to Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods, a 12-mile section of dirt road down in the southeastern most corner of Utah, is no less spectacular, but far less known. The area is an erosional feature found along the San Juan River. Standing up like a few remaining figures in a well-played chess game are solid-rock buttes rising up from the valley floor.

The first standing rock, which is visible from the road, is Flag Butte. Near the entrance is Seven Sailors. Two buttes down the road are the Setting Hen and Rooster. The hen is easy to visualize, and with a little squinting and the right angle, there is definitely an outline of a rooster. A little northeast is Pyramid Peak, and west of that is Franklin Butte. Every rock garden needs a castle, and nearby is Castle Butte. Then, there's Bell Butte and, as all good rock gardens must have, Balancing Rock.

In Uintah County: There are places rich in early American history. The county, in fact, is home to one of the best Indian rock-art panels in Utah. It is located just 10 miles north of Vernal at the McConkie Ranch in Dry Fork Canyon. The petroglyphs extend for several miles along a 200-foot Navajo formation sandstone cliff. The panel is an example of Fremont rock art and has been featured in National Geographic, Smithsonian and American Antiquities magazines.

In Millard County: There is the Crystal Ball Cave, which is about 600 feet long and is named because water containing high concentrations of calcite formed crystals several inches in length. One large stalagmite column is 8 feet high and a foot in diameter. Animal bones found in the cave have proven to be the first Wisconsinian animal fossils found in Utah. Among the bones found are those of small horses and a tooth from a saber-tooth cat.

About 21 miles northwest of Delta is Fumarole Butte and Baker Hot Springs, sometimes referred to as a mini-Yellowstone. Locals refer to it as Hot Plug or High Springs or Health Spa. The butte is a shield volcano that is about 10 miles in diameter. At the base of the butte are the hot springs, which consist of three concrete pools fed by hot and cold water from nearby springs. Some of the hot pools nearby are extremely hot and dangerous. Nearby are several small hot pots, similar to those found in Yellowstone.

In Weber County: There is the Ogden Bay Bird Refuge, which sits on the shores of the Great Salt Lake and is one of Utah's best waterfowl and bird-watching areas, mainly because of easy accessibility. Take the Roy exit off I-15 and head west. Where the road ends, make a sharp right, and a short distance away is the entrance to the refuge.

In Cache County: about 16 miles from the mouth of Logan Canyon is Old Juniper. The tree, discovered in 1923, is said to be one of the largest juniper tress in existence. It measures nearly 27 feet in circumference, 45 feet high and is nearly 1,500 years old.

In Rich County: North from the Old Rock Store in Meadowville/Laketown, on a gravel road, is an old ghost town known as Round Valley, once a popular pioneer settlement. Within the abandoned town is a cemetery, remnants of an old schoolhouse and an elaborate old mansion.

These are but a few of the wonders to be found in Utah. Many more are out there to be discovered.

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