Fantasy Canyon (UTAH)
By: Bob Michael
I'm a geologist by profession, and on and off the job I've hiked through a lot of spooky badlands and seen plenty of weird rocks. But, nothing - NOTHING - in Mother Nature's freak shows comes close to the bizarre baroque dreamscape of a tiny (less than ten acres) area south of Vernal, Utah, in the Uinta Basin, the northeasternmost corner of the Colorado Plateau. The "canyon" -- not a real river canyon like Zion but an eroded-out place like Bryce "Canyon" -- is carved onto interbedded mudstones and channel sandstones of the Eocene (younger than the Rocky Mountains) Uinta Formation, a widespread unit in its namesake basin that typically does form lovely badlands. But in one tiny concentrated place, the processes of badland erosion went berserk and created a grotesque sculpture garden that is quite possibly unique on the planet. The delicate, highly ornamented sandstone fretwork vaguely resembles some of the seemingly drug-addled Art Nouveau architecture of the turn-of-the-century Barcelona visionary Antoni Gaudi. Or bones. (Georgia O'Keefe would have loved it.) Or a 1950's sci-fi movie set. Or your worst nightmare....
To get there, go east from Vernal on US Highway 40 and turn south on Utah highway 45 just past the scattered suburb of Naples. Stay on Highway 45 until you come to Glen Bench Road; there should be a BLM sign saying 18 miles to Fantasy Canyon. Turn right onto Glen Bench. Less than a mile from 45 is another intersection with a BLM sign indicating a left turn to Fantasy Canyon 17.3 miles away. Continue south about 12 miles to a sign indicating a left turn onto a dirt road and Fantasy Canyon at 5 miles distance. BLM signs will direct you to the Canyon through numerous intersections with oil field service roads (this part of the Basin is a major oil and gas field). Be very careful not to make a wrong turn; you could end up in the middle of a very scary nowhere very easily. Dontt try to come out in the dark! The road should be passable to average cars IN DRY WEATHER. Do NOT attempt this trip in ANY kind of vehicle if it has rained recently or if thunderstorms are threatening; the Uinta Formation clay quickly turns into lethal slime. Since you have to go through Vernal anyway, I VERY strongly suggest stopping in to the Vernal BLM office for more detailed directions and updates. (170 South 500 East, Vernal 84078; tel. 435.789.1362).
Not only is it astonishing that such delicate stone filigree could survive the cloudbursts and blizzards of the Utah desert, but a more sinister thought occurred to us. A criminal psycho with a sledgehammer couldn't do much to Bryce or Arches, and he'd probably be quickly nabbed anyway. But he could wreak great destruction on this little jewel, which seems as fragile as cave dripstone. We had the whole place to ourselves on a perfect late spring day. Although it's a BLM protected area. It really needs a 24-hour caretaker. Perhaps this is one reason its splendors are not widely publicized. As confirmation of our fears, last September the "Teapot" (we called it the "Gaudi Tower"), the absolute centerpiece of Fantasy and surely its single most incredible piece of artwork, was found shattered in pieces at the base of its pedestal. Lightning? Did its fragility finally do it in when a few crucial sand grains fell away? I'd rather not think it was human evil that destroyed maybe the most astonishing stone sculpture on Earth.
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