UTAH (ABC4) – Utah is famous for being home to some of the most unique natural wonders and remarkable landscapes in the world.
Utah’s five national parks continue to remain high on tourists’ bucket lists, reporting a record 11.3 million visits in 2021, according to the University of Utah.
With so many remarkable sights to explore, here are some of Utah’s geologic wonders that may have flown under your radar, but are most definitely worth the trip. The Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) helps explain the origins of these local phenomena.
Big and Little Brush Creek “Ice” Caves
Located about 17 miles north of Vernal, wondrous caves featuring magnificent stalagmites and stalactites are on full display for all who journey inside. The unique ice formations vary every season depending on temperature and precipitation so you’ll never see the same formations twice.
Cathedrals and Glass Mountain – Capitol Reef National Park – Wayne County
Located in Capitol Reef National Park, Lower Cathedral Valley is home to large stands of massive rock formations called “monoliths” or “cathedrals.” The red-orange cathedrals consist of fine-grained sandstone and siltstone in brilliant shades of red-orange. These natural beauties date back to the Jurassic Age, about 160 million years ago.
Check out Glass Mountain, a towering “geological curiosity composed of large gypsum (selenite) crystals.” Experts say, “Gypsum is a slightly soluble mineral and precipitation over an extended period of time will most likely dissolve Glass Mountain and create a sinkhole.”
Comb Ridge – San Juan County
Feast your eyes on a magnificent ridge composed of steep, sandstone rock layers titled towards the sky. The geologic phenomenon is a textbook example of a “step-like crease (or fold) in the Earth’s crust known as a monocline.” The exposed rock layers provide a stunning look back in time, ranging from the Permian-aged Organ Rock Formation (280 million years old) to the Jurassic-aged Navajo Sandstone (185 million years old).
Crystal Geyser – Grand County
When one thinks of a geyser, the ones in Yellowstone National Park may come to mind, but did you know that Utah has its very own geysers, too?
Located about 10 miles south of Green River, Crystal Geyser is a partially human-made geyser that was born when an oil exploration crew accessed a groundwater system, uncovering an immense reservoir of trapped carbon dioxide gas underneath.
A unique difference between Crystal Geyser and naturally-occurring geysers is the water temperature — Utah’s geyser is comprised of cold water whereas natural geysers are comprised of hot water.
This unique distinction is the reason Crystal Geyser is also affectionately known as a “soda pop geyser.”
“For those willing to wait around for its eruptions, Crystal Geyser can provide the unique experience of watching or even playing in one of the world’s few large cold-water geysers,” says DNR.
Goosenecks of the San Juan River – San Juan County
Boasting cliffs of rocks dating back more than 300 million years old, Goosenecks State Park features miles of “sinuous canyons and valleys that resemble the curved neck of a goose.”
“Goosenecks State Park is, in essence, a parking lot perched at the edge of a precarious 1,000-foot cliff,” explains DNR. “This abrupt cliff, however, provides a panoramic view of the winding canyon holding the San Juan River below.”
The majestic red-orange cliffs are composed of limestone, siltstone, sandstone and shale beds which at one point, was an ancient marine environment where sea levels alternately rose and fell before eventually receding, leaving behind a largely flat terrain.
Little Sahara Sand Dunes – Juab County
Located in northeast Sevier Desert, Utah is home to its very own “Little Sahara” in Juab County. One of Utah’s largest sand dunes, this area contains both actively forming or migrating dunes along with plant-stabilized dunes.
The Sevier Desert was originally home to a prehistoric Lake Bonneville from about 20,000 to 12,500 years ago. The ancient lake remained constant for hundreds of years before gradually receding.
“After Lake Bonneville receded, winds dominantly from the southwest began to transport some of the exposed deltaic sand northeasterly, eventually creating the current dune field,” explains DNR. “Most of this dune field is still active, with dunes migrating between 5 to 9 feet per year.”
The desert sand here is comprised of mostly of “quartz grains, minor amounts of felspar, biotite, calcite, garnet, magnetite, and other minerals are also present”
“Try dragging a magnet through the fine-grained sand to see how “hairy” it becomes when the magnetite particles cling to it,” suggests DNR. “The magnetite probably eroded from volcanic rocks along the path of the Sevier River.”
Midway Hot Pots – Natural Hot Springs – Wasatch County
Looking to enjoy a relaxing, steamy dip in naturally toasty waters? Nestled near the town of Midway is a natural hot spring boasting steaming waters inside a crater.
This area is home to several active hot pots, with the largest one — Homestead Crater — spanning over 200 feet in diameter, 55 feet high and over 65 feet of water inside the crater.
Homestead Crater’s waters constantly remain toasty at around 95 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit according to DNR. Visitors can access the hot spring through a 110-foot tunnel for a day of soaking, swimming or even scuba diving.
The crater’s water source relies on rain and falling snow from the Wasatch Range. Whatever amount of water isn’t evaporated, absorbed by plants or lands in a stream will seep into the ground and become the springs’ groundwater source.
“This groundwater slowly migrates downward along faults and fractures through the bedrock and then is heated within the earth’s interior,” explains DNR. “From depths of at least 5,000 feet, the heated groundwater rises through faults and fractures to the surface in the Midway area.”
Experts say temperature changes will vary depending on seasonal elements and the amount of cold spring water introduced.
Wind Cave – Logan/Cache County
Perched along a popular hiking trail, Wind Cave, which is also locally known as The Witch’s Castle, lies just east of Logan in Cache County.
The wondrous cave was formed by water, developing below ground over thousands of years before it was exposed.
Hikers can explore this cave by following a hiking trail that meanders through the Lodgepole Limestone. Like many magnificent ecological wonders, the Wind Cave was once underwater, covered by a warm, tropical sea filled with limestone about 350 million years ago.
These are just some of the unique, natural wonders found right here in Utah’s backyard, awaiting explorers. Check out DNR’s interactive map detailing all of Utah’s geological sites with driving directions, making the perfect itinerary for your next day trip.