EMERY COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – The Grand Canyon is a destination on many people’s bucket lists. But did you know Utah has its very own version of the Grand Canyon?

“Little Grand Canyon,” is located in the deepest part of the San Rafael River canyon located directly beneath the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael Swell located in Emery County, Utah.

According to the Utah Geological Survey, looking downriver from the Overlook, you can see where Buckhorn Draw—a narrow, winding canyon walled in by scenic sandstone cliffs—meets the San Rafael River canyon.

See image below:

“Little Grand Canyon” map.
Courtesy: Utah Geological Survey

Utah Geological Survey notes say located in the northern portion of the Swell, numerous viewpoints along the dramatic Overlook provide “stunning views of varied landforms sculpted mainly in multi-colored sandstone formations.” 

Jim Davis a Geologist with the Utah Geological Survey tells ABC4 San Rafael Swell is an upwarp from the tectonic forces created during the Laramide Orogeny (mountain building event stretching from Canada to Mexico, some 80-35 million years ago). “It created a lot of mountains and basins in the Rockies (e.g., Uintas, Uinta Basin) and monoclines, folds, upwarps, and structural depressions on the Colorado Plateau (which had been largely impervious to tectonic forces up to this point, as evidenced by the horizontal bedrock—still largely horizontal in most areas, and the severe deformation surrounding the province, we think it is really thick!),” Davis tells ABC4.

Courtesy: Utah Geological Survey

Beneath the Overlook is a 1,200 feet drop to the San Rafael River to what has been nicknamed the “Little Grand Canyon.”

A short distance from the Overlook, visitors can drive down through scenic Buckhorn Draw. “The steep canyon walls, which showcase several different colorful sandstone formations, contain a spectacular Native American rock art panel, as well as a three-toed dinosaur footprint,” as stated by the Utah Geological Survey. 

Davis says the Swell resembles a giant Jiffy-Pop, with younger rocks ringing the edges and older rocks toward the central part.

Courtesy: Utah Geological Survey

He says over the last 10-20 million years the Colorado Plateau has been uplifted, nearly two vertical miles in some places. 

“The largest river in the Swell, the San Rafael River, cuts a canyon through the northern part of the Swell, through rocks that have made Utah celebrated (from top to bottom: Navajo Sandstone, Kayenta, Wingate Sandstone, Chinle, and Moenkopi). These, along with the spectacular Window Blind Peak and Assembly Hall Peak (which would be considered “buttes”) are visible from the Little Grand Canyon,” Davis adds.

The drive from Castle Dale to the Overlook and down through Buckhorn Draw to Interstate 70 is designated as one of Utah’s Scenic Backways. According to the Utah Geological Survey, a Scenic Backway is a route that meets the highest standard of scenic, recreational, and historical criteria, but may not be safe to drive year-round like a designated Scenic Byway. 

Utah’s Scenic Backways may require a high-clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicle, the survey shares. 

Yes, the Little Grand Canyon is nicknamed after the Grand Canyon but Davis says it is only around a fifth the depth, a tenth the width, and a hundredth the length.

How the “Little Grand Canyon” was formed

The Utah Geological Survey says the Swell is an uplifted area where sedimentary rock layers were arched skyward into an elongate dome-like structure called an anticline. “The upwarp resulted from compressional forces in the Earth’s crust about 40–70 million years ago. This mountain-building episode uplifted other areas as well, such as the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Uinta Mountains to the north,” as stated by the survey. 

Millions of years later, erosion began eventually removing thousands of feet of rock from the Swell’s crest, exposing 300 million years old rocks in the middle region of the Swell surrounded by a ring of younger rocks around 100 to 230 million years old. 

The survey says numerous canyons were eroded into and through the Swell by rivers and streams. “The San Rafael River, the largest river in the north part of the Swell, slices across the Swell, cutting deepest along the 3-mile stretch of the Little Grand Canyon,” as stated by the Utah Geological Survey. 

What can you do at the “Little Grand Canyon”?

The Swell offers a variety of recreational activities including hiking, mountain biking, camping, and beautiful scenic drives. Campsites are available at the Wedge Overlook and in Buckhorn Draw at Swinging Bridge. The survey says roads between Castle Dale and I-70 are well-maintained gravel roads but may require a four-wheel-drive vehicle during inclement weather.

When is the best time to visit the “Little Grand Canyon”?

Davis tells ABC4 the best time to visit the “Little Grand Canyon” is when it is drier and sunny but not too hot.