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Uintah County • Fantasy Canyon is not quite literally a diamond in a coal mine.

It is … well, an extremely pretty thing in a natural gas field.

Ghoulish formations of sandstone are caught in writhing poses like still frames from a 50 million-year-old reel of film. That's about how long ago sandstone, siltstone and shale began to form at the shore of the ancient Lake Uinta, according to geologists with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Some of the sandstone was harder than the surrounding rock, which weathered at various rates and produced the squiggly formations of Fantasy Canyon.

Fantasy Canyon is often compared to Goblin Valley, though the area is more compact and the rock at Fantasy is badlands gray rather than the warm orange of southern Utah. I think the rock formations at Fantasy are even more intricate and beautiful. A map at the trailhead puts image-in-the-clouds labels on various rocks — such as "diving otter," "Mickey Mouse" and "yawning lady" — and corresponding numbered markers can be found along the trail.

Another difference between Fantasy Canyon and Goblin Valley: the scores of drilling operations in the immediate vicinity. The landscape is strewn with wellheads and pipes, and while the BLM appears to have kept them out of direct sightlines from the canyon itself, the hike to the top offers a vista that is mostly industrial.

There is so much there — trucks, production tanks, warning signs — that it is hard to even envision the place as wild, and that blunts the grief I normally feel when I see human activity blighting natural beauty. Oil and gas extraction is the long-established (if somewhat unstable) center of the Uintah Basin's economy. Our modern world exacts some losses; the land around Fantasy Canyon is one of them. Other hikers have reported noise during the day and bright lights through the night. The development here is overwhelming, with roads criss-crossing each other in city-like density. If all industry were to suddenly stop in its tracks, this patch of desert would bear its marks for a very long time. The wilderness is long gone.

But I think Fantasy Canyon can be instructive as we look at potential development on other sensitive sites around Utah. One of the wells here was the first one. It always starts with just one hole in the ground.

A Ute legend about Fantasy Canyon, told in 1972 by Muse Harris (aka Chief Red Moose) and printed for display on the trailhead kiosk, was either brilliantly prescient or a masterwork in shade:

"One day, the story goes, the evil creatures of the nether regions, tired of living in the dark and dank, decided to dig up to the surface and take over everything above and below the earth. They dug and the ground trembled and rumbled in their work."

The story, as written out by interviewer George E. Stewart, goes on to explain that the coyotes, eagles, wild horses and other spiritual forces summoned the North God, who froze the evil creatures: "The Devil Chief, the Great Mother Witch, the magician and all the rest stand there just as they stood at the instant the cold struck long ago.

"When the warmth came back, again the West Wind blew and as the ice melted, the dust took its place and now the monsters stand in the pit they dug, all of them turned to stone. It is a warning to the evil ones down in hell to leave the good green earth alone."

Twitter: @erinalberty —

Fantasy trip

For information about visiting Fantasy Canyon, click here for an accompanying Hike of the Week.