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Uintah County

Uintah County

Quick facts
Cool facts
What the land is like
A bit of prehistory and early history
A little about today's economy

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Quick facts

Area: 4,487 square miles 
Population
County Seat: Vernal 
How it got its name: after the Uinta-Ats Utes (The spelling “Uinta,” without the h, is used for natural features)
Main cities/towns: Vernal, Maeser, Naples
Economy: cattle, hay and alfalfa, lumber, oil, gas, and oil shale 
Interesting places: Dinosaur National Monument, Utah Field House of Natural History in Vernal, Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Waterfowl Management Area, Red Fleet and Steinaker reservoirs

Cool facts

historic photo

Josie Morris Bassett, a one-of-a-kind woman at her ranch near Jensen. Read more about her.

What the land is like 

desert landscape and rock hills

Landscape near Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr.

Uintah County, with tall alpine mountains to the north and dry, broken landscape to the south, sits in the Uinta Basin. Part of the Basin lies in western Colorado. The Uinta Mountains form the northern rim of the Basin; the Wasatch Mountains form the western rim; and the Roan and Book cliffs form the southern rim.

Almost a million years ago a prehistoric lake, Uinta Lake, filled the Uinta Basin. During this time, sediment built up on the lake bottom and would later form gilsonite, oil shale, tar sands, and oil.

Today, several rivers or creeks slice across the landscape. The largest, the Green, has cut the deep, remote Desolation Canyon.

A bit of prehistory and early history

historic photo

Cornelia Washingon, Clara Aruk, and Alice Darum at Whiterocks in 1939.

Evidence of prehistoric people suggest that PaleoIndian, Archaic, and Fremont peoples all lived in the Uinta Basin. The Fremont left behind spectacular rock art, especially in Dry Fork Canyon, near Vernal.

In historic times the Uinta-ats Utes lived in the Basin. The Shoshone also visited there.

Explorers etc.

Fathers Dominguez and Escalante and their party traveled through the Uinta Basin in 1776 as they searched for a route to Monterey, California. In his diary, Escalante called the Basin ". . . a fine plain abounding in pasturage and fertile, arable land, provided it were irrigated...."

In the 1820s and 30s American and French trappers found many beaver and other wildlife in the Basin. In 1831-32 Antoine Robidoux, a French trapper, built a small trading post near present-day Whiterocks. Here, trappers could trade their beaver pelts in exchange for supplies. Conflicts with the Utes forced the trappers to abandon the post in 1844.

historic photo

John Wesley Powell's party at a cabin near the Uinta River at the site of Fort Robidoux, during Powell's second expedition, 1871.

Anglo-Americans who visited Uintah County include Major John Wesley Powell, who floated down the Green River in 1869 and again in 1871. Captain John C. Fremont led an expedition through the area in the 1840s.

In 1861 Brigham Young sent men to explore the Basin. These men had a different view than Escalante did. They thought the Uinta Basin was just one big wasteland. So Young decided not to send settlers there. Instead, he decided to send Ute Indians there.

Ute reservations and settlers

Also in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln created the Uintah Indian Reservation. In the 1880s, the Uncompahgre Reservation (now part of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation) was created in the south part of Uintah County. Utes from Utah and Colorado were forced to move to the reservations.

historic photo

Utes, Indian agent, and others at Ft. Duchesne in 1886. U.S. Signal Corps photo.

Settlement

Ashley Valley (where Vernal is) lay outside the reservation. Ranchers and farmers had begun to settle there, and by 1880, the valley had enough people that the territorial legislature created Uintah County, taking most of the land from Wasatch County.

With the building of irrigation canals, other towns took root including Jensen, Maeser, and Tridell.

Gilsonite

historic photo

A Gilsonite sacker on the shipping dock. It's obviously a dirty job! The sacks were recycled from sacks that once held cocoa beans or sesame seed.

In the 1860s a unique mineral was discovered in the county. In 1888, Samuel Gilson started to promote it as a laquer and insulation for electric wires. (The mineral came to be known as gilsonite, and now used in dozens of products.)

Trouble was, lots of gilsonite lay in the Ute reservations. Men looking to get rich from mining it persuaded the federal government to take 7,000 acres from the Uintah Reservation.

This area, called "The Strip," had no law and order for some time.

In 1898, following an effective campaign by national and local mining interests, the government took Uncompahgre Indian Reservation land away from the Utes and threw it open to outside miners and settlers.

Six years later, the government opened the Uintah Reservation to settlers. The remaining reservation lands in the Basin are a fraction of what the government originally had given the Utes.

Dinosaurs

historic photo

Floyd Wilkins working to explose bones at Dinosaur National Monument, in 1955.

A short distance north of Jensen on the Green River is a famous dinosaur quarry. Earl Douglass, a paleontologist who worked for the Carnegie Museum, first discovered dinosaur bones here in 1909.

The 150-year-old fossils lay embedded in the Morrison Formation of the Upper Jurassic Age. Paleontologists have found Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Allosaurus, and Stegosaurus bones here.

In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson created Dinosaur National Monument. Paleontologists still study and work at Dinosaur. And thousands of visitors tour the monument each year.

A little about today’s economy

historic photo

Oil flowing from Utah's first commercial oil well, the Ashley Valley #1, 10 miles southeast of Vernal, in 1948.

Today, Uintah County's economy relies on farming, ranching, and extraction of oil and gas. Energy prices in the rest of the world have a big effect on the economy of the county.

This has created a boom and bust economy as companies come in to drill for oil and gas, or as they leave. So--sometimes the economy is strong and people pour into the county. And sometimes the economy is not so strong.