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Grand County

Grand County

Quick facts
Interesting facts
What the land is like
A bit of prehistory
European people passing through
Settlement attempts

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Quick facts

Area: 3,689 square miles 
County Seat: Moab 
Where it got its name: The Colorado River, which flows through the county, was first called the Grand River. 
Main city: Moab
Economy: tourism, mining, agriculture, livestock
Interesting places: Arches National Park, LaSal Mountains, Colorado River, Dead Horse Point State Park, Dewey Bridge over the Colorado River (Highway 128)

Interesting facts

historic photo of bridge

The Dewey Bridge, built in 1916 to span the Colorado River near Moab. When it was finished it was the second-longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi. In 2008 a 7-year-old boy playing with matches started a fire that gutted the bridge.

What the land is like


Panorama in Arches National Park. © Jarek Tuszynski on Wikimedia Commons.

Grand County is classic Colorado Plateau country. In the north lie sparse deserts and the rugged Book Cliffs. The spectacular Gray Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon of the Green River form the county’s western edge.

In the southern half of the county, rivers and streams have eroded ancient beds of sandstone and limestone into huge canyons, small canyons, and washes. Wind, weather, and water have sculpted the rock into arches, buttes, and fantastic formations.

The tall, forested LaSal Mountains rise up in the southeast.

A bit of prehistory

A petroglyph of a mammoth or mastodon on a canyon wall west of Moab makes people wonder whether PaleoIndian people may have been in Grand County thousands of years ago.

At least 5,000 years ago, the Archaic culture emerged. They left traces of their lives in remnants of their homes and tools and the haunting Barrier Canyon-style pictographs they painted on cliff walls.

The earliest form of the Ancestral Pueblo culture emerged around the time of Christ. Grand County is as far north as these Pueblo people lived. In fact, the county roughly divided the Pueblo culture and Fremont culture. The Fremont lived mostly north of the Colorado River, and they left behind a lot of evidence of their lives. Much of this evidence still needs to be studied!

Both the Puebloans and Fremont disappeared from Utah by A.D. 1300. Utes and Paiutes became the main people to use the land.

Today the remains of cliff houses and rock art in the canyons delight explorers. They can delight your grandchildren for many years to come if today we are careful not to touch them, walk on them, destroy them, or take anything.

European people passing through

The first non-Indians to enter the present area of Grand County were Spanish explorers who discovered a crossing of the Colorado River at the site of the present highway bridge at Moab.

Later, Spanish traders and American fur trappers developed the route known as the Spanish Trail. This trail used that same Colorado River crossing. It crossed the Green River near the present city of Green River, Utah.

Attempts at settlement

The first attempt by Mormon colonists to settle the Moab area was a failure. A group of men called the Elk Mountain Mission reached Moab Valley in 1855 and planted corn and melons.

It wasn’t long before the Utes who already lived there realized that having the new people around wasn’t working out so well. The Utes attacked the little fort and killed some people—and the missionaries gathered up what they could and got out of there.

bearded man

The "goat man" who once lived on the Colorado River near Moab.

The Utes may have won a battle, but they lost the war. In the 1870s did various people like cattle ranchers, prospectors, and homesteaders begin to trickle in again—Mormons and non-Mormons. Moab became a rough frontier town.

Other small towns were born, and some died. Because the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built tracks through the county in 1883, several of these towns served the railroad—for instance, Thompson, Cisco, and Crescent Station.


Most of the history of Grand County has been the story of livestock or small family farms and orchards. Large sheep and cattle companies found lots of feed forage for their livestock in the canyons and the LaSal Mountains—at least, until the canyons became overgrazed.

Cowboys and outlaws figure prominently in the area's folklore.

historic photo

A man using a "doodle-bug" (or dowser) to try to find uranium in 1954.

The uranium boom of the 1950s brought the first real surge in population. It also saw the creation of a few large fortunes—as well as many failures.

A big potash mine and plant near Moab have been important to the economy. Sadly, an explosion in the mine—which was at the time the deepest in the United States—killed 18 miners in 1963.

Most recently, tourism has been the county’s biggest source of income. The government created Arches National Monument in 1929. In 1971 it got National Park status. The park gets more popular every year.

Visiting mountain bikers, river-runners, and four-wheel-drivers began to transform Moab in the 1980s. The town has gone from a quiet, fading place to a bustling center of motels, restaurants, and stores, jammed with tourists during much of the year.