Travel Curious

For independent travelers who want to dig deeper

How Uranium prospectors seeking to make their fortune shaped how we explore South East Utah today

Prior to WWI, 90 percent of the United States’ meager uranium supply was imported from the Belgian Congo and Canada, at great expense and difficulty, and in tiny amounts. During WWII when the secret Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb got underway, a reliable domestic source was needed which led to discoveries of uranium in the American Southwest by Army geologists.


uranium prospectors
Utah State Historical Society



By the 1950s, the United States government was in an arms race against the former USSR and needed uranium in order to build atomic weapons. Through the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), they created a program with large financial rewards to recruit existing prospectors and entice new ones to enter the search for Uranium. They created educational programs to teach prospecting anyone with a desire to get rich.


The AEC promised $10,000 bonuses for new lodes of high-grade ore, they guaranteed minimum prices and paid up to $50 per ton for ore. They constructed the mills, paid the miner’s costs for hauling the ore to the mills, and freely gave access to geological data to help prospectors.


The enticements worked and soon prospectors were combing all over SE Utah which had been designated as containing a considerable amount of uranium, they just had to find the elusive radioactive material.


Prospectors used the newly developed Geiger counters searching primarily in the grayish Salt Wash layer of the Morrison formation. 


Once deposits were located, claims were filed and mines were dug. In order to access these remote mines and get the ore out,  roads were freely built across vast stretches of what was inaccessible Utah backcountry.


Old single-track mule trails became widened pathways, and old ranchers’ pathways once used to get cattle down to canyon bottoms for seasonal grazing were blasted and improved into roads. Through canyon bottoms and down the sides of canyons, roads were built, some of this work was by the miners’ bulldozers or even with picks and shovels, and some were built via the AEC.


Some areas were rich in Uranium, others were a bust, the richer the area the more work was put into widening and shoring up the roads, with the blasting of sheer rock faces and digging of tunnels.


One can only imagine the tremendous amount of work undertaken by the miners to gain access to the area. In total, almost 1000 miles of dirt roads were constructed.


By 1955 there were over 800 mines in the region. By 1962 Utah alone had produced  9,000,000 tons of ore. The AEC’s program had worked perfectly and soon they began to scale back the program as the stockpile of Uranium was growing toward the target numbers they had wanted. By 1970 the buying program was ended and any remaining working mines closed down permanently.


There is plenty of uranium still in the ground and should demand for nuclear power be revived the mines and mills of the atomic years may live yet again.


Today, many of the paved roads, dirt roads, and trails we drive and hike on were the access ways of these miners and prospectors.


Some of the roads getting to and within Canyonlands National Park Island in the sky district were once miners’ access roads. The unpaved Shafer Trail switchbacks down the walls of Shafer Canyon, built by the AEC to allow the miners in the canyons below to get the ore up to the canyon rim.


The Shaffer Trail Road in Canyonlands National ParkShafer Trail


The Shafer Trail connects to the 103-mile-long White Rim Trail, Utah’s longest old mining road, and today one of Canyonland’s most famous routes for overnight camping locations for 4x4s and mountain bikers.


So the next time you are hiking or enjoying off-road adventures in this area, remember those old prospectors who paved the way for us.

Destinations >>>

Crack Canyon Green River Utah

Green River

Adjacent to the magnificent San Rafael Swell, Green River is a popular base for exploring the slot canyons and ancient rock art in this area northwest of Moab.

Hanksville Area

The gateway to the North Wash, Utah’s Bicentennial Scenic Byway Highway 95, and all the interesting outdoor adventure sites in the surrounding area.

House on Fire Ruin

Bears Ears Region

This region is full of rock art and ancient Indian ruins, an amazing place to hike and explore

Delicate Arch Sunrise


Home to four national parks including Arches & Canyonlands National Park. Made famous by the Slick Rock Bike trail. 

One Response

  1. I lived in Moab in1962, my father worked for Charlie Steen in his uranium mine. For a fun weekend trip we would drive schaffer trail road. We all road in the back of a pickup and it was a glorious trip. I have very fond memories of my time in Moab!

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