While visiting Goblin Valley State Park in central Utah, we made sure to also stop at the most popular (and most accessible) slot canyon hike in the San Rafael Swell area – Little Wild Horse Canyon. The rangers at Goblin Valley even gave us a map of the trail when we visited the park and were happy to answer any questions we had about the area.
San Rafael Swell
The San Rafael Swell is a large sandstone formation formed millions of years ago as the earth’s crust “swelled” upward and has since eroded away into a dizzying array of unique geologic features. As cool as it looks from the outside, it’s extremely deceiving just how much is hiding in there, most notably, a bunch of challenging and mysterious slot canyons.
The trailhead to Little Wild Horse is accessed a little over five miles down a well maintained gravel road located just before Goblin Valley State Park’s entrance and off of the park road. There is a sign at the turn that’s hard to miss. You also can’t miss all of the cars parked at the parking area for the trail head once you come upon it. Once we parked it didn’t take long to realize just how popular this trail is as there were a good number of people in and out all day, especially for such a remote area. It wasn’t bothersome though and we even made a few friends along the way.
The trail consists of a 0.5 mile walk down a wash that leads to the mouth of two different canyons. The two canyons may be connected by walking a 1.6 mile stretch of an ATV road to form an 8.7 mile loop. Little Wild Horse Canyon is the more trafficked and well known (hence the name of the trail) of the two canyons, and for good reason. This beautiful, quite narrow at times slot canyon is a feast for the eyes and a bit of an adventure to navigate through. Bell Canyon is also a very pretty canyon that isn’t quite as narrow but is still a worthwhile venture. It was recommended to us that we do the loop counterclockwise, starting with Little Wild Horse Canyon, as in the event that the healing blister on my foot started bothering me again or if a couple specific obstacles got to be too much for us, we could turn back knowing we had seen the best scenery.
The trail consists of trailing the sandy, rocky bottom of each canyon, which involves regularly traveling over rocks and small ledges and a few larger, but mostly manageable obstacles for anyone in “generally fit” condition as the brochure states it. Heck, we saw people do this hike (somehow) with babies strapped to their bellies! The canyon walls are gorgeous colors and look as though someone painted them with watercolor. Little Wild Horse gets so narrow at times that the bottom of the canyon floor can get as narrow as the width of my foot! This hike reminded us of Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley, but perhaps even prettier, and with that experience, I was able to do this with a little more confidence.
I was still a little bit nervous about a few of the “larger” obstacles that we had heard about though, but am glad to say that we were able to complete the whole loop without issue. Or should I say, I am glad to have a saint for a husband who will carry me piggy-back style for 50 feet through ice cold, foot-deep water so that I don’t have to put my foot blister in muddy water, and will let me climb on his shoulders to get down a 5-6 foot ledge (glad we made friends who were able to document this moment!). I’m just glad that the water obstacle wasn’t three feet deep like it was when John’s brother and his girlfriend were here last year – though maybe if we had a dry bag and I could have ridden John’s shoulders through it…kidding!
We also climbed a six-foot tree and up over a few boulders to get up over another higher ledge, though the couple behind us climb up somewhere else. It was pretty sturdy but I was still proud of myself because despite what most people think when they look at me, I’ve never been much of a climber!
At the end of the day, we were so glad that we had the time and that my foot cooperated for this trail. We saw some amazing scenery, talked to some very nice people along the way, and were able to check another thing off our list that it’s quite possible we may never have gotten to had we not been traveling the way we are (though judging by the number of people we saw, maybe we would have)!
Plus, we spent a couple of nights in this sweet BLM spot (there are many in the area) just down the road from Goblin Valley and were able to drive around and explore a bit…