The San Rafael Swell consists of a giant dome-shaped anticline of sandstone, shale, and limestone that houses many of the classic slot canyons that Southern Utah is known for. Included among them is Little Wild Horse Canyon, where the walls are so close you may have to turn sideways to get through. Spring and Fall are ideal times to hike here. The weather is usually dry, and temperatures are mild during these seasons. Little Wild Horse Canyon is a mere six miles from the popular Goblin Valley State Park, enabling you to make a complete day of this exciting excursion. Why not introduce yourself to canyoneering? My brother and I hiked Little Wild Horse Canyon on Saturday, October 18, 2014 beginning at 7:30AM and ending about 10:30AM. Our plan was to explore Little Wild Horse Canyon for a few hours, then visit Goblin Valley. Plans sometimes change.
Hike Length: 3.7 miles roundtrip Hike Duration: 3 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back. Blaze: None needed.
Hike Rating: Easy. Limited climbing. Twisty, narrow passages.
Elevation Change: 240 feet. Elevation Start: 4,965 feet.
Trail Condition: Good. Narrow with pebbles and sand. This is a flash flood wash.
Starting Point: Little Wild Horse Canyon trailhead on Wild Horse Road (#1013).
Trail Traffic: Literally hundreds, but that is not the norm.
How to Get There: Little Wild Horse Canyon is located in Emery County, Utah between the towns of Green River and Hanksville. From Green River follow I-70 west for 11 miles to Exit #149 and Highway 24. Follow Highway 24 south for 24 miles to mile maker 136 and the signed turn-off to Goblin Valley State Park. Follow the signs on Temple Mountain Road to Goblin Valley State Park, including a left turn onto Goblin Valley Road. The signed turn-off to Little Wild Horse Canyon is located 11 miles from Highway 24 and 2 miles before the Goblin Valley State Park fee station, on the right. Follow Wild Horse Road (#1013) for 5.3 miles to the Little Wild Horse trailhead.
Sorry for the straight lines on the map above. Slot canyons make it hard for GPS to find the satellite.
WARNINGFlash floods can occur at any time of year, but they are most common in July, August, and September. Checking the local weather forecast is advisable, but you should realize that conditions change quickly, and it is impossible to predict where heavy rain will occur. Avoid narrow canyons and washes during stormy weather. Be aware of changing weather conditions. Know your escape routes. If you’re hiking in a stream, be aware of rising water levels or stronger currents and sudden changes in water clarity. Educate yourself on the terrain you are entering. Realize that dry washes are a result of previous flash floods. By entering a narrow canyon or wash, you are assuming a risk. If flooding begins, seek high ground and wait for the water to go down before attempting to walk out. Do not enter a narrow canyon if storms threaten. Never camp in a wash bottom. Also, if you are prone to claustrophobia, you may want to avoid slot canyons. This advisory from the Bureau of Land Management.
We happened to catch another canyon country sunrise along Temple Mountain Road as we headed from Hanksville toward Goblin Valley. The sun was behind us with the LaSal and Abajo Mountains creating a delightful backdrop. We’ve been talking about Goblin Valley State Park for years, and now we were finally heading there. But first, we planned to hike the narrow slot known as Little Wild Horse Canyon.
The trailhead was already buzzing with activity even at 7:30. There were at least a dozen cars at the trailhead, with others arriving, a portent of things to come. We were among the first to get geared up and headed out, but that didn’t last long. The sounds of scampering children soon filled the wash. Because we tend to stop frequently for photos, the eager youngsters soon caught up and passed us, and passed us, and passed us.
It seems this was the week of the Utah Education Association Convention, and all the school kids had been out since Thursday. It is traditional for families in Utah to use the convention weekend to explore the wilds of their state. By the time we were on our way back on this hike there were literally hundreds of children climbing up, on, around, and through all the passageways of Little Wild Horse Canyon. Wild Horse Road was lined with vehicles in just a couple hours. Our dumb luck.
The first quarter mile runs through a wide wash filled with small pebbles and sand, rabbitbrush and other scrub, and magnificent cottonwood trees. We happened to catch the cottonwood when most were displaying their finest Autumn golden splendor. It was a cloudy day, with hints of pale blue sky, nice to reduce the contrast of bright sunlight in the canyon.
When you reach the canyon entrance, the temptation is to walk right in. We did. When you round a curve, though, you will be stymied by a chock stone that has fallen square into the slot. It’s pretty in there, but you can’t get by, so you have to backtrack and climb the hillside to the left of the canyon. When you bypass the blockage, you come out on the other side at the junction of the Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyon Loop.
It’s a nice, full 8-mile loop that is a great day hike. Since today was a travel day for us (we eventually had to get to Monticello, Utah by nightfall), and we had plans for Goblin Valley, we only came to see the narrows in Little Wild Horse. So we took the right fork of the loop and began our venture into the colorful ravine.
The canyon is still open to this point, yellowish in appearance, with crumbly layered sandstone. We passed an odd cairn collection, almost a right of passage. On a tabletop boulder were dozens of piles of stones and pebbles, as if each person who passes by must add their own rock to the display. We did so.
As we progressed it got narrower, and then we entered the slot, almost as if through a doorway. The walls suddenly seemed taller, and the channel of the wash tighter. Perhaps 5-feet wide, the passage is also twisty. It’s rare to be able to see more than 30 feet ahead. We made it through this first section of narrows after 10-15 minutes, popped out into an opening again, and stopped for a snack. With limited sunlight, the morning air was crisp. We were still layered against the cold. It felt refreshing. After a few minutes we entered the 2nd set of narrows, this one just a little tighter, perhaps three feet now.
The joyous sound of children at play echoed through the slot. Impossible to tell if they were ahead or behind, 20 feet or 200 feet away. It would be fascinating to find oneself alone in this natural enclosure with nothing but the wind, or perhaps a distant raven to tickle the auditory senses. Much as the previous section, this narrowing groove in the sandstone takes about 15 minutes to work your way through, ending at another opening and an opportunity to check out the sky.
The third set of narrows is ridiculously entertaining. The canyon walls are firmer and smoother now, bordering on light orange to pale red. This is the slot that brings so many to discover Little Wild Horse Canyon. The walls tighten to two feet here. Occasionally you feel the need to turn sideways, but with a pack on your back, that doesn’t help. I squenched my arms as tightly to my side as possible. There is one stretch where the canyon floor is barely wide enough to fit your foot. You learn to walk like Spiderman, with your hands.
The twists and turns mean that if someone is coming the other way, you will probably startle each other, and one of you will have to back up in order to pass. There are chock stones that must be negotiated, some to climb over, others to crawl under. Put simply, this canyon is fun… and totally, completely cool.
Once again, you pop back out into a clearing, this one the largest of the lot. We were now about 1.8 miles from the trailhead and trying to decide if this was the place to turn around. Who knows what lay beyond, but the canyon was becoming more and more crowded by the minute. With the extremely tight passages on the way back, we were somewhat worried that it would take a very long time to be able to get back because of the number of other folks in the slots.
And we were right. With two-way traffic through the slots it took a lot longer. All sound was magnified, and most of it was screaming kids. Screams of joy, not of panic. If you have young children and are passing by this way, you should take in Little Wild Horse. It is like a large, natural playground for your little ones.
We made it back through the tightest of the slots into the next open area and the crowd was even larger. We noticed that the majority of people were congregating in these openings. I wasn’t really trying to count, but I know we encountered at least 200 people in the canyon, probably closer to 300, and as we got back near the trailhead they were still coming at an even quicker clip. I sure am glad we started early.
We hopped in the car for the six-mile drive to Goblin Valley State Park, saw the line of cars at the entryway, and realized it was likely there would be even more people there. So we still weren’t going to see Goblin Valley. We did go in the Visitor Center for a bit to check out the maps and caps, then started thinking about alternate plans. We took one of the dirt roads over and behind the San Rafael Swell to see it from the other side, and enjoyed some lunch.
We decided to take Scenic Byway 95 to and thru Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and across Lake Powell, then on to Hovenweep National Monument to look at some ancestral Puebloan ruins, finally ending up in Monticello and ready for the next day. There is so much to do and see in Southern Utah.
To summarize, this is an easy hike that is family friendly, as evidenced by the number of Utahans who were out and about the day we were there. That isn’t common though, so if you go to check it out on a Fall weekday, you’re more likely to only encounter a handful of others. Many people do this as a loop by hiking up Little Wild Horse Canyon and then returning down Bell Canyon. The total loop is about eight miles. Since Little Wild Horse contains such spectacular narrows, and was filled to the brim with frolicking children, we decided to return the same way. The narrows look different in each direction.