Week 48.2: Wild Horses & Goblins
We last left off at Capitol Reef National Park, in the terrifically tiny town of Torrey (say that five times fast). We headed northeast from there, through a part of Utah you might call “lightly settled.” One town marked on Google Maps appeared to contain a total of six houses…
After about an hour and a half, we pulled off the highway in an area known as the San Rafael Swell. Even in a state with crazy geology, the Swell is an area known for its crazy geology.
Things are going to get weird.
Into the Crevasse
If the previous area was lightly settled, the place we stopped was downright empty. There were no signs of civilization aside from the long, straight roads cutting through the southern Utah desert. But when we pulled off, we found something cool: the government has established a number of free campsites here. There’s no hookups, but there are vault toilets (read: permanent port-a-potties) and trash cans, and you can park in one of several dirt lots for as long as you like. As it was Memorial Day, there were quite a few RVs.
We parked our RV in one of these lots and drove our car about 10 miles towards – into? – the Swell. This area is almost completely unknown, but it is incredibly cool, full of towering rock formations banded with bright colors. Far back near the hills, we spotted many RVs and tent campsites – it struck us as the kind of place you could go and live undisturbed for a decade.
We nervously followed our directions deeper and deeper into the Swell, concerned that we might be lost, until finally we stumbled onto… a completely full parking lot. Oh right – Memorial Day.
Well, it’s the desert, so we just kind of found some dirt and left our car there. Then we headed into Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon.
Walking through a tight slot canyon is a thrilling and unique experience. It’s also pretty rare, and something we otherwise only really got to do at the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks in New Mexico. Little Wild Horse is much tighter and much longer, however, and at times we had to literally climb the walls to pass over obstacles – or, more commonly, to get around people who walked in part-way before turning back.
At times, we had to haul ourselves up onto rock ledges, or pick a trail over fallen boulders. Occasionally, the slot canyon opened up into hugely wide areas, still bounded on both sides by rock walls. Then, just as mysteriously, it would compress itself back into a tiny crack.
This is not a good place for the claustrophobic. Similarly, as this incredible story attests, it is not a good place to be when it rains. Luckily for us, the skies stayed clear.
After about two extraordinarily slow miles, we reached the end of the slot canyon. We could have headed back, but in the spirit of adventure, we took the opportunity to walk through some Utah back-country and return through a different slot canyon.
It was pretty, although the images don’t completely capture the fact that it was 90-plus degrees out and the baking desert sun was now directly overhead. Fortunately, we had learned well from our dehydrating visit to Big Bend National Park, and we brought plenty of water. Still, it was shocking how tiring it was to hike under that sun, even over mostly flat terrain.
Friends, do not get lost in the desert! We actually almost did, until we noticed the large rock arrow pointing towards the trail we had nearly missed.
Eventually we did reach the other canyon, named Bell Canyon, and things got much cooler once we were back in the shade. This canyon wasn’t as tight, and so it was relatively quick work to get back to our car – and its sweet, sweet air conditioning.
The Power of the Voodoo Hoodoo
Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon was sweet, but we have been burying the lede here a bit, since that’s not really why we stopped. The main draw for us was something else entirely: Goblin Valley State Park. It is strange in the best possible way.
We talked a lot about hoodoos in our post about Bryce Canyon National Park, and Goblin Valley has a lot of them too. Unlike the tall, beautiful spires at Bryce Canyon, however, the hoodoos at Goblin Valley are short, squat, and kinda… melted.
There is a near-endless sea of these weird little formations, so-named because early settlers imagined them as goblins. Having canvassed much of the United States, we can say confidently that Goblin Valley is one of the strangest places we have ever been.
The goblins are a lot of fun to photograph, but due to the crushing heat, we didn’t stay long. We would have loved the chance to see them at twilight, but Moab awaited.
By the way, you may remember the story a few years ago about a Boy Scout troop leader who pushed over a natural rock formation. Well, that was at Goblin Valley. Incidentally, the man’s claim that he did a good thing because the rock was going to fall over soon is just preposterous. The rocks here took millions of years to form into these crazy formations, and we sincerely hope that future visitors leave the goblins alone to fend for themselves.