Round Trip Distance: 8 miles
Difficulty: Easy to Strenuous
Elevation: 4955 - 5678 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Usage: Hiking - Dogs (not recommended)
Time: 4 hrs. 30 mins.
Facilities: Vault toilet
Trailhead: Little Wild Horse Canyon
View Little Wild Horse Canyon in a larger map
Little Wild Horse Canyon is located 7 miles from Goblin Valley State Park in Utah about 140 miles west of Grand Junction, Colorado. Combined with Bell Canyon, this 8 mile loop, is one of the most popular 'slot canyon' hikes in the San Rafael Swell. This spectacular trail, with its narrow shoulder width passages, can be hiked by people of all ages with a little mountaineering skill to overcome a few boulders that have fallen into the canyon and to negotiate a couple of falls areas. While hiking I met an entire family, with children as young as 8 years old, who had already completed one of the canyons and were preparing to conquer the next.
Approach: From Grand Junction, Colorado drive west on Interstate 70, past Green River, Utah to exit 149. Follow UT-24 for about 24 miles to the turn off for Goblin Valley State Park. Follow the paved road that leads to Goblin Valley until you are about a quarter mile from the visitor center. Turn right onto the well oiled dirt road, that is marked by a sign indicating Little Wild Horse Canyon, and drive the remaining 5.3 miles to the trailhead. The total distance from Grand Junction is about 140 miles. Even though the route briefly crosses a corner of Goblin Valley State Park no entrance fee is required. If you want to divert and see the goblins there is currently a $7.00 entrance fee.
I decorated my GPS map to mimic somewhat the map at the trailhead kiosk. The distance from the trailhead to the lower junction of Bell Canyon and Little Wild Horse Canyon is a half mile. From there it is 3.6 miles through Little Wild Horse Canyon and 1.8 miles through Bell Canyon. There is a connector trail that is 1.6 miles that follows a wash and an old 4-wheel drive road. Most of the change in altitude is along the connector trail. The straight lines on the map are the narrowest sections of the canyons where my GPS was unable to track enough satellites to register my location.
I took a look at the trail register before setting out and noticed that of the 70 hikers listed on the current page that 15 were from Europe and 18 were from a state other than Utah. I guess that makes this a world renowned hike. It is definitely a world class trail.
The trail begins by following the seasonal stream bed toward the mouth of the canyons.
The canyon narrows after about 3 tenths of a mile. You can begin testing your mountaineering skills at this point or better yet leave the wash at the cairn on the left and hike up the slick rock and then descend back into the wash a little further up stream.
After descending back into the wash you are at the junction of the two canyons one half mile from the trailhead. The trail marker is all the way across the wash and is easily missed. I spoke with other hikers that had intended to go up Little Wild Horse Canyon and down Bell Canyon but had missed the turn.
I took the right fork and headed up Little Wild Horse Canyon. The first narrow sections were still wide enough that I couldn't touch both walls and the trail was smooth and easy to walk.
Occasionally the canyon would open up to a view of the sky but for the most part it meandered around sharp corners with only short distanced viewable at any one time.
There was a good bit of bighorn sheep scat that made me wonder what it would be like to meet up with one in such a narrow place. I wonder which one of us would turn around first.
The canyon opened up for a short distance and then I came to a spot that at first looked impassable for someone of my size carrying a good sized pack and all of my other gear. I remembered what I had read about the slots being 'suitable for just about everyone' and decided to go ahead and venture in. It turned out that it was a little wider than it appeared. While the floor was barely wide enough for one foot my shoulders never touched the sides.
My camera doesn't even begin to capture the beauty of this place with its winding corridors of swirling sandstone painted by the occasional beams of light that penetrate the narrow confines of the canyon. I took about 500 photos and after looking at them I have decided to return with another camera and give it another try.
The trail eventually leaves the canyon and its slots behind and opens up into a large wash.
I had been hiking, bouldering, and playing for about 2 hours and 15 minutes when I reached the connector trail about 4.3 miles from the trailhead. It's hard to make out but there is an arrow engraved into the bottom of the sign pointing to the left. The connector trail follows the wash for almost a half mile and then a cairn points out a side trail that takes you over to the old 4-wheel drive road. The 4-wheel drive road leads around to the mouth of Bell Canyon.
I was almost 6 miles into the hike when I arrived at the top of Bell Canyon. This trail marker shows that horses are allowed but unless they are good at jumping off high ledges they aren't going to make it very far.
Much like the upper section of its sister canyon Bell Canyon was very open and was enjoying the full force of the warm July sun. It just so happens that today the earth is at its furthest distance from the sun known as the aphelion.
Just like going down a funnel the further I hiked down Bell Canyon the narrow it became.
There were 4 or 5 places where I had to break out my minor mountaineering skills. Most of them I could just sit on my butt and slide or hop off and on a couple I was able to get around on the slick rock.
There was very little in the way of shade in Bell Canyon unlike Little Wild Horse Canyon where much of the time was spent in the shadows.
I was almost sad to see the canyon open up and find myself back at the lower junction. I don't have any slot canyon experience to compare this to but as far as mountaineering skills I had to do quite a few class 3+ moves. There wasn't what I would call any life threatening exposure that couldn't be avoided. I felt that the little difficulties that had to be overcome did nothing but add to the overall enjoyment of the hike. If you are worried about it then bring someone along that can give you a boost or hand up when needed.
A lot of people had shown up since I had set out. By now the temperature was probably in the low 90's F. I went through 100 ounces of water, 100 ounces of Gatorade, 2 bagels and a protein bar. That is a little over 1.5 gallons or almost 6 liters of liquid for a 4.5 hour hike. I still had 60 extra ounces of Gatorade left in my pack. Believe it or not I saw people that weren't carrying anything to drink.
Now that I know what these slot canyons are like I can't wait to bring some of my family to see them. You don't have to hike the entire loop. Hiking up the first mile of either canyon would still be a great outing and would give you a good feel for what they are like. If you would like to see them for yourself then all you have to do is drive over to Utah and 'Take a hike'.