Little Wild Horse Canyon - Bell Canyon Loop, Little Wild Horse Canyon Trailhead, Goblin Valley, Utah
Little Wild Horse Canyon - Bell Canyon Loop - 8.65 miles
Little Wild Horse Canyon Trailhead
|Round-Trip Length:||8.65 miles (see distance notes below)|
|Start-End Elevation:||4,952' - 4,952' (5,673' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+721' net elevation gain (+902' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
Little Wild Horse Canyon - Bell Canyon Loop - 8.65 Miles Round-Trip
The San Rafael Swell is a 75 mile long, 30 mile wide wrinkle in the earth's crust called an anticline. It first appeared 60 million years ago when tectonic activity along the pacific coast rippled inland forcing the land mass up.
The top of this fold eroded and was partially buried, but thrust up again during the modern Rocky Mountain uplift. This bulge exposed strata to differential erosion, creating a matrix of mesas, canyons, domes, fins and arches.
Little Wild Horse Canyon is one of the San Rafael Swell's most striking exhibits, famous for narrow slot canyons and towering cliffs. It stretches over three miles through the Crack Canyon Wilderness Study Area to Behind the Reef Road, which joins Bell Canyon to form a loop.
Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons have no technical obstacles, but moderate scrambling is required, portions are vague and flash floods are always a threat.
Visitors will enjoy some of the country's narrowest slot canyons, remote deserts and diverse wildlife that includes pronghorn and bighorn sheep. The following description enters Little Wild Horse Canyon first and travels counter-clockwise to Bell Canyon:
The trail begins up the west side of a cottonwood-lined wash to an impassable slot (.27 miles). Follow cairns left on a steep climb around a bend in the wash that drops ruggedly to the Little Wild Horse Canyon - Bell Canyon split (.55 miles : 5,002').
The wash-trail narrows to a large berth in the canyon and enters the first of three major slots (.75 miles : 5,025'). Travel is level in the confining canyons, alternating through straight lines and quick, shifting turns. In most places there's only room for one person to pass, so hikers will have to make room for oncoming traffic.
Slot #1 spills into a large atrium and enters the second slot (1.25 miles : 5,065'), Little Wild Horse's longest and most intricately carved section. It passes through another big opening to the third slot (1.85 miles : 5,117').
The third slot abruptly opens in a wide, brushy canyon framed by towering walls and promontories (2.3 miles : 5,198'). This is a good place to glass the rim for bighorn sheep.
Travel is mild in the wash, but social trails emerge up and over long bends that shave distance on firmer ground with a useful vantage of the area.
Note pinyon, juniper, and heavier brush at these higher elevations. The upper canyon is generally very wide on the final leg, but does narrow and require scrambling in two places.
Large rock formations on the horizon signal proximity to a split in the wash for Bell Canyon. Many maps don't detail this split in the upper canyon, so it's important to favor the left (west) side of the canyon and anticipate the sign for Bell Canyon (4.15 miles : 5,427').
The wash splits up the upper-canyon's west fork to Behind the Reef Road (4.7 miles : 5,487').
Once again social trails ride over the wash to expedite travel, but it's best to stay in the wash so you can access the road at the route's intended point, and view your progress on a detailed backcountry board. Either way, it's hard to miss the road.
Turn left on the road, which rises over spectacular backcountry desert canyons - look for bighorn sheep and pronghorn in this great expanse.
The road trail crests at 5.3 miles (5,675') and drops quickly to a second backcountry board (on your right), which veers left into Bell Canyon (6.3 miles : 5,325').
Bell's light-colored walls are textured with domes, potholes, ledges, ripples and vegetation. Its slots are not quite as long, tall, or narrow, but intricately carved and well lit by the afternoon.
Consecutive dry-fall scrambles funnel into a long, winding slot (7.35 miles : 5,141') that leads all the way back to the Little Wild Horse Canyon split and completion of the loop (8.1 miles : 5,002'). Backtrack to the trailhead to complete the loop (8.65 miles : 4,952').
- N38 34.981 W110 48.172 — 0.0 miles : Little Wild Horse Canyon Trailhead
- N38 35.333 W110 48.403 — .55 miles : Little Wild Horse - Bell Canyon split
- N38 35.530 W110 48.424 — .75 miles : Enter first narrow slot
- N38 35.681 W110 48.440 — 1.25 miles : Canyon opens - enter next slot
- N38 35.739 W110 48.265 — 1.85 miles : Canyon opens - enter next slot
- N38 35.990 W110 48.162 — 2.3 miles : Main slots end, canyon opens
- N38 36.161 W110 47.926 — 2.8 miles : Short slot and scramble
- N38 36.367 W110 47.739 — 3.05 miles : Scramble over dry fall cul-de-sac
- N38 36.407 W110 47.498 — 3.7 miles : Travel up wide, tall-walled wash
- N38 36.699 W110 47.706 — 4.15 miles : Turn left @ sign for Bell Canyon
- N38 36.923 W110 48.165 — 4.7 miles : Left on Behind the Reef Road
- N38 37.011 W110 48.744 — 5.3 miles : Road crests, head downhill
- N38 36.305 W110 49.023 — 6.3 miles : Follow sign into Bell Canyon
- N38 35.850 W110 48.790 — 8.05 miles : Scramble right side of dry fall
- N38 35.548 W110 48.782 — 7.35 miles : Dry fall; enter slots
- N38 35.333 W110 48.403 — 8.1 miles : Exit slots and complete loop
- N38 34.981 W110 48.172 — 8.65 miles : Little Wild Horse Canyon Trailhead
- GPS signal is unreliable in the canyons, and your data may not match other sources. Never rely solely on GPS navigation in the San Rafael Swell.
- Little Wild Horse Canyon sees heavy traffic April-September, especially on weekends. Arrive early to avoid crowds in the slots.
- Despite its barren appearance, the San Rafael Swell supports a variety of wildlife. Pronghorn are common in the high desert prairie, and over 200 Desert Bighorn Sheep have been counted in the Swell - one of the country's largest herds. Kit fox, coyote, bobcat, and mountain lion are top predators.
- Wild horses and burros roam the San Rafael Swell, descendants of stock animals left or lost by early travelers. These horses and burros are protected by federal law and managed by BLM.
- Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Red Tail Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and Peregrine Falcons have been recorded in the San Rafael Swell.
Camping and Backpacking Information
- Camping is permitted on BLM land and is free. While no sites are maintained, there are many well established sites just off the access road to Little Wild Horse Canyon. Contact Goblin Valley State Park for details.
- Within Goblin Valley State Park, camping is permitted in developed areas only. Backcountry camping is not permitted in Goblin Valley State Park.
- $16 per night : $8 per extra vehicle
- There are 24 sites and 2 yurts ($60 per night). Yurts sleep 5.
- Pay showers are available.
- Backcountry camping is permitted just outside the Park on BLM land, and in the San Rafael Swell. There are also several well-established car camping sites on these lands.
- Concessions and supplies are very limited in the Park. The closest towns with supplies are Hanksville (34 miles) and Green River (42 miles).
Rules and Regulations
- While dogs are permitted in Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon, they're strongly discouraged. Rock and soil conditions are abrasive, and there are numerous scrambles over which they must be carried. Injuries, especially to dogs with hip and joint ailments, are possible. Never leave dogs unattended, or alone in vehicles. The Park service will extract dogs from unattended vehicles and issue fines.
- Off-road, mechanized vehicles are not permitted in the Crack Canyon Wilderness Study Area.
Directions to Trailhead
Little Wild Horse Canyon is located just outside Goblin Valley State Park, 58 miles from Green River, Utah.
From I-70, exit #149 and turn south on HWY 24 toward Hanksville. Drive 24.8 miles south to the turnoff for Goblin Valley. Drive 5.3 miles west to Temple Mt Junction. Turn left and drive 11.5 miles to Little Wild Horse Canyon Road, just before the Goblin Valley Visitor Center. Turn right and drive 5.35 miles to the trailhead on the right.
Goblin Valley State Park is located approximately 215 miles from Salt Lake City UT, 50 miles from Green River UT, and 400 miles from Denver.
Goblin Valley State Park
c/o Green River State Park
P.O. Box 637
Green River, UT 84525-0637
435.275.4584 - main line
801.322.3770 - camping reservations
800.322-3770 - toll-free camping reservations
Utah State Parks and Recreation
PO Box 146001
Salt Lake City, UT 84114-601
Bureau of Land Management
125 S. 600 W.
Price, UT 84501