Goblin Valley State Park, UT
Family Friendly?: Yes, for outdoorsy families
Age Range: All ages – toddlers will love it as much as adults.
Recommendations: This is a totally free-form area to hike and explore. A shallow canyon with hundreds of strange formations to explore. Fun for any age.
Goblin Valley State Park in eastern Utah is one of the most amazing places you’ve never heard of! It features an expansive wash full of weathered sandstone sculptures that in certain light can look like otherworldly goblins – thus the name. If you find yourself traveling on I-70 through Utah, it is certainly worth the detour to check it out. It is one of those places that you can see in an hour or two, but can explore for a lifetime.
Goblin Valley feels like it is in the middle of nowhere. From I-70 just west of the town of Green River, take highway 24 south for about 25 miles to the park turnoff. Then it is another 11 miles to the park itself. The ride from I-70 on highway 24 is quite scenic with the San Rafael Swell to the west, the Henry Mountains to the south and a whole lot of empty BLM land under a huge brilliant blue sky. You can also get there from Hanksville to the south. Entry fee is $7.00 per vehicle ($4.00 with a Utah senior ages 62+). It is a steal at that price! My experience has been that the staff is both friendly and helpful. They truly seem happy to see you!
The park is very easy to explore. The road from the entrance passes a small visitor center and a campground ($16.00 per night, restrooms and showers) on the way to the main features. The view includes some scenic eroded ridges and the heads of a couple of smallish canyons on the way to the main “valley”. The parking area is on a small rise and offers a great view of the goblins from above as well as some covered picnic tables (quite often a bit windy to actually eat at). From there, you can either wander on a handful of maintained trails that weave through the goblins (known as hoodoos) or just take off in whatever direction grabs you. The “look but don’t touch” mentality that is so oppressive in the National Parks is not evident here, so it feels much more interactive and real. Go wherever you want, do whatever you want as long as you leave no trace when you are done – pure freedom!
The hoodoos vary in size and shape from knee-high to around 40 feet high (my estimate, but it really doesn’t matter much). Don’t let the relatively small size fool you, there are hundreds of them and the cumulative effect is very impressive. This isn’t about size, it’s about character and Goblin Valley is bursting with it. Some are free-standing towers, while others are still in the process of eroding, forming small caves, arches and passages. It won’t take very long for you to figure out why this area is called Red Canyon as all of the rocks are a rich red color. This place is custom-built for kids – they can spend hours playing and exploring the endless variety of formations. Be aware that while the formations closest to the parking area are very interesting, they get better as you proceed to the southwest. Even though the main part of the wash is probably no more than a mile or two long, you could walk many miles exploring it – be sure to take water and be aware that it can get very hot here very quickly. The sun can be brutal at mid-day, but you can always find a place to sit in the shade under the formations of you need it.
I highly recommend a night or two at the campground. It’s pretty basic, but the hillside that it is built next to is interesting and the hoodoos are at their best in early morning or late afternoon. Stargazing is amazing with virtually no man-made light to wash out the view. The desert weather makes for very comfortable tent camping much of the year, but if the wind kicks up be ready for the fine dust that will find its way into everything!
Even though Goblin Valley is more about wandering than hiking, it is a great base camp for hiking the slot canyons of the San Rafael Swell (see Little Wildhorse Canyon/Bell Canyon Loop) as well as exploring the wide open BLM land surrounding it. There is enough to keep hikers and desert rats happy for days here. It is also an easy ride to Moab, Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.
On my list of hidden gems, Goblin Valley is right near the top. Put it on your must-see list, you won’t be disappointed.
Contact info: Goblin Valley State Park, P.O. Box 637, Green River, UT 84525-0637, (435) 275-4584