Near Green River, UT
Family Friendly?: Yes, for outdoorsy families
Age Range: Pre-teens and up.
Recommendations: Overall a fairly easy walk with just a couple of tricky areas. Take lots of water and keep an eye and ear open for thunderstorms.
The San Rafael Swell is a huge sandstone dome in southeastern Utah. Westbound travelers on I-70 know it as line of cliffs just west of Green River that look like they were torn right out of the ground. As the dome rose, the surrounding ground was pushed up until it fractured into the ridge we see today. You can clearly see the layers that once were part of the flatlands to the east. In addition to being very scenic, the Swell also offers some of the most accessible canyon hiking in the country.
One of my favorite canyon hikes is the Bell Canyon/Little Wild Horse Canyon loop. This non-technical day hike offers a superb canyon experience without a long approach hike. The entire loop is about 8 miles, but allow at least 4 hours as the going can get pretty slow in the narrows and the scenery is too good to rush anyway.
Getting there is relatively easy. From Green River, Utah, go west about 10 minutes to Utah 24 south. Continue for about 25 miles to the Temple Wash road and follow the signs to Goblin Valley State Park (a great place to visit and camp). Just before the entrance to Goblin Valley, go right and follow the signs to Little Wild Horse Canyon. Be aware that you will end up at more than an hour’s drive from the nearest town. Make sure the gas tank is full and carry plenty of water.
The most amazing part of the loop is the bottom mile or two of Little Wild Horse Canyon (LWHC), therefore most people start there. Personally, I prefer to start by going up neighboring Bell Canyon (BC), across the top and then descending LWHC. That saves the best part for last and makes for a very nice half day loop hike. No matter which route you choose, begin by walking up the wash from the parking area. After a half mile or so you will come to a minor wall to negotiate and not far beyond that the wash will split. If you are up for the entire loop, go left into BC. Since you have well over an hour invested in getting there, do yourself a favor and do the entire loop! If time is short and you only want to see what a slot canyon is like, go right into LWHC for instant gratification.
For hikers who have not spent much time in canyons, BC is an impressive sight. It is best appreciated on its own merits rather than compared to LWHC, which is why I always go up Bell first. It’s a relatively easy walk between towering sandstone cliffs. The entire canyon is very scenic and well worth the effort, but it is really just a warm up for the main event in LWHC. At the top of the canyon you will come to an obvious dirt road, turn right and walk about a mile to the top of LWHC.
As you descend, the canyon walls quickly close in and the rock is weathered into strange and interesting shapes. The further down you go, the better it gets so save some room on your camera if you are into photos. The walls are sculpted into endless interesting shapes and in the narrowest sections they form flowing waves of rock. At places, the walls taper to only a few feet wide at shoulder height and down to a few inches at the floor. If you are worried about feeling claustrophobic, don’t. The play of sunlight off the bright walls is mesmerizing and makes it feel much more wide open that it really is. In the narrowest sections there isn’t nearly enough room to sit down, but there are occasional wider areas where you can take a break. The only remotely tricky part is a dry fall near the bottom of LWHC. It is maybe 5 or 6 feet high and at times the pot hole under it can have water in it. Small hikers may need some help getting through, but adults should have no problem. It is possible to work your way around it and go down the steeply sloping aprons on either side, but that option is not recommended. From there, continue back to the parking area down the same wash that you started on.
The sculpted walls of this hike clearly show the awesome power of running water. It’s obvious that you don’t want to be anywhere near them in a flash flood. Check the weather and if there is even the slightest chance of rain don’t go. Once you are in the canyons you can only see the sliver of sky directly above you, so a storm could easily sneak up on you. A little bit of rain above the canyon can turn into a raging torrent when it gets funneled into the narrow spaces.
This hike is appropriate for adventurous kids and even dogs with a little help. The Little Wild Horse Canyon/Bell Canyon Loop is a must do on any outdoor adventure list.