Bell and Wild Horse Canyons Loop
San Rafael Reef - March 31
Hmm... who eats fastest here?
After a traditional eggs-and-bacon breakfast in Price, we continued south, soon transitioning from the browns and tans of northern Utah to the red-rock color country of the Colorado Plateau. Turning west onto interstate 70, we soon saw the first of the "Reefs" of our trip - the San Rafael Reef. A reef, in the local parlance, was a term used to describe any long barrier to travel, and these were certainly that. In the case of the San Rafael Reef before us, miles upon miles of steeply tilted rock strata stretching on and on, rising out of a flat plain, seemingly frozen in motion.
Turning south on scenic Utah 24, we began paralleling the line of the San Rafael Reef. Our destination was soon reached: Goblin Valley - an area of mushroom-like squat brown hoodoos and home to a small state park (of the same name), just to the west of the Reef.
It seemed fairly busy on this Easter holiday weekend, so I didn't have much hope as we pulled up to the entrance station and asked about availability in the park's very tidy but small campground. However, we were in luck today - there was one spot remaining.
Planning the first outing
The Goblin Valley SP campground is slightly fancier than most national and state park campgrounds. There are very nice sturdy metal shelters over each of the campsites' picnic / eating areas, and the bathroom facilities include nice hot showers. The setting is very scenic; most of the sites are tucked up close against beautiful fluted walls of the white Curtis and brownish Entrada Sandstones.
To the trailhead
It was roughly noon by the time we had completed our campsite setup. We quickly packed up and set out to drive to the nearby initial dayhike we had mapped out.
Close to Globin Valley are a pair of very accessible and very scenic slots known as Bell and Little Wild Horse Canyons. They both cut through the tilted strata of the San Rafael Reef and are close enough to each other to allow an easy half-day loop hike. Additionally, there are no significant canyoneering obstacles in either canyons, making them quite suitable for beginners.
Whoa - busy!
Due to the fact that this canyon loop wasn't in either a state park or national park, I figured that it would be remote and not on many peoples' radar. Well, as we completed the short paved drive from Goblin Valley to the route's trailhead, I realized I had figured quite wrongly: there was an enormous sea of cars filling (and overflowing from) the trailhead. It was almost as bad as the overflowing trailhead from last August in Idaho on our total solar eclipse trip
Ok, so this wasn't going to be a peaceful, secluded start to the trip. Still, the weather was beautiful and being back in red-rock country was making us feel pretty good. We threaded our way through the crowd at the interpretive signs and onto the footpath leading across the flats towards the San Rafael Reef.
Fortunately, things felt less crowded as we got underway. Hiking for no more than fifteen minutes brought us to the first of the tilted rock layers of the Reef, which were bisected by the wash of Little Wild Horse Canyon. We simply hiked up the dry wash of the canyon until the first dryfall forced us up and to the left on a wide, obvious ramp. This led to a mildly airy traverse around a bend and then back down to the floor of the wash. The canyon separated here into two sub branches, and a sign indicated Bell Canyon to the left and Little Wild Horse to the right. The beginning of our loop.
We thought about it for a bit, deciding ultimately to choose to hike up Bell Canyon and down Little Wild Horse. Apparently Little Wild Horse was the more impressive slot, and we figured that general laziness meant that at least a portion of the large mass of hikers would choose to simply sample a bit of the best slot canyon and then return to the trailhead. Since it was already later in the day, we figured that if we went up what was probably the less desirable canyon first, by the time we descended back down Little Wild Horse, it would be late enough that hikers would start thinning out. So went the logic, in any case.
So, up Bell Canyon we went. Immediately it started to narrow down, with rough, corrugated tan sandstone walls below boulder-strewn slopes. It was moderately tight slot in spots, perhaps 6-10 feet wide. The footing was excellent - mostly hard-packed sand. Only in one or two spots was there a short step to be surmounted, or a ramp to be taken to get around a pouroff or awkwardly-placed chockstone.
In a few places the canyon walls were smoother slickrock, but mostly the texture of the walls here were rough. It only took about an hour to walk up the canyon, and soon the walls were widening up, starting to give us glimpses into the landscapes behind the reef (into an area which is literally called "behind-the-reef").
We kept hiking up the ever-widening wash of Bell Canyon until we hit a jeep trail that crossed our path. This was the Behind-the-reef jeep road, and here we turned right (east) to begin the next phase of our loop - a phase that would cross us over to Little Wild Horse Canyon. I never expect much when I see that we have to hike along "a road" on a hike, but in this case, I wasn't the least bit disappointed. We didn't encounter any vehicular traffic in any case, and the open desert scenery as the road winds underneath the back escarpment of the reef is very, very nice. Another remote, wild, and beautiful pocket of Southern Utah that I had never seen before!
Pretty nice scenery in the "behind"
The road rose gently for at most 100 feet of elevation before descending again to the next drainage through the Reef - Little Wild Horse Canyon. Being that this was our return route, we turned off the road here, heading down-wash towards quite high cliffs of Wingate (and then Navajo) sandstone.