Hiking Little Wild Horse Canyon in San Rafael Swell
By Ryan Skidmore
A slot canyon is carved through rock by running water and is much deeper than it is wide. There are more than a thousand in Utah. One of the most accessible and rewarding is Little Wild Horse Canyon in Goblin Valley State Park. The first 100 yards into the canyon are breathtaking, with walls more than 50 feet high and about three feet apart. The path curves like a snake, and the layered, shaded walls have been textured by running water and look like exotic pottery.
The canyon is beautiful, but you should always be cautious of flash flooding. Never enter the canyon if there’s a chance of rain.
There are at least six more slot canyons near Little Wild Horse Canyon, so you can try more difficult ones after the first, if it turns you on to the sport of canyoneering. However, if you’re going to experience just one, Little Wild Horse is probably the most spectacular to see, and it can easily be made into a quick and easy hike.
It’s also family-friendly. Children enjoy scrambling over the small boulders, climbing small dry falls, and pressing their arms and legs on the walls going over puddles. There are a few natural resting places in the canyon for families to stop and snack. Dogs are also welcomed.
When to Go and What to Take
Little Wild Horse Canyon is on the San Rafael Swell, an area of desert that is extremely hot in the summer, so the best seasons to visit are the spring and fall.
Once in the canyon, you’ll be protected by shade—and sometimes a pleasant breeze. But it’s still smart to take 2–3 water bottles per person, even when the weather doesn’t seem very hot, and stay hydrated.
Wear closed shoes, because loose pebbles and sand can easily enter sandals, and watch out for the slipperiness of loose materials on sandstone.
You may also need a small backpack, like the WANDRD PRVKE, containing snacks, water bottles, a change of socks (in case you get wet), and survival gear such as compass, first aid kit, signal mirror, and matches. For this hike, you don’t need any climbing gear.
If you want to beat the crowds, we recommend getting there around 8 or 9 in the morning. There are only a small number of parking spots nearby, so get one before they’re gone. If you want to plan a day around this, it can really be disappointing if you arrive later, as there are usually no parking spots, and the trail is already crowded with tourists.
Little Wild Horse Canyon is about a five-hour drive from Salt Lake City and a six-hour drive from Las Vegas, so getting there early can be difficult, but is possible in a day trip. Getting there later can work out okay, of course, but there’s also a great campsite about 12 miles away in the state park, and it can be a lot of fun to sleep there and get up early to hike when it’s still cool outside.
The Short Route: Little Wild Horse
Walk past the bathroom near the parking lot and head down the dry wash. Follow the markers to the trailhead. The markers give you a choice of two canyons to enter. If you want to experience one of the most beautiful slot canyons in Utah and hike 2–3 hours, go to the right into Little Wild Horse. This is a great option for a day trip.
In some sections of Little Wild Horse Canyon, you’ll need to go over obstacles by pressing your arms and legs against the canyon walls. There might not be any, but on some days you’ll be going over standing water. If you have very small children who need to be carried, you might not be able to avoid getting your feet wet. You’ll also duck under a large rock or two jammed into the canyon.
Once you clear the first narrow section, you’ll find an open area where you can rest and have a snack. Then, there is another narrow section until it opens up again into an area with trees growing up from the canyon floor. This is a perfect landmark to watch for: have another rest and then turn around and head back down because the most exciting features are over. On the way back down, you’ll see that stunning canyon from another angle. Take pictures and experience it all over again!
The Long Route: Bell Canyon and Little Wild Horse Combined
Starting from the trailhead, go left into Bell Canyon. It isn’t as amazing to look at, but it does boast some interesting rock formations and offers an eight-mile loop that can take around six hours. At the top of Bell Canyon, go to the right on the access road until you find the sign for Little Wild Horse Canyon, where you’ll climb down some short dry falls into the canyon. Then, walk down to the trailhead!
Couldn’t you instead walk up Little Wild Horse and then back down Bell? Yes, but a lot of hikers have found that the clockwise route—going up Bell Canyon first and then down Little Wild Horse Canyon—is more fun because the amazing views in Little Wild Horse Canyon are a great reward to end with. Also, if there is any standing water in Little Wild Horse Canyon and you get your shoes and socks wet, at least you’re almost back to your car where you can change, rather than just starting a long trek.
Whether you have the time for a two-day camping adventure or a shorter day trip, Little Wild Horse Canyon is always spectacular and one of the best hikes in southern Utah. You might have heard of it but never gone, even if you’ve lived in Utah for some time, but once you go, you’ll start telling everyone else to check it out.