Southwestern US

Squeezing our way through Little Wild Horse Canyon

After seven wonderful days exploring the red rock desert of Utah, our trip was coming to an end. We would be spending the night at a hotel in Green River, setting us up for an early morning start for our drive back to Denver. But before checking in for our final night away from home, we had one more stop to make: Little Wild Horse Canyon.

Little Wild Horse Canyon is a slot canyon… a narrow gorge with near-vertical rock walls. Slot canyons are formed by water, which rushes over the landscape during storms and flash floods, carving out a path through relatively soft rock — in this case, sandstone — on its way. With repeated events, the gorge cut by the water grows deeper and deeper but remains very narrow. In the case of Little Wild Horse Canyon, the narrowest sections were barely wide enough to fit through.

Little Wild Horse is one of many slot canyons in the San Rafael Swell, a geologically odd region of south-central Utah. The Swell formed between 40-60 million years ago in a process of faulting and uplift, resulting in a 3000 square mile (7770 square km) rock dome. Due to the highly tilted angle of the uplift and the subsequent years of erosion, there are often older rock layers visible above the younger layers. It’s a strange landscape.

I-70 cuts through the eastern edge of the San Rafael Swell

Goblin Valley State Park is also located within the San Rafael Swell, as are many recreation areas maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. In addition to slot canyons and other strange geological features, one can find petroglyphs and pictographs here. Nomadic cultures, followed by the Ute (Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱) and Southern Paiute (Nuwuvi) people, were the inhabitants of this land prior to the arrival of white and Hispanic settlers. We did not see any rock art on this visit, but I would love to return see that and other parts of the Swell.

For now, though, it was time to hike through a slot canyon!

We pulled into the parking area just after noon and secured one of the few remaining spots. This is one of the most accessible and family-friendly slot canyons in Utah so it’s pretty popular. From the parking area, the trail is initially just a sandy walk through the desert with no indication of the slot canyon that lies ahead.

Little Wild Horse Canyon trail

After 0.5 miles (0.8 km), we reached a fork in the trail. This trail can be hiked as an out-and-back or as a loop. The loop is about 8 miles (12.9 km) long and also includes Bell Canyon, a shorter and wider slot canyon. As we’d already hiked 5 miles (8 km) in Goblin Valley that morning, we opted to do the shorter out-and-back version and bypass Bell Canyon. We turned right at the fork. Not long after, we found ourselves at the entrance to the slot canyon.

Because slot canyons are tall and narrow, they are an exceptionally dangerous place to be during a rainstorm. Even if it’s not raining overhead, rain falling upstream can funnel into a slot canyon, forming a flash flood. In a flash flood, torrents of water, often many feet deep, come rushing through a canyon very quickly, often with no warning. Even if there is some warning, there’s nowhere to escape the onslaught. Hence the danger. Never ever ever enter a slot canyon if there is a chance of rain.

The weather forecast was dry and the sky was clear as far as the eye could see on this November day, so we excitedly stepped into the canyon.

This was our first time ever hiking a slot canyon, and it was even more fun than I expected! We really enjoyed squeezing through all the narrow spaces and poking our heads around the corners, excited to see what came next. I also really liked the wave-like way in which the rock has been eroded and the many curved, twisted, and slanted layers visible in the canyon walls.

We hiked about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) through the canyon until the walls opened and the canyon widened, at which point we decided to turn around and head back through.

Our turnaround point

At times we encountered people traveling the opposite direction and, in many places, there wasn’t room for two people to pass through side by side. Fortunately, everyone we met was courteous and one party would backtrack to a location where they could step aside, allowing the other party to pass.

And that was it. All too soon, we were back to the car and our week in the Utah desert was in the rearview mirror. What a week it was. Hoodoos, potholes, petrified wood, slot canyons, and an endless expanse of colorful and bizarre geology. Utah is amazing and I know we’ll be back soon!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: from Utah Highway 24, turn west onto Temple Mountain Road, then south onto Goblin Valley Road. At the turnoff for Goblin Valley State Park, stay right and drive 5 miles (8 km) to the signed parking area. The road is dirt but passable by any car in good weather
  • Fees and passes: none, as far as I can tell (we weren’t sure, so we hung our America the Beautiful pass just in case)
  • Hiking: options include walking through Little Wild Horse Canyon as far as you want and then turning around and heading back to the trailhead (could range from 1-6 miles/1.6-9.6 km round trip), or combining Little Wild Horse with adjacent Bell Canyon to form an 8 mile (12.9 km) loop
  • Where to stay: developed and dispersed camping is allowed in certain areas on the surrounding BLM land (here is a map that shows the trailhead as well as camping options). Goblin Valley State Park also has a campground. For hotels, the closest option is either Green River or Torrey, both of which are about 90 minutes away
  • Other: I really can’t say it enough… don’t do this hike if it’s raining. Don’t do this hike if it’s about to rain. Don’t try to beat the storm. Don’t do this hike if there’s a chance of rain anywhere in the area. Flash floods are extremely dangerous and getting caught in one can be fatal. Be sure to check the weather before setting out and remember that once you’re in the slot canyon, you won’t be able to see if a storm is coming

51 thoughts on “Squeezing our way through Little Wild Horse Canyon”

  1. Love, love, love Little Wild Horse Canyon! Although it’s been more years than I care to count since I last hiked it, It remains possibly my favorite slot canyon, definitely among my top 5. Thanks for bringing back this blast from the past for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad I can help with your travel plans 🙂 There are hundreds of similar canyons in Utah so you would definitely have no shortage of options to explore in the area.

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  2. I very much enjoyed your Utah adventure and posts, Diana 🤗 it’s amazing how narrow some of the places are 😅 I would very much freak out due to my claustrophobia, yet I can’t deny that it’s a true nature’s marvel. Thanks for sharing and have a good day ☺️ Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Aiva. I asked my sister, who is claustrophobic, how she would do in a slot canyon and she said she’d probably be okay since it’s open on top and she could see the sky. So maybe you’d be okay walking in at least a little ways.

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  3. I’m afraid my claustrophobia and memories of the movie 127 Hours would keep me from enjoying a long slot canyon hike! I’ve been in very small sections, but I truly fear walking in too deep.

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    1. Hmmm yes, I could see how that might be a problem. I did ask my sister, who is claustrophobic, how she would feel in a slot canyon and she said she’d probably be okay since it’s open on top and she could see the sky. So maybe you’d be okay too! But even just walking in a short distance is worth it to see the patterns in the rocks.

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  4. Wow! Such gorgeous photos. Utah is nothing sort of slot canyons, from the Narrows in Zion to these in Little Wild Horse. Perhaps places to walk through and admire the layers and textures to the walls…They remind me of Antelope Canyon in Arizona, a place that I’ve come close to, but never made it to. Honestly never heard of Little Wild Horse Canyon, but now you made me a fan! Hope to go someday should I return to Utah!

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    1. Yeah, I’ve heard there are over 1000 slot canyons in Utah! Somehow this is the only one I’ve been to. I’ve yet to visit Antelope Canyon. Sounds like you’re overdue for a return trip to Utah!

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    1. This is probably one of the easier ones to reach, in terms of effort. The drive is mostly paved with just a bit of little dirt road at the end (but fairly smooth dirt), and the hike is relatively flat.

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    1. Oooh have fun! I look forward to reading about it when you return. Where in Utah are you headed?

      No handstand in this one, it was hard to find a good spot where I could maneuver my way upside down and where Pat could take a photo that might actually turn out.

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    1. You could add about 100 other Utah slot canyons to your bucket list as well 😂 There are so so many of them, it’s unbelievable. Some of them require technical climbing or rappelling, which I have a feeling you guys would enjoy.

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  5. This looks amazing. When you go back to Utah not far from Green River is Nine Mile Canyon- wide open but lots and lots of petroglyphs and pictographs- the road is actually fifty plus miles long

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    1. Oh wow! I’ve never heard of Nine Mile Canyon, thanks for the tip! We definitely plan to return to Utah many many times so maybe I can add this to our next visit.

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    1. Yes, it’s pretty amazing to think of how long it must have taken for water to carve something this deep. Especially since it’s a dry climate that doesn’t get much rain.

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  6. Slot canyons have such natural beauty, but you are right Diana, they are dangerous places during rain and flash flooding. We toured Antelope Canyon in 2018 and the beauty created by wind, sand and water action was unbelievable. Thanks for sharing. Allan

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  7. Thanks again. I didn’t know about this area and usually am driving past on I 70. The other slot canyons like Antelope all require permits now. Must try it but can a larger person even squeeze through?

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    1. Yes, absolutely a larger person could fit. The narrowest parts are near the ground and then it’s slightly wider up higher. We had backpacks on and never had any trouble maneuvering through even with those sticking out. We saw all sizes of people hiking through.

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  8. Little White Horse – what a beautiful name! I love the trail in the slot canyon … your photos truly shows the beauty of this place. Absolutely, one would not like to be caught here with water on its way! It’s a great last trail before turning back home … thanks for showing the beauty of Utah!

    Liked by 1 person

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