Monday, August 17, 2020

Valley of Goblins

San Rafael Swell and Goblin Valley
1 mile loop, 100 feet elevation gain (variable length and elevation gain)
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Goblin Valley State Park entrance fee required

Utah's remote San Rafael Swell hides a bizarre geological wonderland filled with colorful hoodoos of all shapes and sizes: Goblin Valley. Slightly off the main tourist circuit, Goblin Valley State Park still packs in red rock scenery nearly as impressive as its national park brethren. The heart of this park is the Valley of Goblins, a vast collection of the park's signature rock features that allows for almost limitless exploration. There are no formal trails in the Valley of Goblins: visitors are welcome to wander where they wish. While hikes of variable length and elevation gain can be put together to explore this area, with longer hikes giving access to the more interior parts of the valley where there are taller and more intricate goblins, I will describe here a short loop along the edge of the valley that visits the top of a small ridge amidst the goblins for views over the valley.

I visited Goblin Valley State Park with my mom during a November Utah road trip, checking out the park after visiting nearby Horseshoe Canyon, a unit of Canyonlands National Park. Goblin Valley is essentially in the middle of nowhere, hours from Salt Lake City or any other metropolitan area. The closest towns are Hanksville in the south and Green River in the north; to reach the park from Green River, follow I-70 west to exit 149, then turn left and follow Utah Highway 24 south 24 miles to Temple Mountain Road. We turned right onto Temple Mountain Road, which had a sign indicating access to Goblin Valley State Park, and followed it west to the foot of the San Rafael Swell; here we turned left onto the access road for Goblin Valley State Park and followed it south into the park. At the T-intersection after passing the entrance station, we turned left and drove to the parking lot at the end of the road, which was an overlook over the Valley of Goblins.

The trailhead already delivered an extraordinary view of the Valley of Goblins. Below us lay a field of hoodoos, some just single rocks balanced on a narrow stem, others tall, eroded rock towers. The San Rafael Swell lay to the north and the Henry Mountains rose above the goblins far to the south.

Hoodoos of Goblin Valley
We walked over to the north end of the parking lot, near the start of the Carmel Canyon Trail. There were views from here north to the San Rafael Swell and the Three Sisters, a set of three tall hoodoos. Here, instead of heading towards Carmel Canyon, we descended a path down to the floor of the valley.

Three Sisters and San Rafael Swell
We wandered through the field of hoodoos for the next hour, generally heading towards the interior of this red rock playground. The hoodoos were all capped with a chunk of harder Entrada Sandstone, while the bases of each hoodoo consist of less resistant rock that has been more severly weathered. The hoodoos came in all shapes and sizes, some looking like hammers, mushrooms, and wizard hats, others resembling statues or camels.

While it's okay to explore the valley to your heart's content, it is illegal to deface or damage the park's hoodoos. In 2013, one of the hoodoos here was destroyed by three Boy Scout leaders who intentionally knocked over one of the cap rocks and recorded themselves doing so; two of them were later convicted of felony vandalism.

Looking to get a higher vantage point over the hoodoos, I made my way south to a low dirt ridge that rose in the center of the valley, following social paths to climb atop it. From here, there was a sweeping view of hoodoos all around me: small ones nearby and walls of taller hoodoos closer to the butte to the east. This was a nice spot to see the San Rafael Swell rising over the hoodoos to the north and the Henry Mountains to the south. The Henry Mountains are one of the most remote ranges in the 48 states: this was the last mountain range to receive an official name from European American settlers in the contiguous United States.

Goblin Valley

San Rafael Swell

Goblin Valley

Rock dome amidst the goblins

Henry Mountains rising over Goblin Valley
After enjoying the views, my mom and I wandered back towards the parking lot as the sun was about to set, keeping the gazebo next to the trailhead in our sights. A staircase made the ascent from the valley back up to the parking lot a little easier. We only walked for about a mile through the hoodoos, but you could easily spend a half or whole day wandering this fascinating landscape.

Dusk view from the parking area

Dusk on Goblin Valley and the Henry Mountains

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