Little Wild Horse Canyon

Getting There

Sculpted Canyon
Walls
Canyon Hiker
David Klash

From Moab, drive north on US 191 for 30 miles to I-70. Take I-70 west for about 30 miles to State Route 24 and turn left. Take SR 24 south for 30 miles until you see a sign for Goblin Valley State Park and turn right. Follow this paved road for 6 miles and turn left when you see another sign pointing the way to Goblin Valley. After 6 miles, just before you get to the entrance station to Goblin Valley State Park, there is a sign pointing the way to Wild Horse Mesa and Muddy Creek. Turn right on this dirt road and follow it for 5.3 miles. This road is passable for passenger cars, just be on the lookout for a few large bumps and an occasional patch of sand (keep your speed up when driving through sand and there will be no problem). There is a parking area for Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons on the right hand side of the road.

 

The Hike

Many people do this as a loop hike by hiking up Little Wild Horse Canyon and then returning down via adjacent Bell Canyon. Since Little Wild Horse contains such spectacular narrows, I enjoy hiking up and then returning back down the same canyon. The narrows look different from both directions.

From the parking area, climb down into the wash and hike north. The hike will be traveling up-canyon so there is a very gradual ascent for the length of the canyon. After a few minutes the wash quickly narrows but beware, there is a dry waterfall that many people will not be able to scramble up comfortably. Simply climb out of the wash and follow a very faint foot trail on the left that bypasses this obstacle. After a short ascent and descent, you can get back into the wash and continue north. After about 10-15 minutes the wash divides, Bell Canyon is on the left and Little Wild Horse is on the right. Take the canyon on the right, Little Wild Horse. Within a minute or two you will enter the narrows, which continue for nearly two miles. There is no way to get lost, just follow the canyon! The width of the narrows varies from shoulder width to nearly 10 feet. There are a few open areas which will allow you to rest and enjoy the blue sky. Be prepared for some of the most spectacular canyon hiking in southern Utah. There is no doubt about it, this hike is simply incredible!

 

From My Journal...

"Due to the narrow width and extreme contours on the canyon walls, much of this canyon remains in shade for most of the day. In a refreshingly cool twist of the canyon I pause, in total silence, to savor the moment. Rubbing my hand over the cool, smooth rock contours I ponder the tremendous forces that were required to create such a wonder of erosional artistry. The gentle curves of the rock seem to defy the immense power required to sculpt them. I look up at a narrow wedge of blue sky, which suddenly seems very far away. It is another world down here, a world of rock, color, and form. A refreshing breeze blows down the canyon carrying the smell of rock. I close my eyes as the breath of the canyon envelopes my body and soul. A small lizard climbs up the canyon wall and I place my hand on the rock in front of him. He runs up one of my arms, hops onto the other, and then leaps onto the opposite canyon wall to continue his vertical ascent. It is hard to not feel as if I have become a part of this extraordinary place."

"Every twist and turn in this canyon holds a surprise. Constantly changing color, light, and erosional characteristics transform the personality of the canyon in the blink of an eye. No two views are ever the same. Closer inspection of many of the sandstone walls reveal exquisite carvings, indentations, and variations of color. Bands of color traverse the rock contours in continually changing patterns and orientations. It is like being immersed within a work of art, the hand of the artist is present everywhere. The constantly changing contours and colors represent the creative impulses of the creator."

 At the end of the narrows you have two options:

  • Turn around and follow the canyon back to the parking area. The total round trip distance for this hike is about 6 miles. Allow 3 hours.
  • Do the Loop Hike and return via Bell Canyon. Stay in the wash and continue north for about 45 minutes until you reach the Behind the Reef Road. Note that this road is extremely faint and you may miss it if you are not paying close attention. Follow this faint road left (west) for about 45 minutes. The road will gradually ascend and then descend a hill. It then slowly arcs to the southwest as you approach Bell Canyon, which is the next break in the escarpment. Follow Bell Canyon south until it meanders back to the beginning of Little Wild Horse. The total round trip distance for this hike is 8 miles. Allow 4-6 hours.

Photography

Photography is a bit tricky in a slot canyon so I have included a few tips here which may be of use to first time slot canyon hikers. Please note that I am not a professional photographer, these are just my personal observations which may help to prevent a bit of film from being wasted on poorly exposed pictures.

The contrast between the shaded depths of the canyon and the beams of sunlight that occasionally penetrate the canyon is enormous, much more than you would think. This contrast range seems to be well beyond the capability of any film to capture. Exposure for the sunlit portions results in total blackness for the shaded areas. Conversely, exposure for the shaded portions results in totally washed out colors for the sunlit portions. While either of those exposure modes may result in rather creative and abstract pictures, I think you will find that they will not capture the true feeling of the canyon, the feeling of what it was like to actually be there. I have found that the most successful pictures result when utilizing reflected sunlight to illuminate the desired subject matter. For example, a sunlit wall at your back results in warm, colorful lighting for the opposite wall. A sunbeam that lands just around the next twist in the canyon, out of direct view of the camera, results in wonderful reflected lighting for the current twist. The basic rule-of-thumb is to not take too many pictures which contain both direct sunlight and shade, unless you want the shaded areas to come out absolutely black. Of course like any rule there are occasional exceptions, but following this advice should result in quite a few great pictures. I hope this helps!

The Element of the Unknown

In September of 1998 I revisited Little Wild Horse Canyon with my friend David Klash, who was visiting from New York State. We set out to hike the entire loop, up Little Wild Horse Canyon and back down Bell Canyon. Several days prior to our hike central Utah was hit with some pretty heavy rain. Before we even arrived at the trailhead we were forced to detour around several washed out sections of the dirt road that leads to Little Wild Horse Canyon. We soon began to suspect that this hike would involve a little more than we had expected.

Shortly after starting the hike we came upon several small pools of water. No problem, this is why I wore my TEVA sport sandals. A few weeks prior to Dave’s trip I had e-mailed him that "…several of the hikes I have planned may involve walking through water. It would be a good idea to pick up some TEVAs." Dave went out and bought one of the new top-of-the-line models complete with spider-grip soles and some sort of special drainage pattern on the top. They certainly looked impressive, but after a couple of days of completely dry hiking I was beginning to get the impression that Dave was wondering exactly why I had told him to buy these revolutionary aquatic wonders. I sighed with relief when I realized that we would finally get our feet wet. Finally Dave would realize that it was money well spent.

As we entered the narrows we walked through our first ankle-deep water. Since much of the narrows is shaded during the day the water was fairly cold. We happily tromped through the puddles in Little Wild Horse as we made our way up-canyon, marveling at the beautifully sculpted rock on the canyon walls. We came across several small frogs, all of them heading down-canyon. Did they know something we didn’t?

"Every twist of this canyon holds a surprise!" I exclaimed as we hiked around twist after twist of the narrows. "It’s a completely different view every time you walk around a bend. You just never know…" I came to an abrupt halt as I walked around a bend and beheld Lake Powell. Could it be? No, there were no boats, just little frogs doing the backstroke (well, not really but it sure sounds good). The canyon was flooded, and I’m not talking ankle deep. For the next couple of hours we made our way through sections that were waist and chest deep. A layer of wet sand at the bottom of the flooded sections could best be described as quicksand. The longer we stood in it, the further down our feet would sink. There was a strenuous lag between the time we decided to walk, and the actual time we could get our feet out of the sandy pits they had settled into. Moving through the deep pools as quickly as possible had a definite advantage since the cold water started numbing our legs after we were in it for a minute or two.

Because of the camera and video gear we were carrying, we were forced to find an alternate route around the extremely deep sections. In such a narrow canyon this involved quite a bit of backtracking and rock scrambling. But in retrospect, it was the water that added an entirely new element to this hike, the element of the unknown. In most sections we would just make our way through the water while in others we were forced to find a bypass. It was a wonderful adventure and great fun!

We eventually made our way to the back of the reef and then headed west. It took about 30-45 minutes to get to the next break in the escarpment, Bell Canyon. Bell doesn’t have many narrows, but it’s beautiful none-the-less. The entire loop hike took nearly 6 hours because of the water obstacles. I would imagine it could be done in as little as 4 hours on a dry day.

This was one of the most enjoyable day hikes I have ever done. The combination of total solitude (not another person all day) and the element of the unknown resulted in an absolutely unforgettable experience. After getting back to our car we ate dinner and watched the sunset. We soon found ourselves in total darkness under a canopy of blazing stars. The clearly defined dust lanes of the Milky Way and the fuzzy nebulosity of the Andromeda Galaxy were visible. Numerous meteors arced overhead. Can it possibly get any better than this?!