By Courtney Johnson
Driving along Highway 24 in south central Utah, to the west on the edge of the San Rafael Swell, you will find the Valley of the Goblins. Much evidence of Native American petroglyph and pictograph panels exists in the area, though cowboys searching for cattle are often credited with discovering Goblin Valley. In the late 1920’s, prospector and entrepreneur Arthur Chaffin bought the properties once owned by Cass Hite and The Cass Hite Ferry company. With no dirt road, finding a boat or swimming the horses was the only way to cross the Colorado River in the late 19th century. Chaffin was looking for ways to open Glen Canyon to the public, hoping to offer quicker routes between towns like Green River and Caineville, in Utah. Chaffin returned twenty some years later in 1949, to photograph what he referred to as a valley of mushrooms.
As word traveled about this unique and obscure place, visitors began to visit the valley in high numbers. In 1954, the state of Utah purchased the land with hopes of protecting the area. It officially became a state park on August 24, 1964. Since it’s opening, Goblin Valley State Park has been referred as “Mars on Earth,” and for good reason. The Star Trek Spoof movie Galaxy Quest was filmed in the park, leading to some portions of the road in and out to be paved in preparation for the Hollywood production.
Quite enamored with the hoodoos we saw at Bryce Canyon, my husband, daughter and I decided to make the 5.5 hour trek from our home in Colorado to see the goblins. My daughter had a long weekend because of school conferences, so we left on Saturday morning with the expectation of exploring the park on Sunday.
Hoodoos are made from limestone or basalt rock that has hardened on top of Wingate sandstone. Rain and continuous winters of freeze and thaw have eroded the rock into unique shapes over time. The Valley of the Goblins has one of the highest concentrations of hoodoos in the world. The fall is a perfect time for exploring; summer travel crowds have thinned out, and the blazing temps have subsided to averages of sixties and seventies during October and November.
In the summer, temperatures can range from 90-105°F- making sun protection and carrying plenty of water a necessity. In the desert, the temperature drops quickly in the evenings, to an average of fifty degrees—thus, early mornings and evenings ideal for hiking and exploring if you visit during the summertime. Be sure to check the weather, because summer brings heavy rains, and storms can brew quickly.
The park is open from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., seven days a week, including holidays. The visitor’s center has limited winter hours. The winter brings occasional snow and below freezing temperatures overnight. Spring and fall are often sunny, but can bring unpredictable weather.
For us, it was a clear blue bird day. Even with temperatures only in the mid 60’s, we carried water with us. The sun was still intense, as, but the shadows the hoodoos create, there is no respite from the sun in the park. My lips chapped and my nose was a bit red at the end of the day, proof that even on a sixty degree day, the desert climate can take its toll.
There are several trails in the park, although the highlight is the Valley of the Goblins (actually three valleys) where visitors are free to explore, climb the landscape and play amongst the mushrooms and goblins. Currently, a study is in place to try and gather information on how human interaction affects the longevity of the goblins.
We began with a hike on the Entrada Canyon Trail, a 1.3 mile one way narrow trail that takes you down into a “valley” to see hoodoos that can’t be seen from any other vantage point in the park. Since it is a point to point trail, we began at the trailhead from the Observation Point parking lot, so we could finish at the picnic area and entrance to the Valley of the Goblins.
As we wound our way down, brown arrow signs and handmade cairns guided us through a canyon landscape. A hoodoo that resembled a whale tail looked nothing like one from the other side—an experience we noted as we walked east and then west on the trail. Since you are free to explore where you want to, side jaunts through areas of wash offer perfect places to play hide and seek and scare each other.
We stopped to make our own cairn on the way to the campground, where the trail ends. The unique rocks we saw were tempting to take for my daughter’s ever growing rock collection, but one of the park rules is to not take any rocks home with you.
Except for a few lizards and a crow or two overhead, we saw nothing in the form of wildlife. My daughter spotted a snake track in the sand, but most of the animals in the valley are said to be nocturnal due to the topography and aired desert climate that makes up the Swell. Coyotes, kangaroo rats, kit foxes and pronghorn are some of the animals that make their home in the valley.
At one point, a Frisbee flew over our heads (and we had to duck) as we made our way up and out of the canyon. We didn’t realize there was a nine-hole disc golf course above us, while the people playing didn’t realize there was a trail below them. The course takes players from near a service road where the Entrada Canyon Trail and the Curtis Bench Trail split off to many vantage points within the park, ending at the Amphitheater. From visual experience, we recommend vibrant colored discs because we saw a few people struggling to find their frisbees against the expanse of caramel colored sand. You can rent discs, and obtain maps detailing the course, at the park visitor center.
We returned the way we came after the trail ended at the campground. After a quick picnic lunch at Observation Point (my daughter was antsy to explore), we journeyed into the Valley. It truly is a playground for adults and kids alike. We had some additional lunch sitting next to the hoodoos. We climbed up and down the mounds of rock. Emma was determined to run up a mound of rock similar to the warped wall in American Ninja Warrior. After several tries, she got it!The 2.1 mile out and back Curtis Bench trail (designated as easy) and the moderate 1.5 loop Carmel Canyon trail are also popular designated trails in the park. Curtis Bench offers views of the Henry Mountains and a unique view of the Curtis Formation and Three Sisters rock outcropping. Carmel Canyon begins at the Observation Point parking lot and takes you down to the canyon floor and back up. A overlook view of Molly’s Castle is the highlight of this hike.
We didn’t bring our bikes along this time, but Goblin Valley did also open the Wild Horse Mountain Bike Trail system in June of 2015. Beginning off a service road where the Curtis Bench and Entrada Canyon trails split off, the five loops creating eight miles of trails are said to bring you to some of the most excellent vantage points, including one for Molly’s Castle, one of the most recognized formations in the park. We look forward to seeing the landscape from this unique view during our next visit.
With no main source of light for over ten miles, Goblin Valley State Park is one of the darkest places on Earth, according to the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team, with unobstructed views of the Milky Way. Full moon hikes and night sky viewing programs led by the rangers in the park happen monthly. Events can be found here. There nightly dark star forecast can be found here.
Goblin Valley State Park has one campground with individual tent sites, a group tent site, and accommodates RV’s up to 59 feet with no hook ups. You can reserve from two days to 16 weeks out.
While camping seems to be the best option if you plan to stargaze and play amongst the goblins at night, the small town of Hanksville is about 12 miles away and has hotels. We chose to stay 50 miles southwest in Green River, the biggest city in the area. It is close to other hikes including Black Dragon Canyon (we hiked here on Monday morning, before heading back to Colorado) and the classic slot canyon Little Wild Horse.
We’ve stayed in Green River in the past heading to Vegas, so we knew of the Green River Coffee Company for early morning caffeinating before heading out to hike, as well as the Tamarisk Restaurant, which features locally grown ingredients. An added bonus to staying in Green River is that we were able to visit the John Wesley Powell River Museum, in town. We learned quite a bit about Powell on a recent trip that took us to the Glen Dam, Lake Powell and Grand Canyon. My daughter enjoyed recalling what we had learned and seeing photos of the places we had been. She also loved seeing a replica boat of Powell’s, the Emma Dean. Cute four year old that she is, she asked if the boat was named after her! A bonus was the dinosaur skeletons in the basement, including the Utahceratops.
So if you are passing through south central Utah, make a visit to the Valley of Goblins. With a little bit of fun for everyone of all ages, you won’t be disappointed.
Courtney Johnson is a freelance sports and parent writer based in Erie, Colorado. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband AJ and four year old daughter Emma.
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Banner photo by au_ears / CC
My stories and photos from the National Parks (and more)
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