GOBLIN VALLEY, Utah — “The goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!” wrote poet James Whitcomb Riley in 1885, probably just about the time that cowboys searching for cattle in southern Utah stumbled into this extraordinary collection of sandstone formations that eerily resemble goblins. The goblins may not have gotten the cowboys, but they have been drawing visitors ever since.
The area was called Mushroom Valley in the 1920s by Arthur Chaffin, who operated a ferry across the Colorado River and was looking for alternative routes when he and two companions arrived at a vantage point and saw before them a valley of strangely shaped rock formations.
Almost 30 years later, Chaffin returned and photographed some of the formations. The resulting publicity started the flow of sightseers into the area. My partner, Gloria Cortes, and I had heard about what now is Goblin Valley State Park from a friend, so we decided to join the sightseeing flow.
When we arrived in Goblin Valley last May, our first reaction was an enthusiastic “Wow!”
No sooner had we pitched our tent in one of the park campsites than we jumped into our car and followed the road to a large parking lot that overlooks a forest of sandstone formations called hoodoos. These are the result of millions of years of erosion and are similar to the striking features of the better known Arches and Bryce Canyon national parks.
The sprawling parking lot offers a variety of views, all of which are teasers for what is to come for those who scramble down the incline and enter the valley itself.
There is something mystical about the feeling that envelops a visitor who enters goblin country on foot. These fantastical formations — some crowded together and others separated by several feet — rise slightly above the heads of most adults. Then there are the short formations that instantly remind you of goblin children. Although they have been taking shape for millions of years, there is no sense of the great antiquity that you experience among the ancient bristlecone pines of the White Mountains or the deep rock walls of the Grand Canyon. Instead, there is a sense of something both old and young and, indeed, mischievous. These are not formations among which you tiptoe but, instead, you explore with delight.
However, there may be one exception to this feeling. Deep in the valley a rock wall rises many feet high with goblins clustered beneath it. My reaction, on seeing it, was that we had wandered into a primitive cathedral. The wall and its distinct spires tower over the goblin figures gathered below. Your imagination is tempted to add the sound of an organ to this special setting. In talking with park rangers later, I asked whether the site had a name, and they responded that few places in Goblin Valley have names. I said, “Then I think it should be called the Cathedral of the Goblins.” Unofficially, they agreed.
The rangers are among the valley’s biggest fans. Ranger Sarah Siefken said, “Even though it is full of red rock formations, there is something intriguing about this place. You don’t have to follow a trail. You can just go down and play among the goblins. There is a lot of variety.” The park now draws roughly 50,000 visitors a year, with one-third coming from outside the United States.
If goblins were not enough, the outskirts of Goblin Valley boast wonderful slot canyons for hiking and exploring. The most popular are Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons. The trail head is a little more than five miles south of the Goblin Valley entrance station. A well-traveled trail works its way through Little Wild Horse Canyon and then loops around through Bell Canyon before returning to the trail head. In some places, scrambling over boulders and squeezing through tight slots is required, but the hike is well worth the effort. We were especially delighted with Little Wild Horse Canyon, which offers a variety of polished rock surfaces, stunning views and rich color offset by blue sky. The entire loop takes about half a day to complete, depending on your pace. Little Wild Horse Canyon by itself can be done in a little more than an hour, not counting the many stops for taking photos.
It would be remiss not to mention the facilities at Goblin Valley, starting with hot showers, a rarity in most parks. It also has a couple of fully equipped, air-conditioned yurts. Temperatures in the summer can top 100 degrees, and air conditioning can be a blessing. The campsites all include level concrete pads and shady roofs overhead. Spring and fall are the most popular times to visit. Because it is at 5,000-feet elevation, winter can bring snow.
For the most part, the goblins are red-orange in color, which helps to make them highly photogenic. As a result, the best times to wander among the formations are early to mid-morning and the late afternoon until sunset. Because of the angle of the sun, the many formations cast fascinating shadows. Some even seem to move. Boo! The lighting causes the shapes to seem to shift with the shadows.
On our last afternoon in Goblin Valley, a school bus pulled into the parking lot with about three dozen teenagers on an outing. It took only minutes for them to swarm into the valley, and their shouts echoed through the colorful sandstone. Their enthusiasm reflected our own. The goblins may not have “gotten” us, as Riley warned, but they did make a lasting impression.
If you go
Goblin Valley State Park, (435) 275-4584, stateparks.utah.gov/parks/goblin-valley. For campsite reservations (recommended), call (800) 322-3770. There is no gasoline sold in the park, but the towns of Hanksville and Green River have fuel, stores and lodging.