San Rafael Reef + Goblin Valley

Ashley here, typing this up in the wee hours from the Red Rock Bakery in Moab, Utah.

Fall is in full swing here in Utah and we are taking full advantage of the beautiful weather by exploring the surrounding area every free moment we have. Luckily for us, Moab is only an 1.5 hours away from an area we have really fallen in love with, the San Rafael Reef (east side of the San Rafael Swell). We’ve made a few trips down there over the last couple of months, and we’ve only just begun to skim the surface. Next spring, I think we will be spending significantly more time in the Swell than in Moab even.

The San Rafael Reef is located in and around Goblin Valley State Park, a famed park for it’s 3 square miles of hoodoos and oddly shaped towers-goblins– definitely worth the trip. The park does have a paid campground, but the park itself is surrounded entirely by free camping, so we drove around and found some great little spots, we found one for convenience, one for alternate weather, and a few with considerable distance from others.

Our first time, we arrived in the afternoon and went straight to the visitors center for beta, weather conditions, and coffee. Luckily the Ranger working was very knowledgeable, gave us a lot of great information and pointed us to Crack Canyon, but only after he checked to make sure our van had high enough clearance, which alone made us excited for the road ahead. It took us a good 30 minutes to drive the 4.5 miles to the mouth of Crack Canyon because the “road” was so uneven, sandy, rutted, and absolutely perfect for the beginning of an adventure. Once we hiked through the wash and got into the canyon, the walls started to narrow, and we started having to maneuver our way around the obstacles water have carved through thousands of years of flooding. We didn’t have Rufio’s canyoneering harness yet, so it was a little difficult getting him down a few sections but we managed. For a brief moment, the canyon opened up and in the distance we could see storm clouds rolling in and decided to bail on the rest of the canyon, leaving it for us to complete on another trip.

We high tailed it back to a paved road in fear that if it started raining, we’d likely get stuck in the mud/clay the road quickly became when wet. We decided to go check out Little Wild Horse Canyon, the most popular canyon in the area, the storm looked like it was rolling south past us. There is a reason it’s the most popular canyon, it is absolutely beautiful and as narrow as your foot in some sections, without requiring any technical gear. We hiked the whole canyon before turning around, which in hindsight, we probably would have pushed through and connected Bell Canyon, but we weren’t sure how many extra miles that would add.

Our next adventure to the area, we came prepared to explore canyons with a little more technical aspects. We brought our canyoneering gear and Rufio’s new harness that allows him to rappel and be lowered, and camped at a beautiful secluded site on the way out to the canyons. The spot we found had a handful of really cool tunnels that we explored, they reminded me of gothic cathedrals, very unique and beautiful. For dinner, we made the most delicious pasta dinner, played a couple rounds of Sorry, and went to bed early in anticipation of a very early morning and a long day on the trail.

I woke up around 5:30AM and headed straight for the trail head while Sean and Rufio stayed asleep in bed, or at least they tried to sleep. Getting back to the paved road was hysterical, it was so bumpy and because it was still pitch black it was impossible to see all the bumps and divots in the road, which resulted in Sean and Rufio literally flying around in the back while I cried laughing so hard and exclaiming “Sorry!” every few feet. As I drove to the trail head, I saw only a few little field mice scurry across the road, avoiding death for surely only the first of many times that day. At the parking lot, we made oatmeal, packed out bags and set out to loop Little Wild Horse + Bell Canyons. Little Wild Horse was just as cool the second time around, Bell left a lot to be desired, but these are non technical canyons, so I should have expected that it would be underwhelming- still pretty though!

We completed the LWH-Bell Loop much earlier than anticipated, getting back to the van right around noon. We decided to finally go check out the actual Goblin Valley, and when we got there we were totally blown away, it is so cool! It’s a large open valley, filled with all different size and shape hoodoos, aptly named ‘goblins’ that you are free to roam + explore around. It is like a giant playground for all ages. We were feeling adventurous, so we grabbed our packs and took off for the area behind the valley. We had no idea there are rappels and a lair you can explore, so you can bet that we will be getting back there asap.

We planned to stay for sunset, but the wind picked up and 30MPH gusts started pelting us with sand, making it difficult to just open our eyes, so we figured we oughtta go find a hidden spot to cook and sleep for the night. We were planning on doing Ding + Dang canyons in the morning and wanted to camp nearby, but since the wind was blowing so hard, and we weren’t sure if a storm would roll in with it, and we opted to camp at a convenient place where rain wouldn’t trap us. I woke up at 5AM, took note of the lack of wind and wet ground, and proceeded towards the canyons. The road to the canyons followed a sandy wash and all along the way we found free campsites for future use. Ding + Dang are low key technical canyons, with hand-lines in place for you, but since we have Rufio, and he doesn’t have hands LOL we had to bring our gear, a rope, and Rufio’s harness so we could lower or rappel with him. The canyons were beautiful, you ascend Ding and descend through Dang, and between the two is Ding Dang Dome, which tbh, I just love to say. Ding was fairly easy, we just hoisted Rufio over all the large boulders that could be easily climbed by humans, a few times Rufio even surprised us by jumping or stemming without any assistance. Pretty quickly into Dang, we had to pull out the rope and lower Rufio down a few 20 foot drops before a 40 foot dryfall, all within the first quarter-mile of the canyon, we knew we were in for some real fun ahead! The obstacles were fun and easy for us, but having Rufio with us added problem-solving, a sense of adventure, and some real challenges to overcome. Once we made it to the end, we had a little celebration and hung out for a bit before heading back to the van for lunch. We were tired and happy and starving- we didn’t bring lunch because we thought we’d be done before noon, but we didn’t calculate how much time each of the 12+ obstacles would take, so we didn’t get to the van until after 1:30PM. We collapsed once back at the van, made PB+J sandwiches, and then loaded up and headed back for Moab, planning on our next trip back all along the way.

2 Comments on “San Rafael Reef + Goblin Valley

  1. I loved the story, well written! But, I have stared at each of the pictures for way longer than I should at my boss’s dismay! Together with the story I felt like I was there, watching of course! Love you both, and Rufio!

    Liked by 1 person

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