Ditch the Crowds at Bryce Canyon in Favor of Goblin Valley’s Quieter Trails

Posted by
Emily Pennington
April 21, 2024
Updated April 18, 2024

Goblin Valley State Park
Tucked into the perfect dispersed campsite at Goblin Valley. (Photo/Will Rochfort)

Visitation at Utah’s “Mighty Five” is booming, but we have a solution. Turn to Goblin Valley, a lesser-known state park for family-friendly hikes and epic rock formations.

“It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow,” said homesteader Ebenezer Bryce of the towering hoodoos of brilliant orange sandstone that make up Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park. Today, the land is federally protected as part of the National Park Service (NPS). In lieu of cattle, you’re likely to find tourists wandering its maze-like rock formations. Lots of them.

Bryce Canyon National Park
A storm rolling over the orange landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park (Photo/Heather Balogh Rochfort)

Last year, 2,461,269 people visited Bryce Canyon, up nearly 1.5 million from just ten years ago, and this upward trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing. Tack on the fact that the park is one of the smaller units in the NPS, and you’ll see why the modern visitor experience is unlikely to contain the solitude-filled city escape you likely dreamed of.

For over a century, western travelers have been flocking to this storied landscape to marvel at its multicolored amphitheater of craggy sandstone formations and anthropomorphize them into quirky characters, like a queen atop her throne or a garden of fairies. There are miles of hiking trails below the canyon’s rim, as well as show-stopping scenic drives through the delicate fins of sandstone. But, because of its ever-increasing popularity, nabbing a parking space or a campsite near top sights can prove challenging, especially during the busy summer months.

San Rafael Swell near Goblin Valley
Goblin Valley sits in the San Rafael Swell, one of Utah’s most under-the-radar landscapes. (Photo/Will Rochfort)

Goblin Valley State Park: Find Quiet Among the Rocks

For similarly funky rock hopping and easier-to-snag campsites, head to Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park instead. Though it’s smaller than Bryce at just 9,915 acres, it receives fewer than half a million visitors each year. Plus, it’s surrounded by seriously stunning Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and opportunities for dispersed camping, should you decide to explore the area further.

Goblin Valley gets its name from the thousands of goblin-looking formations of Entrada Sandstone that have been worn away over the course of millions of years into squat little mushrooms and portly dwarves. The park is incredibly family-friendly because the trails are all modest distances, and kids here can climb around on the odd-shaped boulders for hours. It boasts a well-maintained campground (yes, in the middle of the weirdo rocks) of 24 regular sites ($45), one group site ($200), and two yurts ($150). Visitors may stay a maximum of 14 days, and a dump and water station is also available for registered campers.

Your Guide to Goblin Valley

After paying a day-use fee to enter the state park ($20 per private vehicle or $10 per motorcycle, bicycle, or pedestrian–national park passes won’t work here), visitors can enjoy three different park-maintained trails. At 1.5 miles, the Carmel Canyon loop is a moderate stroll from the parking area to the goblin-filled valley floor. Entrada Canyon follows a natural drainage from the campground to the goblins and back, and Curtis Bench offers a bird’s eye overview of the park, as it follows the rust-tinted Curtis Formation.

If you have the gumption to adventure beyond the gates, head to the popular (but worth it) Little Wild Horse Canyon, a classic slot canyon that gives everybody a chance to experience what it feels like inside a skinny slot. Little Wild Horse is an especially good slot canyon to start with because it gives you the sense of how tiny they can get — but it’s still accessible and doable for families with children.

Little Wild Horse Canyon
Exploring the tight corners of Little Wild Horse Canyon (Photo/Will Rochfort)

And best of all? Unlike at Bryce Canyon, leashed dogs are allowed in Goblin Valley, so feel free to bring Fido along with lots and lots of water.

Want to get even further off the beaten path? There’s loads of prime dispersed camping in the area, most notably along Wild Horse Road and near Hanksville. Come for the vermillion escarpments, stay for the fiery sunsets, excellent stargazing, and the chance to spot a kit fox or a kangaroo rat in the evening.

Fancy a more adrenaline-fueled experience? Get in the Wild Adventures offers a guided half-day canyoneering trip into the Goblin’s Lair. Along the way, travelers will learn rappelling techniques and safely drop down into the cathedral-like Chamber of the Basilisk, located in a far-flung corner of the state park.

Goblin Valley
The famed hoodoos look like little goblins. (Photo/Will Rochfort)

Because of its manageable size and family-friendliness, Goblin Valley is ideal for a spring, summer, or fall weekend getaway (Although be warned: it’s hotter than an inferno in the summer). Spend two days playing leapfrog on the quirky hoodoos and meandering through its utterly Mars-like expanse of red rock, then road trip home through Utah’s breathtaking landscapes. Photographers will also love the myriad of opportunities to creatively frame these squat, little rock goblins. 

Goblin Valley at a glance:

  • Nearest towns: Hanksville (29 miles), Moab (98 miles), Grand Junction (148 miles)
  • Acreage: 9,915 acres
  • Day use fees: $20 per private vehicle, $10 per motorcycle, bicycle, or pedestrian
  • Campground: 24 regular sites ($45), one group site ($200), and two camping yurts ($150). Sites can be reserved online.
  • Best for: Hiking, cycling, rock scrambling, epic sunsets, stargazing

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