Little Wildhorse Canyon – A Fun Slot!

An interesting section of Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
An interesting section of Little Wildhorse Canyon

Little Wildhorse Canyon may be the most famous slot canyon in Utah.  It’s certainly up there, along with Buckskin Gulch, Peek-a-boo and Spooky Slots, Kanarra Creek, and the Zion Narrows (which are unarguably the most famous and also not really a slot canyon IMO).  Little Wildhorse is a great introduction to slot canyons, as it features narrow passages, cool stripes and rock formations, and a few scrambles without any rope-worthy technical sections.  Even if you’ve done slot canyons before (I have!), it’s still a worthwhile destination – it’s just that pretty!

Quick Stats

Round Trip Length: Up to 10-11 miles Trail Type: Lollipop loop or Out & Back Elevation Gain: 557ft. Pets: Leashed Fees: None

Another pretty section of Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Another pretty section of Little Wildhorse Canyon

Most people who hike the entirety of Little Wildhorse Canyon (you don’t need to do the entire thing to see cool stuff) tack on Bell Canyon as a lollipop loop.  I did this, too; just realize that Little Wildhorse is much more interesting and more difficult than Bell (which is mostly just a stroll through a narrow but rarely slotty canyon).  I’d still recommend the loop to avoid having to pass quite so many people while scrambling back down Little Wildhorse.  Also, the hike between the two canyons has some good views.  However, due to the length of the hike and the number of photos, I’m going to write about descending Bell Canyon in a separate post.

The Little Wildhorse Canyon Trailhead, San Rafael Swell, Utah
The Little Wildhorse Canyon Trailhead

I started up the Little Wildhorse Canyon Trail on a moody morning in early November.  (Note that I don’t necessarily recommend slot canyons in November due to the chill of the rock making the hike much colder than the surrounding desert – but thankfully, this day was warm enough to be pleasant both inside and outside of the canyon, even if I did see a skim of ice on some of the puddles in Little Wildhorse Canyon).  The path begins as a real trail for about 0.1 miles before dropping into the wash.  Turn left to hike up the sandy wash with occasional cottonwoods.

Colorful cottonwoods along the lower part of the Little Wildhorse Canyon Trail, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Colorful cottonwoods along the lower part of the Little Wildhorse Canyon Trail

About half a mile from the parking area, you’ll come to the first obstacle: A dryfall that (when I visited) had a large puddle beneath it.  Backtrack a short distance so you can bypass the dryfall via a stone shelf on the left (while walking upcanyon).

The puddle below the first dryfall, which is actually a multi-drop that appears too slick and steep to climb.  Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
The puddle below the first dryfall, which is actually a multi-drop that appears too slick and steep to climb

The route goes up the stone shelf, then along about halfway up the cliff above the canyon for a short distance.  It then descends back into the canyon via sketchy social trails.  I didn’t see a single good route down, though some are definitely better than others – and there are plenty to choose from!

Looking down on the junction of Bell Canyon (left) and Little Wildhorse Canyon (right) - can you see the sign?  San Rafael Swell, Utah
Looking down on the junction of Bell Canyon (left) and Little Wildhorse Canyon (right) – can you see the sign?

Once safely down in the wash again, turn left to almost immediately arrive at the junction with Bell Canyon about mile 0.6.  The sign is small, but it’s not hard to see if you’re looking for it (you can also see it while up on the bypass trail).  Turn right up Little Wildhorse Canyon.

A wide section early on in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
A wide section early on in Little Wildhorse Canyon

This is where the real excitement begins, though the first set of narrows doesn’t truly begin for another 0.4 miles.  Keep your eyes open for small arches, rock formations, sculpted walls, and stripes in the rock.

Striped walls in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Striped walls

I’m afraid I don’t recall the exact order of events in the canyon, and my photos, while helpful, don’t tell me where they were taken relative to my GPS coordinates.  So I’m going to tell you what you’ll see, and while I’ll try to get them in order, just realize that, for example, you might see the rock art before the final set of narrows, etc.

An early, easy dryfall in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
An early, easy dryfall

The first set of narrows is about 0.2 miles long; a tenth of a mile later, begin a 0.3 mile second set of narrows.  A third set of narrows is 0.9 miles further upcanyon.

Fascinating sculpted walls in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Fascinating sculpted walls

The narrows are fun.  They’re typically wide enough to continue walking straight ahead (yay!), but they’re pretty sculpted.  And there are enough small dryfall scrambles to make sure you stay on your toes!

A chokestone that must be scrambled in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
A chokestone that must be scrambled

There are also a few more major obstacles along the way – mostly Class 3 scrambles up dryfalls and over/around chokestones.  This is made more exciting if it’s rained recently and puddles have formed below the dryfalls.  These can cause excitement, but if you’re good at scrambling/chimneying, they shouldn’t stop you for very long.  On the other hand, you’ll lose more people at every major obstacle and might even have the canyon to yourself by the time you reach the top!

Straddling a puddle and climbing a dryfall at the same time!  Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Straddling a puddle and climbing a dryfall at the same time!

Because I was 1) so late in the season, 2) so early in the morning, and 3) on a weekday, I had the canyon almost completely to myself (I believe I saw two couples in Little Wildhorse Canyon and no one in Bell Canyon – though I did meet several people in the canyon below the split, especially on my way back).  This is not typical – usually, there are quite a few people enjoying Little Wildhorse Canyon, to the point that many people describe it as “crowded” (if not quite up to national park crowd standards).

Tiny but lovely dryfall in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Tiny but lovely dryfall

About 4 miles from the trailhead, I marked an especially interesting dryfall on my GPS.  Is it really the most difficult, or did I just think that I could get a decent waypoint because the canyon was open enough not to obstruct my signal?  Who knows!

Cliffs above a section of narrows, Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Cliffs above a section of narrows

What I do know is that the canyon opens up to some dramatic cliff wall views.  If you have sharp eyes, you might even spot some rock art on a boulder along the way.

Rock art on a boulder in Little Wildhorse Canyon, Utah
Rock art on a boulder

Beyond the wide-and-cliffs part of the canyon, pass through an arch created by a dryfall and a chockstone.  It’s pretty dramatic!

A 6' hiker standing in the dramatic chokestone arch, Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
A 6′ hiker standing in the dramatic chokestone arch

Some creative chimneying and scrambling up three more dryfalls (some with puddles!) brought me up into the upper part of the canyon.  This was not as scenic as what we’d already seen, but it’s still interesting.  Keep walking upcanyon.

It's turning into a pretty normal canyon above Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
It’s turning into a pretty normal canyon

About mile 4.9, the wash splits.  A couple of signs tell you to take the left fork (one says “Trail” and the other points toward Bell Canyon).  If you’re not planning to do the Little Wildhorse-Bell Canyons Loop, this is a good place to turn around for a 9.8 mile hike.

Walking up the wash beyond the sign for Bell Canyon, Little Wildhorse Canyon Trail, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Walking up the wash beyond the sign

The sandy wash continues another 0.6 miles to where the Behind the Reef Road crosses the wash – this is a pretty obvious junction with a sign kiosk as well as another sign pointing left toward Bell Canyon.  But this post is getting pretty long, so I’ll talk about looping down through Bell Canyon in another post!

The Little Wildhorse Canyon Trail/Behind the Reef Road Junction, San Rafael Swell, Utah
The Little Wildhorse Canyon Trail/Behind the Reef Road Junction

Round Trip Trail Length: Up to 11.0 miles as an out & back; with the loop, I did 10.0 miles

Elevation Gain: 557ft. (4,956ft. to 5,513ft.) (the GPX file shows a little more than this (ok, a lot more than this) due to losing reception in the canyon multiple times.)

Facilities: Primitive restrooms at the Little Wildhorse Trailhead

Fees: None at this point.  However, they seem to be instituting fees and shifting land ownership between federal/state in various places in the immediate area; I’m hopeful that this will stay free for the foreseeable future.

Lower narrows of Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Lower narrows

Trail Notes: Be ready to share this hike with quite a few other people, including families.  Only go up the canyon as far as you’re comfortable – some of the dryfalls are definitely Class 3 or a little more.  The rocks tend to radiate chill; this is great in the summer and not so awesome when it’s freezing outside!  Remember to never, ever enter a slot canyon if there is rain in the forecast anywhere in the vicinity.

Cool walls in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Cool walls

Trail ★★☆☆☆

Road ★★★★☆

Signs ★★★★☆

Scenery ★★★★★

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★★★★☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Western Clematis flowers in Little Wildhorse Canyon, Utah
Western Clematis flowers

GPS Coordinates for Little Wildhorse Canyon

TH: 38.5830480°, -110.8028690° (38°34.98288′, -110°48.17214′ / 38°34’58.9728″, -110°48’10.3284″) (4,964ft.)

Enter wash: 38.5845580°, -110.8037910° (38°35.07348′, -110°48.22746′ / 38°35’04.4088″, -110°48’13.6476″) (4,964ft.) (0.12)

Puddle/scramble: 38.5886890°, -110.8058030° (38°35.32134′, -110°48.34818′ / 38°35’19.2804″, -110°48’20.8908″) (5,002ft.) (0.49)

Bell Canyon Junction: 38.5889430°, -110.8065730° (38°35.33658′, -110°48.39438′ / 38°35’20.1948″, -110°48’23.6628″) (5,044ft.) (0.62)

Hiking through the middle of Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Hiking through the middle of Little Wildhorse Canyon

Narrows: 38.5929090°, -110.8071390° (38°35.57454′, -110°48.42834′ / 38°35’34.4724″, -110°48’25.7004″) (5,066ft.) (1.09)

Exit Narrows: 38.5942730°, -110.8074200° (38°35.65638′, -110°48.44520′ / 38°35’39.3828″, -110°48’26.7120″) (5,076ft.) (1.29)

Narrows: 38.5947110°, -110.8073040° (38°35.68266′, -110°48.43824′ / 38°35’40.9596″, -110°48’26.2944″) (5,075ft.) (1.36)

Exit Narrows: 38.5973760°, -110.8007060° (38°35.84256′, -110°48.04236′ / 38°35’50.5536″, -110°48’02.5416″) (5,287ft.) (2.51)

Above the upper narrows of Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Above the upper narrows

Narrows: 38.6028090°, -110.7986760° (38°36.16854′, -110°47.92056′ / 38°36’10.1124″, -110°47’55.2336″) (5,237ft.) (3.4)

Dryfall: 38.6060750°, -110.7957200° (38°36.36450′, -110°47.74320′ / 38°36’21.8700″, -110°47’44.5920″) (5,349ft.) (3.99)

Wash Junction: 38.6116050°, -110.7950340° (38°36.69630′, -110°47.70204′ / 38°36’41.7780″, -110°47’42.1224″) (5,431ft.) (4.87)

Behind the Reef Road: 38.6154130°, -110.8027650° (38°36.92478′, -110°48.16590′ / 38°36’55.4868″, -110°48’09.9540″) (5,503ft.) (5.48)

A very small but very pretty dryfall in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
A very small but very pretty dryfall

The gpx file for Little Wildhorse Canyon/Bell Canyon Loop can be downloaded – please note that this and the GPS Coordinates are for reference only and should not be used as a sole resource when hiking this trail.

Download GPX File size: 145.7 KB Downloaded 24 times

(Note: I do my best to ensure that all downloads, the webpage, etc. are virus-free and accurate; however, I cannot be held responsible for any damage that might result, including but not limited to loss of data, damages to hardware, harm to users, from use of files, information, etc. from this website.  Thanks!)

A metal barrel wedged between chokestones in Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
A metal barrel wedged between chokestones

Getting to Little Wildhorse Canyon Trailhead

From I-70, take Exit 149 west of Green River to UT-24.  Head south on UT-24.  After 24.1 miles, turn right onto Temple Mountain Road (signed for Goblin Valley State Park).  About 5.2 miles later, turn left to continue on the paved road, following the sign for Goblin Valley State Park (there will probably be a sign near here welcoming you to Goblin Valley State Park at some point in the future – land shifts after my visit made this part of the road in the state park).  Drive 6.1 miles and turn right onto Wild Horse Road for 5.4 miles (note that many blogs will tell you this is an unpaved road; as of November 2021, the road was freshly paved).  Just after crossing the wash, turn right into the parking area for Little Wildhorse Canyon.

The trail map at the trailhead for Little Wildhorse and Bell Canyons, San Rafael Swell, Utah
The trail map at the trailhead

From Hanksville, UT, drive north on UT-24.  After 19.6 miles, turn left onto Temple Mountain Road (there should be a sign for Goblin Valley State Park, but it may only show the other direction… there is a fair-sized gravel parking area at this junction).  About 5.2 miles later, turn left to continue on the paved road, following the sign for Goblin Valley State Park (there will probably be a sign near here welcoming you to Goblin Valley State Park at some point in the future – land shifts after my visit made this part of the road in the state park).  Drive 6.1 miles and turn right onto Wild Horse Road for 5.4 miles (note that many blogs will tell you this is an unpaved road; as of November 2021, the road was freshly paved).  Just after crossing the wash, turn right into the parking area for Little Wildhorse Canyon.

Visual trail map and elevation profile for the Little Wildhorse Canyon/Bell Canyon Loop.  The highlighted part indicates the Little Wildhorse Canyon section.  San Rafael Swell, Utah
Visual trail map and elevation profile for the Little Wildhorse Canyon/Bell Canyon Loop. The highlighted part indicates the Little Wildhorse Canyon section.

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