Utah: Goblin Valley & Capitol Reef Parks
Krystal and I took a day trip to two parks: Goblin Valley State Park and Capitol Reef National Park. From Provo (an hour south of Salt Lake City) it takes about three hours to get to Goblin Valley, and then from Goblin Valley it's an hour to Capitol Reef. The best part is, you don't have to backtrack. From Capitol Reef it's three hours back to Provo. So you make a pretty good circle. And it also makes it a worthwhile trip to do both places at once.
Goblin Valley State Park was formed from deposits laid 170 million years ago by a vast inland sea, and was sculpted by uplift and erosion by wind and water.
The cowboys who were searching for cattle and discovered it in 1920 initially called it Mushroom Valley, which I feel more accurately resembles the strange landscape. However, Goblin Valley seems to fit better with little kid ranger programs who we witnessed make an oath to protect all the goblins. I'm disappointed we visited the gift shop and discovered this opportunity to become a junior ranger as we were leaving. You even get a sheriff's pin.
The rock formations are as strange in person as they are in photos. It's easy to access the overlook you see above — you can drive right up to it and there are several picnic areas and a bathroom there. If you'd like to go down and explore the area, there are several paths you can choose from, and it's very easy.
In addition to this area, there are some good hikes. Krystal and I chose the Goblin's Lair trail — 1.5 miles one way and really easy until you get to the actual lair as shown below. Ya, you have to hike up the rocks. We chose it because the idea of exploring a cave/cavern/slot-canyon-sealed-by-a-rock-fall seemed fun. Plus, we got another trail out of it: the Carmel Canyon Trail.
It was really hot that day, so even though it was 1.5 miles, it felt a lot longer because of the heat and dry surroundings. Climbing up the rocks (which does have a trail) was a little difficult but doable.
When we came to the first large-ish opening, we thought this was the cavern (pictured below). So I started to try to squeeze myself through and felt like there was no bottom to the ground and it didn't seem to go anywhere. Confused, and highly anxious to the point of almost crying thinking about potentially getting trapped in this tiny cave, I asked Krystal to see if there was another opening further up.
Sure enough, there was a much larger and obvious opening to the cavern just a little further up the trail. And all of a sudden, our efforts were worth it.
Getting down into the cavern was harder than getting up the rocks. You have to climb down the rocks. Make sure you go to the right when coming down — it's a lot easier. Although it was difficult, it's not impossible. There were a couple families that came through with a wide range of kids that made it down just fine.
We spent a good twenty minutes in the cavern, savoring the shade, resting and watching the light coming through the top change the colors inside the cavern.
Trail markers on the way there and back are not always obvious. We got slightly lost going to the cavern, and on the way back we went a different route to take the Carmel Canyon Trail for something different. We eventually found our way. Make sure to bring lots of water and some extra snacks.
We spent the next hour exploring the goblins. You should definitely take some time to see them up close. They're so much larger when you're standing next to them.
On our way out, we stopped at a viewpoint to look at another iconic formation here called The Three Sisters. An unmarked but easy trail does exist to visit them too if you'd like to get closer.
As I mentioned, Capitol Reef National Park is just an hour south of Goblin Valley. Please note: I did not have any signal in Goblin Valley, or even on the way to Capitol Reef, and also not in Capitol Reef. So prepare appropriately.
We left Goblin Valley a little later than we intended, so we didn't have as much time at Capitol Reef. Plus, there was a storm that was coming through. We hit most of it on the drive there, but our plans of camping didn't seem as exciting once we got there, knew there might be a storm and found all the campsites were taken unless we wanted to go to one of the primitive campsites or stay in a hotel somewhere.
So we settled on spending a couple hours exploring the area. We were really happy to drive through it, and stop at a couple spots of interest. One of the things that's amazing on the drive from Goblin to Capitol is the green that starts to appear. Goblin feels very desert, and Capitol is much more lush. There are even orchards here that contain approximately 3,100 trees including cherry, apricot, peach, pear, apple, plum, mulberry, almond, and walnut!
Our first stop was to see petroglyphs on the rocks. They're a little hard to spot at first, but incredible when you do. They were made by the Fremont Culture somewhere between 300 – 1300 C.E.
We had enough stamina for one more easy hike. For some reason, I thought the Hickman Bridge 0.9 mile hike (one way) was listed as easy, so I just wore my sandals. It's actually moderate with some steep grades, some sand, and lots of rock. The trail is pretty clear if you're paying attention. We weren't — that seems to be a theme.
In fact, when we got to the trail marker in the photo below, I didn't really notice the direction of the arrow, so we went around the loop trail the opposite way, making it less clear on the right trail to go back on.
Hiking to this bridge though was so worth it. At 133 feet long, it's suspended above you in a completely natural rock formation. It reminded me a bit of the awe I experienced in seeing the Tonto Natural Bridge.
And finally, my biggest tip: end your day with burgers and shakes because YOU DESERVE IT. Specifically, if you're driving back up north from Capitol Reef, you'll pass through the little town of Torrey, UT. There's a place called Slacker's and they've got all the good stuff: fries, burgers and, best of all, milkshakes.
Hope this inspires you to go out and adventure!