Consensus among the family is that the highlight hike of the trip was Little Wild Horse Canyon, a slot canyon hike in the San Rafael Swell area. According to one site, the region is considered one of the "undiscovered" natural wonders of the American west, and it was easy to see why. Here's the empty road on the approach the canyon trailhead:
The hike starts out by taking you a half-mile up a wash, where a few trees were showing some pretty fall colors:
You then climb up a dryfall, and shortly thereafter reach a fork leading to the entrances to Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons. You can make an eight-mile loop out of the two canyons, but we chose to go part way up Little Wild Horse through the narrowest sections and then turn around and come back out the same way. You didn't have to walk too far until you were in between towering walls about a hundred feet high:
In some places the trail was about 10 feet wide, and in others in was less than shoulder width between the two canyon walls. Here's my mom to provide sense of scale - most of the trail was about like this:
In several areas some pieces of the wall had eroded creating an obstacle course to continue up the trail. There were lots of passable regions that took some creativity to navigate, like this one pictured below. It's amazing to me that the trail hasn't become impassable at some point by a huge rock falling down into it!
The walls contained lots of interesting geologic formations, like this:
It was a warm day, but the after entering the narrows the canyon was pleasantly cool. Still, there was very little wildlife or plant growth (at one point a raven soared by overhead), so I couldn't believe my eyes when a little bit of movement caught my eye and it turned out to be a red spotted toad (Anaxyrus punctatus):
This one must have been an immature because it was smaller than my ID pamphlet for the region listed it, meaning there must have been water somewhere nearby for these toads to breed this summer despite reports from the locals that they haven't had a drop of rain since July. These guys pass their days in rock crevices before becoming active at dusk, and can tolerate an amazing 40% loss of body water and still be active. They're also great climbers, which you had better be if you live in a rocky canyon and need to search for water!
The photos really hardly do the slot canyon justice, as it's something you have to experience to fully appreciate. But here's another one that tries, showing a more open section of the trail:
At one point I let everyone else walk ahead, taking a moment to run my hands over the cool, grainy sandstone and try to understand the time and natural forces that it takes to shape such an amazing place. It's hard to fathom.
Nearby Little Wild Horse was Goblin Valley State Park, and though we were tired we had to drive through to take a look. Am I ever glad we did!
It was initially named Mushroom Valley by Arthur Chaffin, the first European to find the valley in the late 1920s. I think this was a better name for it, since the formations look much more like mushrooms than goblins, but it was later re-named by the state of Utah. The bizarre formations are formed in a geological layer known as Entrada sandstone, the same rock level that forms the upper part of the arches in Arches National Park (the arches stand on a lower layer of rock known as the Carmel Formation, and fractures between the two layers lead to the beginning of arch formation). Here in Goblin Valley, fractures still create weaknesses within the Entrada sandstone. Where the fractures intersect, corners are created where erosion starts to occur. The edges continue to weather away faster than the remaining flat plains, eventually leading to the spherical mushroom shapes seen in the valley.
It's amazing how subtle differences in geology lead to such dramatically different formations. Specific conditions resulted to make so many arches in one location in the national park, and so many goblins here in one series of valleys in the state park. Here's a row of goblins that really shows their mushroom shape well:
It was another spectacular day in Southern Utah! But there was even more to come....