Southern Utah is jam-packed with slot canyons to explore. Whether you’re a seasoned canyoneer or have never been in a slot canyon in your life, you can find a safe canyon trip that rivals the beauty of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon — with none of the logistical challenges. Two of the best beginner canyons are Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon. You can hike them on a loop trail just outside Goblin Valley State Park.
Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyon are a bit off the beaten path. They’re a viable day trip from Moab, and a convenient stop between Capitol Reef and Moab. But they’re fairly secluded down the long entrance road to Goblin Valley. When I showed up at 10 am the parking lot was empty, and I had most of the hike to myself.
In this post, I’ll give you all the details to experience these canyons for yourself.
Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.
Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon Hike: Basic Facts
Distance: 8 miles
Elevation: 700 feet
Time required to hike: 3-5 hours
Technical features: The entrance to Little Wild Horse is a little scramble-y, but won’t pose a challenge for fit hikers. Children may need help from their parents. There’s some light scrambling in Bell Canyon, but none of it is technical. There are a few marginally tight spaces.
Getting to the Little Wild Horse Canyon & Bell Canyon Trailhead
One of the best parts of hiking these two slot canyons near Goblin Valley is the easy access. Unlike in Escalante, where the magical slot canyons require rough gravel drives, it’s tarmac all the way to the Little Wild Horse & Bell Canyon trailhead.
Coming from Moab, you’ll drive north on Route 191 until you hit Interstate 70. This is your last opportunity for gas and services — be sure to stop on the highway if you need to. Take the exit for Route 24 South, then follow signs for Goblin Valley State Park. You’ll turn right onto Temple Mountain Road, then left on Rt. 1013. When you reach the entrance for Goblin Valley, drive past it — you don’t need to enter the state park or pay the admission fee. The trailhead will be on your right about 5.4 miles past the Goblin Valley entrance. It’s a two-hour drive.
If you’re coming from Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park, take Highway 24 to Hankville, which is the only gas/rest stop opportunity. Turn left to stay on Highway 24, then left again onto Temple Mountain Rd, and follow the directions above. It takes about two hours to drive in this direction as well, and it’s a beautiful drive that skirts the Cathedral Valley section of Capitol Reef.
There is a (pretty gross) pit toilet at the trailhead, but no other facilities or running water.
If you want to stay nearby, there are formal BLM and state park campgrounds and plenty of dispersed BLM camping along Route 24 and 1013. Pack in all your water. The campsites are very exposed — there is absolutely no tree cover out here.
Essential safety tips for hiking in slot canyons
Before entering a slot canyon, there are a few crucial safety tips to consider.
The most important element of slot canyon safety is watching the weather. It would almost certainly be fatal to be trapped in a slot canyon during a flash flood. Floods are dangerously common in the monsoon season (July-September), but they can happen any time of year. Tragically, there have been fatalities in Little Wild Horse Canyon recently.
To avoid floods, you’ll need to monitor the weather both around the canyons and in the surrounding area — a few hours away in each direction. A storm upstream from the canyon can cause a flood dozens of miles away.
Check a few sources to confirm that it’s safe to enter the canyons. The National Weather Service’s Flash Flood Report is reliable, and you can get info on Goblin Valley weather the state park’s Facebook page.
If the skies are clear, it’s still important to consider the heat index, sun exposure, and water needs for this hike. It’s cool in the narrowest parts of the Little Wild Horse slot canyon. However, the back end of this loop between the canyons is completely exposed and very hot. Bell Canyon’s walls are wider, so you don’t get much shade. Bring at least 4 liters of water for this hike, and I’d recommend long-sleeved shirts, long pants and a hat.
Finally, slot canyons are often slightly more technical than normal trails. Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon are easy to navigate and don’t require technical gear. However, you’ll have to climb down ledges 5 or 6 feet high, and you’ll need to pull yourself up a rock face without footholds to enter the canyon. If you hit a point where you’re not confident you can get through safely, turn around or wait for another hiker who can assist you. Parents should expect to help children under 14 years of age on this hike.
You have three options for the Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon hike — an out-and-back of either canyon individually, or a loop combining them. The two canyons are connected by a 4×4 track.
Starting from the parking lot, you’ll follow a wide, flat trail out into the backcountry. There’s one narrow point where you’ll pass through some steep, very orange rock walls. Then, you reach the 4-foot scramble up into the canyons — the most technically challenging part of the hike.
Here the trail forks. Take a right to start with Little Wild Horse Canyon, or a left to start with Bell Canyon. The intersection is marked.
I recommend starting with Little Wild Horse, both because it’s prettier (so if you decide not to complete the loop you still get to see the highlights), and because you’ll want to get through before it gets crowded.
Little Wild Horse Canyon Trail
The first section of the canyon comprises low, narrow-ish walls in vibrant colors. The true canyon walls are a bit further out — very spread out at this point, but steep.
For the first quarter mile of the Little Wild Horse Canyon hike, you’ll walk a flat and wide trail. Then the walls start to gradually narrow. For the next 2 miles you’ll be in a true slot canyon — climbing over boulders and rockfall, squeezing between canyon walls, and enjoying the playful lighting. (Canyons are actually at their best when the sun is overhead — 10 am – 2 pm is a good time to be in this section for photography.)
Take your time in this stretch, as it’s the most scenic part of the hike. At a couple points the walls widen and you think you’re through, before they narrow again and you plunge back into the canyon’s depths.
About a mile from the end, the canyon walls open up for good. The scenery here is still beautiful, and it’s a good spot for a shady lunch below the walls. But it lacks the scramble-y adventurousness of the beginning of the hike. If you are doing an out-and-back on the Little Wild Horse Canyon trail, you can turn around here without missing much.
You’ll come to the true end of the canyon 3.6 miles into your hike, where you’ll intersect a 4×4 track.
Road-walk to Bell Canyon
Take a left on the 4×4 track and follow it for the next 1.6 miles. The road climbs steeply — this is where you’ll get most of the elevation gain of the hike — but the easy terrain makes it go by fast.
This section of the hike is extremely exposed, and if you visit in warmer months it’s painfully hot. I would not recommend planning your lunch stop along this stretch as it isn’t possible to escape the sun.
The backcountry offers great views of the Goblin Valley cliffs. And it’s remarkably remote and isolated. If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to be stalked and eaten by a mountain lion, never to be found, you’ll definitely get those vibes.
The entrance to Bell Canyon is clearly marked, and it’s a left turn off the 4×4 track.
Bell Canyon is not as slot-y as Little Wild Horse, but it’s the more technical part of the hike. You’ll be scrambling down a good amount of the elevation you gained on the 4×4 track. There are some fairly steep down-climbs and lots of boulder hopping.
In a few sections, the walls get narrower. But the lighting isn’t as beautiful as in Little Wild Horse.
The Bell Canyon section is about 3 miles. It spits you out at the intersection with Little Wild Horse, which you passed on the way in. Continue straight, climb down the 4-foot ledge, and walk the entrance path back to your car.
What to bring when hiking Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon
All you need for this hike is the usual day-hiking gear, plus some extra water. Here’s what goes in my pack every time:
- Day pack: For slot canyons, I like to use something small that won’t impede me from squeezing through tight spaces. The Osprey Day Lite is my go-to.
- A small tube of sunscreen
- Snacks and lunch: I bring dried fruit, nuts, tortillas with hummus, a PB&J on a bagel, banana chips, etc.
- At least 4 liters of water. Since you’ll probably drink it all, it’s worth stashing another liter in your car for the drive home.
- Paper map and compass — you can’t count on having cell reception to pull up a trail map out here.
- Safety whistle
- Hand sanitizer
- Fully charged phone and/or camera for pictures. I also brought my tripod, which was super helpful for the tricky lighting in Little Wild Horse Canyon.
I usually bring trekking poles when hiking, but they get in the way when scrambling through slot canyons, so I don’t recommend them for this hike.
When it comes to clothes, I dress for sun protection when hiking in Utah:
- Wide-brimmed sun hat
- Sun hoodie: I like this one from Outdoor Research. Yes, long-sleeves seem crazy in the desert, but this shirt is so breathable it doesn’t feel like you’re wearing anything at all. I’ve also worn Merino wool long-sleeved shirts, which are surprisingly cool.
- Hiking pants: You’ll want something cool and durable. These pants from Outdoor Research are super-breathable and plenty durable for desert hiking (although they snag a bit on very brushy trails like you find in the Carolina mountains).
- Polarizing sunglasses
- You could do this hike in traditional hiking boots, but they’re hot and heavy. I now hike in trail runners, which are a fraction of the weight and much more breathable. I like Salomon’s Speedcross — they have great grip in mud and sand. If you’ve never hiked in runners before, make the switch before a big hiking vacation, since you’ll roll your ankles a lot the first few weeks.
I hope you get the chance to visit the slot canyons near Goblin Valley State Park!
Like this post? Pin it!