Journey through the middle of the reef: A popular hiking trail traverses two adjacent slot canyons located on the very fringe of the San Rafael Swell
One of the most prominent hiking trails the desert landscape of the San Rafael Swell has to offer begins in an arid parking lot, not far from dramatically upturned strata known as the San Rafael Reef.
This mysterious sandstone range, which is more than 75 miles in length, has been shaped over the epochs of time by wind and water into an art gallery of tall fins, domes and deep canyons that decorate the surrounding landscape.
Unbeknownst to many, the reef forms a vast and definitive boundary between the San Rafael Swell and nearby desert regions, like Goblin Valley.
Early explorers marveled at the reef and noted it's distinct and ominous appearance. Today, people come from far and wide to see this geologic spectacle and the many historical treasures that are found within.
But people don't come from afar to hike over or across the reef. Most people come here to hike through it. And they do that by treading through narrow passageways called slot canyons that cut all the way through the outer part of the reef.
Little Wild Horse and Bell are two adjacent slot canyons that get more than their fair share of attention by locals and tourists alike. Unlike many other slot canyons found in the San Rafael Reef, these canyons don't require special climbing equipment or extensive canyoneering skills. They're also some of the most exquisite canyons of their kind.
Located approximately five miles north-west of Goblin Valley State Park, these canyons have become one of the most popular locations within the San Rafael Swell - a unique geologic attraction that sees people from every state in the Union, including Hawaii.
In 2004, the Bureau of Land Management recorded more than 26,000 visitors to the area. During the course of the following year, the BLM drastically expanded the parking area and installed a larger outhouse to accommodate the growing crowds.
Tourists continue to flock here in large numbers throughout most of the year and journey through these windy, rocky sandstone fissures, to the other side of the reef.
If there's one thing the excursion demands more than anything else, it's common sense. Entering a slot canyon can be extremely dangerous if the conditions are not right, or if adequate preparations have not been made.
While there are many guidelines hikers visiting the area are admonished to follow, there are several that are of particular importance.
One, no one should ever enter a slot canyon during flood conditions, even if the flood area isn't in the immediate vicinity. Two, hikers should never begin the hike without adequate daylight to complete the trip. And three, a person should never venture far from their vehicle if they're not absolutely sure where they are going. Not heeding these basic rules can mean serious injury or even death.
Common sense also dictates that hikers also carry food and plenty of water with them. Even in the spring and fall, this area can be awfully hot, and particularly dry.
For those that decide to hike the full loop up one canyon and down the other, water is is particularly essential, especially when traversing the back side of the reef, from one slot canyon to the other.
It is also important to consider how each hiker will carry their water, since hiking some areas of the canyons may require some leaning and twisting, as well as some gripping, pulling or pushing, and water containers can get in the way.
Canteens, botas and other containers can be cumbersome to carry, as they can sway awkwardly while the hiker's body is in motion. If possible, hikers are encouraged to carry water in something that can be securely worn on the back, like a CamelBak or similar device.
Once hikers are geared up and prepared to leave their vehicle, their journey officially begins at the trail head at the north end of the parking area. Leading northward towards the reef, the trail cuts though sand and past sagebrush. Soon, the path falls into a shallow wash bottom that leads between some oddly shaped and contorted cottonwood trees. It's easy to imagine these trees as creatures trying to lean forward, closer to the scarce water way in front of them.
Up ahead the rocky canyon begins to take shape, as the canyon bends slightly to the left. Here it's easy to lose track of the trail, which actually follows a rocky incline up onto the left side of the wash. It isn't uncommon for first time visitors to miss this point in the trail and find themselves at a dead end, puzzled about where to go from here.
Once around the corner, the canyon splits. In the middle of the canyon floor is a slender wooden post that marks each canyon. To the left (west) is Bell Canyon; to the right (north) is Little Wild Horse Canyon.
While there is no right way, the path of popularity leads people up the right fork, into Little Wild Horse Canyon. Not only is this route more popular, it's also more practical. Steep inclines in Bell Canyon in make up-canyon travel somewhat difficult for the inexperienced or infrequent hikers. Bell Canyon far easier to follow in the downward direction.
Along the right fork, the canyon begins to narrow in width as the canyon walls get much higher. The canyon's peculiar geology begins to take shape as evidence of wind and water exposure start to show along it's walls as they tower into the sky.
Further down, the canyon's infamous narrows immediately take form. Ahead lies a vertical slit in the rock, reminiscent of large bay doors in the midst of closing, that extends only a few feet. Here the canyon is at it's narrowest. There are places here where the walls are only a few feet apart - where meeting passing hikers can make for some close, and perhaps awkward encounters.
But while this confined space may cause some trepidation, it doesn't stay quite that narrow for very long. The brave shall be rewarded shortly, as this marks the beginning of some of the most spectacular parts of the canyon.
Upon entering this narrow part of Little Wild Horse Canyon, the rocky walls that tower into the sky shade much of the light beating down upon the reef. The smooth rock walls are cool to the touch, even in the warmer months.
After a short jaunt into the narrows, the sheer beauty of the canyon becomes plainly evident. The canyon walls stand in a natural form of elegance, having been intricately carved and sculpted by the hands of Mother Nature over the eons. At times, rays of light shine down onto parts of the rock, manifesting warm hues of orange and red.
The canyon floor ahead begins to oscillate from side to side, making it hard to peer down the depths of the canyon itself. Here, the twists and turns create a maze-like effect as canyon floor twists to and fro. Sounds dance off the walls, echoing in both directions.
Ahead hikers may encounter rocks that have become jammed inside the canyon. Most are pretty easy to climb over or under. Others can be bypassed from one side or another. These areas should be treated with caution.
At various spots the canyon widens to more than 30 feet across, only to narrow again further down. These wide areas are great places to take a breather, if needed, or wait for others to pass by.
Toward the northern edge of Little Wild Horse, the walls begin to spread apart and take a far more blunt shape. Colors shift to a myriad of speckled gray.
Not everyone hikes to the very end of the canyon, though, especially less experienced hikers. Many people turn around once the canyon widens and the cedar trees appear. Making the complete loop, up Little Wild Horse, and back down Bell is over 8 miles in length, which may be too long and rigorous for some. When in doubt, turn around.
Once out of Little Wild Horse Canyon, the trail becomes a bit sparse as the ground transitions from a rocky bottom to soft and sandy. Ahead lies a wooden trail marker that guides hikers to the left (west). Sometimes this marker can be a bit hard to spot, and hikers shouldn't necessarily fret if they don't see it.
As the trek leads westward, hikers should come in contact with a dirt road that leads ahead in the distance, paralleling the reef. The road will lead hikers along the way, eventually down a sizeable hill and deposit them into the wide mouth of Bell Canyon, which turns to the south (left).
The energetic and adventurous may want to take a short detour and follow the road past the mouth of Bell. This road leads atop a large hill to the west, where the historic remains of an old mining camp exist. There, an old cabin sits abandoned and silent, not far from the weather beaten remains of a few old cars. A rusty tricycle sits atop a large rock in front of the doorway - an object of intrigue and imagination in a seemingly desolate place like this.
Back in the wash, the path leads hikers down Bell. While not as near as narrow as Little Wild Horse, this canyon has it's own set of surprises. Some of the rock in the wash bottom are some of the most beautiful in all of the San Rafael Swell, painted with colorful striations of natural colors.
The canyon begins to narrow somewhat, and the walls jut up into the air as if from an impenetrable fortress. Much of the flora and fauna present in the northern half of this canyon begin to diminish as the trail works it's way further south, where the terrain becomes far more difficult to move through.
Caution is of importance here, as the canyon floor can drop awful quickly, creating some very steep declines that could be hard for some inexperienced hikers to climb down.
Eventually, the canyon meets back up with Little Wild Horse Canyon at a familiar location. The last leg of the journey traces prior footsteps back down the wash and to the parking area.
The journey up one canyon and down another, which may take anywhere from 4-8 hours, depending on the speed and stamina of the hiker, leaves a lasting impression on those that experience it. With it comes a greater appreciation and respect for the San Rafael Swell and the remaining landscape that surrounds it.