“Hurry up, there are a lot of people behind us,” said the mother while shepherding her children through the slot in Little Wild Horse Canyon, Utah. “Let’s go! Don’t step in the puddles.”
One group of exhausted Girl Scouts had just come through the slot heading downhill, the Boy Scout troop was anxious to head up the canyon opening just wide enough for a single file line. Everyone was ready to get moving up or down canyon.
Little Wild Horse is one of the few family-friendly slot canyons in southern Utah. It’s accessible by a paved road, highly unusual on Bureau of Land Management lands, and allows for the family to give kids an unique geologic experience or for more experienced hikers to take the full 8-mile Little Wild Horse-Bell canyons loop.
“This is a great way to introduce kids to back country hiking in just an hour or so,” said Jason, a scout leader from the Provo area, watching down-trail ensuring all of his charges were heading into the first narrow slot in the trail.
Little Wild Horse Canyon is an extremely popular weekend destination, and this weekend morning was no exception. There were a couple of dozen cars in the three parking areas surrounding the entrance to the canyon.
The total hike requires clambering, some bouldering, and about five hours to complete. For families, most move up the first two miles to the boulder tunnel, then turn around. Some will go another quarter-mile to the first wide opening in the slots that has perfect ledges for picnics.
“Be sure to pick up all of the papers and trash,” one father was saying to his early-elementary-age children. “If you leave it, someone else will have to carry it out and you don’t want to know what they will say about your littering.”
It was good hearing almost all adults on the trail talking to children about respecting the environment, the geology and the incredible natural setting.
Entering Little Wild Horse Canyon on the wide expanse of flat, gravelly creek bed is a lesson in the earth’s geologic history. This is the San Rafael Reef, a literal fold in the earth’s crust thrusting steeply around you in pinks, orange, cream and purple colors.
While this segment is a family-friendly hike, this is wild country. Care and caution are necessary, so see the tips at the end of the article to enjoy a safe family experience.
The full loop for more experienced hikers will be covered in a future article.
Family friendly hike
At the entrance of the canyon there is a bit of a climb to a ledge, where most families boost their youngest children. An alternate route is a trail along a terrace on the west wall of the canyon. This is a good route, but has some very narrow passages where hand-holding is prudent. Most of the scouts came this way, as did we.
Little Wild Horse is the first canyon passage on the right.
The first half mile is generally easy-going. Most of the children, including pre-school and early elementary-age were able to handle this portion of the hike. There are enough terraces and ledges to provide generally safe climbing – kids do like to climb – but parents need to watch the transitions so the kids don’t climb too high and out of the safe zones.
There’s a wide “room” where before entering the first narrow slot canyon. It’s one-way traffic, and everyone going up-canyon was clustered around—scouts having clambered up some terraces—to wait for a down canyon Girl Scout troop passing through. The girls were completing the entire loop, and as they exited this slot into their last mile, they were looking mighty exhausted.
Penetrating the first slot
The initial narrow slot in Little Wild Horse Canyon is about a quarter-mile long, and for kids, it’s easy movement. For adults, it narrows in places where the water-carved sandstone brushes shoulders and packs.
The sky is a blue slit high above, sometimes not visible by the knife-edge cut into the Reef made by water. It’s a good place to point out how the water smooths the rocks, cutting in curved grooves and sharp edges.
About two-thirds of the distance reaches the first drop. This is where a boulder carried by water was lodged in the narrow canyon. As sediment and other large rocks became trapped behind the dam, it created as terrace that requires climbing about five feet.
Most Dads climbed first, and then pulled the kids up. Older hikers tossed packs onto the higher ledge, and some, including both of us, were give a helping hand to get up the rock. I managed to scrape my knee, requiring first aid after clearing the slot to the next wide canyon area.
In the group of about 20 people passing through, I was the only injury to draw blood. Pretty embarrassing for me.
Most children loved being pulled up. Going down is a butt-slide down a sandstone chute worn smooth by thousands of years of water flow and dozens of years of many backsides.
After clearing this passage, the canyon widens into a “room” with ledges and terraces perfect for snacks, picnics and apply bandages. At the far end of the room, Little Wild Horse narrows again into a tight slot, with a surprise!
A large car-size boulder has lodged across the canyon leaving a tunnel underneath with about a five-foot clearance. Kids loved it, and for adults, it’s a duck and move slowly through to avoid head-bumps. Most families turned around at this unique feature.
The scouts moved up canyon with us in their wake for about another half-mile before they, too, turned around.
“It’s enough of a canyoneering experience for those boys,” said Jason. “You folks travel safely.”
As we watched the scouts pass back through the third slot in Little Wild Horse Canyon, we were left resting a widened “room” with a few other hiking pairs all prepared to handle the remaining 6 1/2 miles of the Little Wild Horse-Bell canyons loop.
Getting to Little Wild Horse Canyon
In south-central Utah, Little Wild Horse Canyon trailhead generally in between Capital Reef and Canyonlands Maze District national parks. It is on a paved road, County Road 1013 (Little Wild Horse Road) and Bureau of Land Management lands about 15 miles west of Utah Route 24 at Goblin Valley State Park. Turn at Temple Mountain Road, which is the entrance to the state park. Nearest towns are Green River on Interstate 70 in the north and Hanksville on S.R. 24 in the south. Both towns have motels. It’s a less-than-hour drive from both Green River and Hanksville. There is a well-developed campground at the state park, or no-charge dispersed camping is available off Little Wild Horse Road.
Tips for hiking Little Wild Horse with children
- This is wild, desert back country. Talking the hike to the boulder tunnel described in the article is a two-hour hike.
- This is the most important tip. Slot canyons turn deadly in rain because of flash flooding. That’s what formed the canyon. Do not enter the canyon if rain is forecast or if it looks like rain. Although it was cloudy in the photos, there was no rain in the forecast. Be aware of rain potential not only over the canyon, but north towards I-70. Between June and October is monsoon season, rain is likely in the afternoon; hike in the morning. Read the BLM trailhead board on how to be safe from flash floods.
- There is no water in the canyon or at the trailhead. Bring 1 1/2 liters for children and 2 liters of water per adult for this hike. The desert rule is about one liter of water per person per hour of hiking. We did the full 8-mile loop and ran through 4 1/2 liters of water each on a five-hour hike. Remember, if you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrating. Take a few sips often through the hike.
- Wear hats, use sun screen. Insect repellent is not normally needed on this hike.
- Drinks with sugar, sugar substitutes, or caffeine – including power drinks and commercial electrolyte replacements – will potentially cause dehydration. Do not bring fruit drinks, soda, tea or coffee. For a two-hour hike, electrolyte replacements should not be necessary if this hike is the main exercise for the day.
- Wear closed-toe shoes and socks, no sandals, flip-flops or open-toe shoes. Most families were in sport shoes and socks, but a few were in sandals. There is much small grain gravel and many toe-stub-sized rocks on the trail. We wore high-top hiking boots, but were doing the entire loop.
- Carry a first aid kit with antibiotic ointment and multiple size bandages. Knee scrapes and cuts are possible. My knee scrape required a 2-inch-by-2-inch bandage and adhesive tape.
- Prepare for some clambering up about four feet near the entrance to the canyon and around five feet in the first slot.
- Be courteous, allow faster groups to pass when the canyon is wide enough.
- Leave only footprints, take only pictures. Pack in what you need, and pack out all litter. Be sure to police places the family stops for scraps of paper, bottle caps and seals. Remove all little, no matter how small. We ended up packing out a half-liter bottle of water someone tossed. It was the only litter we found along the entire hike, but it was disappointing to find something like that.