San Rafael Swell, between Bell and
Little Wild Horse Canyons
8.6 miles (loop)
Elevations: 730 ft. gain/loss
• Little Wild Horse Canyon Trailhead (start): 4,940 ft.
• San Rafael Swell: 5,670 ft.
Trail: There is no developed trail for this hike, but the route is very easy to follow. The middle 1.6 miles of the hike is along an old jeep road, and the rest is along the bottoms of two dry desert slot canyons. It is an easy walk, but carry plenty of water.
Season: Spring, summer, fall, winter. Do not enter the canyons when rain threatens. Also, the road to the trailhead may occasionally be impassable after periods of heavy rainfall. For current conditions call the San Rafael Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, in Price at (801) 636-3600.
Vicinity: Near Hanksville and Goblin Valley State Park
This dry, desert canyon hike follows the bottoms of two narrow slot canyons as they cut their way through the southeastern side of the San Rafael Reef. The hike begins by following Bell Canyon from the south to the north side of the reef, then returns through Little Wild Horse Canyon to the starting point. Both canyons have some impressive narrows, but the narrows in the last half of Little Wild Horse Canyon are especially noteworthy. In one section the canyon meanders along for well over a mile with the distance between the sides rarely exceeding five feet. Walking down Little Wild Horse Canyon often feels more like exploring a cave that hiking in the desert. Children seem to get a particular thrill out of walking in the narrow passages, and this relatively easy hike is a good one for a family outing.
From the car parking area, follow the sandy bottom of Little Wild Horse Wash northward towards the San Rafael Reef. It is possible to drive up the wash and save ten minutes of footwork, but the stream bed is very narrow and sandy. I suggest you save wear and tear on your car and the environment by beginning your hike at the road. After 0.4 mile you will see a small sign on the left side of the wash marking the beginning of the Crack Canyon Wilderness Study Area, beyond which vehicles are not allowed. After another few hundred yards the flat streambed is interrupted by a small dry waterfall. The easiest way around this obstacle is to climb slightly up the left side of the canyon and drop back to the bottom a short distance later at the confluence of Bell and Little Wild Horse Canyons. When you reach the confluence bear left into Bell Canyon.
The next section of the hike is an easy walk up the flat, sandy bottom of Bell Canyon. The canyon is quite narrow at first, but it steadily widens, finally breaking out of the San Rafael Reef and onto the San Rafael Swell some 1.9 miles later.
As you leave the canyon watch carefully for a jeep road coming into the streambed from the right. If you walk more than 0.1 or 0.2 mile from the mouth of the Canyon you have missed the road. You will have to turn right onto this jeep road to reach Little Wild Horse Canyon. The road winds gently eastward along the base of the San Rafael Reef, climbing about 370 feet before dropping down again. After 1.6 miles it crosses a smaller wash which is a tributary of Little Wild Horse. Turn off the road at this point, and follow the smaller wash for 0.6 miles until it joins Little Wild Horse Canyon.
Little Wild Horse looks much like the end of Bell Canyon for the first 0.5 mile, but then the canyon suddenly drops down under a boulder and into its first section of narrows. This is an introduction to the long stretch of extremely tight narrows that begins about half way down Little Wild Horse. As mentioned before, it is more like walking through a cave than a canyon. There may be water in a few places in the narrows if it has rained recently, but usually you won’t have any trouble getting through with dry feet. There is no permanent water in either of the canyons, and the rainwater seems to drain out quite quickly. Needless to say, however, the canyons are no place to be if a storm threatens. The water can come up to the danger level as quickly as it goes down, and once inside the narrows there is no place to escape a flood.
After 3.3 miles Little Wild Horse Canyon emerges again at the confluence with Bell Canyon, and from there it is an easy matter to retrace your steps the 0.6 mile back to the road.