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Family Travel: A Weekend Adventure in Goblin Valley and San Rafael Swell

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Whenever I spend time in Southern Utah, I’m bombarded with memories of my many years as a Utah-based travel writer and Goblin Valley State Park and San Rafael Swell are two of my favorite areas.

Colorado has better mountains but Utah has better deserts. It is my goal to take my kids, Hadley and Bode, to my favorite areas before they graduate, a tall task when most of Southern Utah is too toasty to visit in the summer and school schedules inconveniently get in the way the other months of the year. 

But really, aren’t the best lessons learned away from the classroom? 

San Rafael Swell Kids Hiking

The desert drive is desolate (despite Hadley’s “gazelle” sighting) until the San Rafael Reef appears on the horizon.  Early settlers used the word “reef” as a comparison to oceanic reefs and the difficulties of traversing through the 2,000-square miles of arches, deep canyons and rock towers.

Our family headed to Little Wild Horse Canyon, a gorgeous slot canyon in San Rafael Swell that is part of a larger loop back through Bell Canyon.  Little Wild Horse is the perfect introductory slot canyon that allowed us a few hours of adventure. Scaling the walls. Forging through water. Climbing boulders. Snaking through tight spaces. The weather was perfect and our souls were filled with exuberance to be exploring something so epic. I loved seeing my tween and tween become like little kids again! We had planned to also explore nearby Crack Canyon but we emerged from Little Wild Horse around 3:30 p.m. so figured we would go check into our campsite and chill a while. The campground’s backdrop was massive gothic cathedrals, which Bode, Hadley and Jamie delighted in exploring while I rested my knee. We started a campfire (Jamie and his lighter fluid scare me), grilled up burgers, roasted potatoes and had delicious watermelon.

Goblin Valley Hikes

Before dusk, we drove to the main portion of Goblin Valley State Park. The crowds of the day had petered out so we were practically all alone in the maze of twisted, stunted “goblin” hoodoos.  The park is divided into “First, Second and Third Valleys” and the best way to explore is to have no plan at all. Jamie won Dad of the year by playing hide-and-seek with the kids in the ultimate outdoor playground. I conjured up their imaginations as we saw shapes and forms in every hoodoo: goblins, Jaba, mushrooms, Fat Kitty, clouds, spaceships and whales. I was initially sad I didn’t take a video of Jamie scaring Hadley in tag but this progression is downright hilarious:We ventured over to the Third Valley and gazed in awe at the cathedral buttresses’ commanding presence.As we hiked back near the Observation Point, we perched on an overlook as the ebbing sun set the valley on fire.  Jamie answered Bode’s questions about great places and events in history.Back at the campsite, we roasted s’mores and told stories about the heavenly constellations. Then, I went on to sleep horribly all night. I love everything about camping except for restrictive sleeping bags and pads (despite Jamie’s best efforts to buy the latest and greatest) and noisy neighbors. When the sun rose the next morning, I noticed Bode cuddled up near me with HIS SLEEPING PAD ON TOP OF HIM.We all need to be like Bode.

We packed up early while Bode and Hadley set out on one last adventure. They had fallen just short of summitting the buttress behind our camp. Cautious Bode gave up after a while but Hadley emerged triumphantly!Which is how we all felt after a much-needed weekend of adventure and laughter.

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