Distance: 9 miles (loop)
Best time of year: Year-round
Last hiked: 2015 October
For those that want the slot canyon experience, but aren’t heading to the Page, Arizona area for Antelope Canyon, a good alternative with easy access is the loop through Bell Canyon and Little Wild Horse Canyon. Aside from Goblin Valley State Park, they’re easily the most visited part of the San Rafael Swell. Even as off the beaten path as the swell itself is, it still receives a lot of traffic during pleasant weather. If you’re short on time, or only want to do one of the canyons, I found Little Wild Horse to be more scenic than Bell, though doing the full loop will give you the best of both worlds and a little bit more.
Each canyon has its share of obstacles and narrow sections to work through, but it’s nothing an enthusiastic hiker can’t handle. There were more in Little Wild Horse, but Bell had its share too. The loop section outside of the canyons is easy to negotiate and well signed. It’s more or less just standard hiking outside of the narrows of the canyons. The whole loop itself is pretty straightforward (not literally).
From the trailhead, head up the wash toward the canyons. There’s no official trail here other than just following the wash. After a mile or so you’ll reach a fork. To do the loop, head left. If you only have time for one canyon, head right. I’ll be describing the whole loop, so if Little Wild Horse Canyon is your only destination, just head up as far as you’d like, then head back out. For those completing the loop, left brings you up into Bell Canyon.
Note: With these being compared to Antelope Canyon much more than they should be, it’s important to note that neither canyon will consistently weave you through a slot canyon like Antelope Canyon. Both Bell and Little Wild Horse have fantastic narrows in them, but neither maintain the narrow stretches for very long. Instead you get majestic views of Wingate and Navajo Sandstone towering around you in a huge canyon, and then the walls constrict and you find yourself squeezing through a tight spot in the sandstone before it opens back up again. That’s not to say they aren’t worth doing, but in researching the hike, I saw more than one comparison to Antelope Canyon, which, when holding to that comparison, left me slightly disappointed. Instead, appreciate it for what it is and where it is and you will fall in love with this loop.
Bell Canyon continues its ascent, through one narrows after another, until the canyon widens one last time. This brings you out to the Behind-the-Reef Road which the trail joins for a brief climb. While you may not have found yourself dehydrating as easily in the canyon due to its relative coolness, that quickly comes to an end on the connector trail. The hike up the road is steep and is completely exposed, so those warm fall or spring days will catch up with you quick. This (among many other reasons) is why you should have plenty of water with you.
After reaching the highest point on the trail along the road, the road then begins to drop toward a wash. Once at the wash, the road veers off to the left, but signs will indicate that you proceed right, heading down into the wash. This is the top of Little Wild Horse Canyon.
Some interestingly gnarled juniper trees line the wash on the right as the canyon walls slowly begin to close in. Then the narrows begin to get really interesting. Doing Little Wild Horse Canyon after Bell essentially saves the best for last. A large chamber is the first slot-like feature to greet you before making your way down to some more tricky obstacles. One of them is about 10 feet high and can be a little tricky with footing. I nearly lost mine which would have sent me slipping uncontrollably downward, but fortunately my head caught my fall on the rock above.
More narrows await until you reach what looks to be a completely wavy slot canyon with no ground. At first appearance, it looks deceptively hard on the ankles, but upon closer inspection, there is actually a ground. Passing through this area will feel like you’re walking in between solidified curtains. It’s easily one of the more interesting slot features in the entire area.
You pass through more slots, and even head underneath a massive boulder until you reach the initial junction again. From here, it’s an easy walk back down the wash and to the trailhead.
From Hanksville, head north on Highway 24 for nearly 20 miles until you see a sign showing Goblin Valley State Park to the left. Take that left and follow that for 5 miles, making a left at a large junction with a kiosk on the right. Continue south for 6 miles and a sign will direct you to take a right to reach the canyons. Follow that road another 5 miles or so and you will see the trailhead on your right.