Skip the Crowds: A Local’s Guide to Southern Utah State Parks
Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the number of visitors to Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks to record levels. Tourists and residents alike have hit the road in never-before-seen numbers, resulting in long lines, crowded parking lots, and busy trails. Fortunately, there’s a great alternative in Utah’s many state parks. You’ll find all of the natural beauty, high-octane adventure, and great amenities to suit both families and seasoned outdoorsmen.
Snow Canyon State Park
Snow Canyon State Park is a prominent nature and tourist area located in the Red Cliffs desert reserve of Southwestern Utah. More specifically, it is located at the western edge of the city of St. George, Utah, a four hour drive from Salt Lake City. The park is open daily from 6am to 10pm. Snow Canyon State Park is a must-experience adventure destination for both experienced outdoors enthusiasts and families with children. The canyon is carved out of red and white Navajo sandstone, making the canyon a favorite photography destination. The park also includes lava tubes from the extinct Santa Clara Volcano. There are portions of these lava caves that can be safely explored without much expertise (although it is advisable to have a flashlight in hand).
Hiking is a favorite activity for park visitors. There are hiking trails in the park that cater to many different skill levels. Some popular trails include Scout Cave trail, Johnson Canyon trail, and Jenny’s Canyon trail. Some of the features along the parks’ trails include a slot canyon, an arch, slickrock, sand dunes, lava flow fields, and lava caves.
Places to Stay
The campground inside Snow Canyon State Park has 27 campsites. Three are group sites, eight are standard sites (with access to water and flush toilets), and sixteen have partial water and electricity hookups (accommodating RVs of various lengths). If more refined accommodations are sought, consider visiting nearby Red Mountain Resort (only a quarter mile from the entrance to the park). Group “adventure packages” are available for experiencing local outdoor activities, including excursions to Bryce or Zion National Parks.
Goblin Valley State Park
Goblin Valley State Park is a smaller, unique state park located in southeastern Utah, approximately 200 miles southeast of Salt Lake City on Temple Mountain Junction. The park offers a small but breathtaking number of enjoyable hikes through some of the world’s most unique natural formations. Unlike most state and national parks in Utah, guests can walk among the most eye-catching rock spires that exist with easy access and moderate difficulty.
There are five major hikes in Goblin Valley, totaling roughly six miles of trails. These include: Goblin’s Lair, Carmel Canyon, Entrada Canyon, Curtis Bench Trail, and Three Sisters trails. These hikes are fairly moderate in difficulty with shorter distances when compared to other state or national park trails. The Valley of Goblins is the main attraction, allowing walkability “at your leisure” through jaw-dropping rock formations.
The Valley of Goblins is almost 3 square miles of free-roaming area. This is the valley where the wind has carved away many rocks into these “goblin” formations. You can walk through, touch, and look at these formations closely! Within this Valley of Goblins there are 3 distinct valleys that you can run through and look at. These areas are large and offer ample room to hike around and blaze your own trails. These valleys are found on the southern side of the park, all fairly close to one another.
One of my favorite hikes is the Goblin’s Lair. This trailhead is just at the observation point of the Valley of the Goblins. This will take you along the Carmel Canyon Loop, until it splits off after 1/2 a mile. This will then continue north and then east until it heads back south to the other side of the cliffs that form that Valley of Goblins. This trail takes you to the “hiker’s entrance”. This is an easy hike for the most part. But there are portions where some moderate scrambling is required. Which is what makes this the most difficult hike of the ones available within this state park.
Visiting the Utah State Park’s website is a great place to learn more about the other hikes and what these have to offer.
There are a handful of camping locations within this area. You’ll find campgrounds within the park itself. These campsites can be reserved online ahead of time. Although, beginning in Spring to Fall, it may be difficult to reserve these campgrounds without planning a month or two ahead. These campsites are popular as there is drinking water, restrooms, dump stations, hot showers, nature programs, and its proximity to all of what the park has to offer. The state park also provides a variety of camping options; you can do tent only, in a yurt, and group camping. You can easily reserve a camping spot online here, and if you want to talk with someone and ask questions, you can call 435/275-4584.
If these campsites are all full for your desired dates, there is plenty of BLM land on which you may camp. Goblin Valley is found within the San Rafael Swell area, which has a lot of campsites available. These are more rural and depending on the one, can have few to no amenities. To camp at these sites will require much more preparation than a state park campground would require. You will most likely need to bring in your own water, or find a place to replenish your water. When I went, I filled up my water cooler in the Goblin Valley’s camping area, even though I wasn’t camping there.
The closest established campsite to Goblin Valley is the Temple Mountain Campground. These campsites found within the Temple Mountain Campground are a first come first serve basis. They do have drop toilets, and a lot of campsites available. Making it relatively easy to find a spot to make camp. Additionally it is only a 15 minute drive further north from the state park.
Goblin Valley does have other adventures to offer besides just camping and hiking. The park also has telescope tours of the night sky, disc golf, mountain biking, and canyoneering. While staying in Goblin Valley, there is a free to use Disc Golf course. This is an 18 hole course. It is a little rough, but a very scenic course. If you forgot your discs at home, you can rent the discs for $1 at the visitor center. At the visitor center you will also be able to obtain a course map.
The mountain bike trail system is the Wild Horse Trail system found on the same side of the campgrounds within the park. This isn’t a downhill type of trail, but more of a cross country style trail system. The Wild Horse Trail system offers 7 miles of bike trails. Riding through this cross country trail will show you a portion of the park that you otherwise would not see. Taking you to a lot of different vistas and overlooks. This is an easy trail that you could bring your family along and enjoy the ride.
The Goblin’s Lair allows you to rappel into it, offering a 70-foot descent into a natural sandstone cave. This can be a guided tour or a self guided adventure. Either way you decide to rappel into this, you’ll need to obtain a backcountry permit. These are available to purchase in the visitor center. They are only $2. To have a guided tour of this cave, contact Get In The Wild by calling them at 818/381-WILD or you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite the size of this park, there is an ample amount of things to do within Goblin Valley State Park for a day or multiple day adventure. If you’re looking for other outdoor adventures but want to remain in the northern part of the state, check out this article referring to northern state parks.