Goblin Valley is hard to reach. The nearest major airport, Salt Lake International, is more than 200 miles away. Besides Salt Lake City, the nearest major cities, Denver and Las Vegas, are both about 400 miles away. And no matter where you’re coming from, getting to Goblin Valley takes time and a long drive through one of the most rugged deserts in the world.
But the journey is unequivocally worth it.
Today, Goblin Valley is a state park. It’s located just outside of the small town of Green River, Utah (which is known for growing delicious melons). It takes its name from the forest of sandstone hoodoos, or bulb-like rock formations, that fill a shallow bowl-like valley. The “goblins” are ancient; they were formed over millions of years and include strata from when the area was under the sea. Later, as tectonic forces lifted the area, the softer rock eroded away, leaving nothing but curious sandstone formations.
I’ve visited Goblin Valley several times over the years, and each visit was awe-inspiring and bewildering. Wandering through the rocks feels like being on the surface of another planet — a whimsical version of Mars perhaps. As the desert sunlight bends through the narrow paths and under miniature arches, vague forms appear and then vanish in the rock: a dinosaur, a bird, scores of colossal faces.
Visitors to Goblin Valley are free to wander at will, and the hard-to-reach location means there are rarely crowds. (I have never seen a crowd there personally, though I’ve heard anecdotally that holiday weekends can be relatively busy.)
The region that includes Goblin Valley has been inhabited for ages by Native Americans, and was first seen (on record) by European Americans in the early 20th Century. Today, however, it’s probably most famous for two things. First, in 2013, a pair of Boy Scout leaders video recorded themselves toppling one of the Goblins. (I was a reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune at the time, and part of the team that covered the incident.)
Second, and more happily, it was also the setting for a scene in the Star Trek spoof Galaxy Quest. In the movie, Tim Allen’s character fights a giant rock monster that looks like a cluster of hoodoos come to life. The scene is goofy, but also a testament to how other-worldly Goblin Valley actually feels.
Utah is filled with breathtaking parks. There’s Arches and Zion and Canyonlands and Bryce. All of them are worth visiting, but when someone asks me where in Utah they should go, I tell them that if they want to see something wild they should go to Goblin Valley.
Cost: Utah State Parks charge $10 to enter Goblin Valley per car.
Lodging: The state park includes campgrounds, which cost $23. Green River is about 50 miles away and has a few small motels, as well as a KOA campsite. If you stay at the KOA bring earplugs, as loud trains pass very nearby.
More: There is a parking lot immediately adjacent to Goblin Valley, and exploring is less of a “hike” and more of a leisurely walk. It gets very hot in the summer, so bring water.
— Jim Dalrymple II
Cover Photo via Frank Kovalchek.