Northeast of Bryce Canyon National Park in the San Rafael Swell is an isolated spot filled with bizarre structures created by wind, water, and time. Technically, these sandstone statues are hoodoos, but they look nothing like the pillars of Bryce or Red Canyons. Instead, they resemble mushrooms. Or gnomes. Or, as they’re most frequently labeled, goblins.
Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park is a unique environment in a small, shallow valley. Unless you know it’s there, it’s easy to miss. Rumor has it this unusual landscape was “discovered” by cowboys searching for lost cattle in the late 1800s, although pictographs on nearby Temple Mountain prove that Native Americans were in the valley long before then.
It’s so remote that it was practically hidden until road builder and ferry operator Arthur Chaffin took a man from San Francisco on a tour.
In an article in Deseret News, dated January 15, 1950, Marian Crawford described Chaffin as a “64-year-old river rat” who “discovered the valley” thirty years before “and, so far as can be determined, no one else has seen it until this summer.”
In 1921, Chaffin was searching for a good spot to build a road between Caineville and Green River and stumbled upon what he called the “Valley of the Mushrooms.” He made a note of the unusual place and kept it his secret until 1949. That’s when amateur explorer, photographer, and fan-of-all-things Utah Philip Tompkins asked Chaffin to show him something new.
Did he ever.
“This must have been where Noah had all of his animals rounded up before he took off, and they must have died,” Tompkins said, according to Deseret News‘ Crawford.
Tompkins took hundreds of photos and made it his mission to have the valley saved as a national park. That obviously never happened, but Utah bought 2,240 acres and made it a state park in 1964.
The Geology of Goblin Valley
Entering Goblin Valley State Park is like stepping onto Mars, if the red planet had oxygen and a $20 entrance fee.
The basin of goblins seems frozen in time, as if they’d looked askance at Medusa. Some, like Chaffin, think the oddly-eroded hoodoos resemble mushrooms, like a red clay version of the fungi from Fantasia interrupted in between animations.
The science behind Goblin Valley State Park’s unique formations is less entertaining than a mythical being or an abandoned claymation project. It’s simple erosion: soft sandstone is crowned by hard rock, and water gradually chiseled away until what was left was this freakish landscape.
Between 140 to 170 million years ago, a shallow inland sea covered parts of Southern Utah. Over the millennia, it left behind layers of sand, silt, and clay, which hardened into sandstone, siltstone, and shale. Those layers became the Entrada Sandstone formation.
Due to the combination of a tidal plane and the composition of the soil, sediment from higher altitudes was dropped off in this section and then carved by time. This valley is the only place in the world you can see these types of formations.
There’s a teaser before entering the park: the Three Sisters formation stand in the valley like abandoned chess pieces, but nothing can prepare you for the sight of the valley itself.
“It was as if the figures in a giant puppet show of an Edgar Allen Poe opus had been frozen into rigidity.”Marian Crawford, Deseret News, Jan 15, 1950
If Goblin Valley State Park does look slightly familiar, you may be a Galaxy Quest fan. The park became an alien planet in the movie. Not much of a stretch, is it?
Camping in Goblin Valley State Park
There’s a small campground at Goblin Valley State Park with 25 campsites and 2 yurts. All sites have picnic tables, metal fire rings, and shade shelters.
- 10 walk-in tent pads
- 14 RV spaces
- 1 group space (up to 35 people)
There are no electrical hookups in Goblin Valley State Park.
There are seasonal showers. These typically close between November and March.
Camping fees are $35 for night and include the park’s entrance fee. An additional vehicle is $20 per night.
The yurts have both heating and air conditioning. Check with reserveamerica.com for rates and availability.
Where is Goblin Valley State Park?
There’s a reason this remote valley seemed to be Chaffin’s secret for three decades: it’s so remote it’s “just about as easy to find as a diamond in snow.” Nearly a century after his first view of the valley, it’s a bit easier to find.
Goblin Valley State Park is located in Utah’s Canyon Country, 33 miles north of Hanksville and 49 miles south of Green River.
How much is it to enter Goblin Valley State Park?
Day-use fees (valid for two days):
- $20 private vehicle
- $10 Utah seniors 62 and older
- $10 motorcycle, bicycle, or pedestrian
- $4 per-person commercial vehicle fee