Wandering around Goblin Valley State Park in the winter is likely about as close as one can get to taking a stroll on Mars. It’s cold, desolate, weird, red and you’ll feel like you’re the only person on the entire planet. It’s a strange feeling but give it some time and you’ll settle into it.
The park derives its name from thousands of whimsical sandstone hoodoos, or goblins, of various shapes and sizes that haunt a long, narrow desert valley in the San Rafael Swell. There is no trail through the goblins. You leave the parking lot, with Wild Horse Butte towering behind, and descend a steep but short bluff into the alien landscape. From there, you’re free to roam at will. While the formations near the trailhead are interesting, you’ll find the most fascinating and photogenic scenes at either end of the valley.
The southwest end of the valley provides views toward the Henry Mountains, which are typically snowcapped from November through April, and can be framed through windows in or between the goblins. The northeast section is a shorter walk and I find it to be the most interesting part of the park. The valley abruptly dead ends at a cliff where your only options are to go back the way you came or scramble down a small pouroff that leads to a trail taking you back to the parking lot. At this end of the valley you’ll find amazing views of a prominent butte named Molly’s Castle rising from a small but pretty section of badlands. Some of the taller goblins also reside here and they make fantastic subjects for silhouettes against a colorful sunset sky. Just don’t stick around too long as I’m convinced those goblins spring to life when the lights go out and march all around their domain! Seriously though, this would be a great area to practice your light painting and star trail technique.
The Three Sisters is the most popular formation in the park, and with good reason. Visible from the road that leads from the entrance center or campground to the main parking area, the Three Sisters offer numerous options for photography. I visited in the winter and foreground subjects were few and far between. However, I saw evidence of very large mules ear plants whose prolific yellow flowers would be amazing foregrounds in the spring. I still managed to eke out a couple workable foregrounds as I found a well placed clump of Indian Ricegrass in one spot, and some fascinating ribbed rocks in another. On the evening I photographed this formation I had some fairly dramatic storm light early in the afternoon and an insanely awesome sky at sunset.
I was in Goblin Valley on assignment, creating photographs that will illustrate a new naturalists guide and a welcome sign at the visitor center. I wasn’t there to make my own images. I had only two days and my client needed more “grand landscapes” than “intimate landscapes”. Still, when the opportunity presented itself, I had to give in to the impulse and photograph some intimate landscapes. Several small sand dune areas offer some interesting opportunities but my favorite image from my time amongst the goblins was found within a small wash, where patterns in the sandy mud practically begged for camera time. A little black and white conversion and voila – an abstract, somewhat surreal vision comes to life.
Wild Horse Butte borders the western edge of the park and makes for an interesting subject when the right conditions collide. Sweet light (at sunrise or sunset), a killer sky and perhaps some colorful wildflowers would make for an ideal situation. Even without this trifecta, you might find workable compositions from within the valley, using a couple goblins to frame the striated form of Wild Horse Butte looming above.
As wonderful as the park is, don’t forget you’re in the San Rafael Swell, which is chock full of slot canyons. The most popular, Little Wild Horse Canyon, can be combined with Bell Canyon for a challenging hike that requires some scrambling to successfully navigate the entire loop. Some areas of Little Wild Horse Canyon are so narrow that you can’t even stand with you feet side by side! As with all slot canyons, the best light is found mid-day when the sun is high and light bounces from wall to wall, getting warmer and more intensely colored as it reaches deeper into the canyon. Every one of these slot canyons is subject to flash flooding. Be sure to check the weather forecast for the area up-canyon before beginning any canyon hike in the Swell.
Nearby is Temple Mountain and the Temple Mountain Town Site, which now consists of a few old buildings in various stages of disrepair. You’ll also find some interesting Native American rock art if you know where to look. By now you’ve probably determined that there is no shortage of subjects to photograph in the area. If so, you’d be right. And, this isn’t even an exhaustive guide. Just be sure to arrive with fully charged camera batteries and a couple extra memory cards. You’re gonna need ‘em!