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Halloween Hoodoos & Goblin Valley

By Karen L. Monsen

“Imagination…its limits are only those of the mind itself.”
– Rod Serling

Goblin Valley hoodoosFrom a towering landmark namesake for the town of Mexican Hat in San Juan County Utah to a state park 20 miles north of Hanksville on Highway 24, hoodoos stir our imagination and provide intriguing destinations to explore. Visitors wishing to escape reality can create fantasy worlds while walking among Goblin Valley’s hoodoos, and geologists can ponder the formative forces that created these odd structures.

Mexican Hat is an example of a “caprock” of more erosion-resistant sandstone sitting on a pedestal of softer layers that eroded, leaving the sombrero shape. According to the USGS.gov website, Mexican Hat is a “remnant of a sandstone layer of the Halgaito Formation, a rock unit formed from sediments deposited on a coastal plain next to a shallow seaway during Late Pennsylvanian time” approximately 250 million years ago. By comparison, Goblin Valley hoodoos are found in Entrada Sandstone with shale, siltstone, and sandstone interbedded and deposited 170 million years ago.

Mushrooms to Goblins
Located at the southeastern corner of Utah’s San Rafael Swell, Goblin Valley State Park occupies just over 3,000 acres in a mile-long stretch. Remoteness and mystery surround the valley, including how it was named. The Discovery of Goblin Valley, a 1997 article by Barry Scholl published in the Salt Lake City Magazine describes its finding. According to Scholl, Wayne County commissioner, Arthur Chaffin “wandered into Goblin Valley in 1921.” Chaffin later moved to the property originally homesteaded by Cass Hite (for whom Hite Marina is named) and constructed a ferry across the Colorado River to encourage tourist visitation to his property and the area he called Valley of the Mushrooms.

In 1949, photographer Philip Tompkins hired Chaffin to guide him around the country. Accompanied by southern Utah guides Perry and Worthen Jackson, these men named the area Goblin Valley. Tompkins reportedly took over 800 photographs that he subsequently donated in 1957 and 1963 to the California Academy of Sciences located in San Francisco. According to the Academy’s records, 49 boxes of Tompkins’ photos are part of the Academy Archive and should be available to the public by appointment early in 2018. For more information, please contact archives@calacademy.org.

Hikers in Goblin Valley

From Valley to State Park
Captivated by the unique landscape, Tompkins led a letter-writing campaign to designate Goblin Valley as a National Park. Although the National Park Service was not interested, Utah state officials paid $5,600 in 1954 for 2,240 acres, and officially dedicated the area as a State Park in 1964.

Nathan Martinez, Assistant Manager at Goblin Valley State Park for the past eleven years, estimates 160,000 people visited the park in 2016. According to Martinez, “The most popular area in the park is the Valley of the Goblins. That is the spot where people can hike around and explore the goblins.” The park also includes a campground, a disc golf course winding through curious structures, and seven miles of mountain bike trails. Although Martinez reports no officially named goblins, three pillars on the road to observation point are commonly referred to as the Three Sisters.

Forming Hoodoos
Project Geologist for Utah Geological Survey’s Outreach Program, Mark Milligan describes hoodoo formation in his booklet, The Geology of Goblin Valley State Park, which is available online and at the park entrance. “Goblins start as continuous horizontal layers of sandstone with multiple sets of vertical fractures. Fractures intersect, forming sharp edges and corners that are rounded by erosion, a process called spheroidal weathering. Harder sandstone beds atop softer shale and siltstone beds create cap rocks and pedestals for the goblins. Interbedded sandstone with shale and siltstone can also give goblins a flattened and elongated shape and stacked appearance. Minerals precipitated in the tiny spaces between individual sand grains provide a degree of hardness to the sandstone beds. Variations in the amount and type of cement may also contribute to the unusual shapes of specific goblins.”

Hoodoos are found in many places including Turkey, Peru, and Canada, but Milligan believes “none are a match for Goblin Valley.” When you factor in day and night shifting light patterns, the goblins become even more mysterious. Milligan offers the invitation to Goblin Valley, “You have to see it in person to really understand how amazing it is!”

A trip to Goblin Valley State Park provides a refreshing escape to fantasy worlds filled with hoodoos and goblins. You may even encounter a dust devil—a debris tornado common in dry conditions. Goblin Valley State Park is a place where visitors can not only explore unique geologic formations, but they can let their imaginations run wild as well.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” – Carl Sagan

Mexican Hat

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