National Geographic News
Photo of goblins or hoodoos in Goblin Valley State Park, Utah, United States of America, North America

Goblins (hoodoos) are at the center of media attention after two men knocked down one of these ancient rock formations earlier this week.

Photograph by James Hager, Robert Harding/Corbis

Marc Silver

National Geographic

Published October 22, 2013

Hoodoo you think you are?

That's the question for two Utah Boy Scout leaders who decided that a hoodoo—that's the name for a rock formation that looks like a column with a mushroom cap—needed to lose its top.

It seemed to them as if the cap were precariously balanced and could fall and hurt someone. So the guys toppled it. And made a video of their feat and posted it to YouTube. After being booted as Boy Scout leaders on Tuesday, the pair could face criminal charges for the incident at Goblin Valley State Park.

For insights into these rock formations—and whether they're indeed precarious—we turned to Marjorie Chan, a professor in the department of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.

So what is a hoodoo?

A spire of rock that has an easily eroded column and a more resistant cap. Sometimes they look like mushrooms. They are kind of eerie, so they're called "hoodoos" and also have other names, from "fairy chimneys" to "goblins."

And what creates these freestanding columns?

It's a function of weathering and erosion in desert climates. Water from streams, runoff, and intense thunderstorms wear down the rock, especially along joints and cracks in the formation. Wind is the fine sculptor that does a lot of the smoothing and finishing.

I've seen conflicting reports about the age of the hoodoo that was toppled.

There are two different things when we talk about the age of these features. Number one is the basic rock: When was it deposited? About 170 million years ago, a tongue of the ocean came down from the north; sand and mud were deposited near an ancient shoreline. They were buried and turned into the Entrada Sandstone formation. So that's the age of the unit itself—when it was laid down.

But the formation of the hoodoos, these erosional remnants, is much younger. That age is not really clear and is very difficult to date. They're the result of a gradual process of erosion that began about 25 million years ago.

Are hoodoos a common formation?

Hoodoos occur in many places, but Goblin Valley has a high concentration in a small area. To me, Goblin Valley is a magical place. It's a place I took my kids when they were young, one of the very few places where kids can crawl all over the rocks and play hide and seek, because these goblins are [scaled in a way] that kids love and can explore. I would be sad if, because of what happened, the parks don't allow as much free access.

The guy who knocked the top of the hoodoo down said, "We have now modified Goblin Valley." Does nature modify the rock formations as well?

Wind and weather does. There are clays [in the rocks] that shrink and swell. If we have a big thunderstorm, a flash flood, there's more water erosion. The rocks are constantly modified by the elements because the environment is dynamic.

Do people have an impact?

People have been walking around the goblins for years. One of the things we don't know is the effect of foot traffic and people climbing on goblins.

Will there be any changes in how hoodoos and other formations are managed by the parks?

I believe we need to do a better job of inventorying these goblins, to do a census and measurements, to evaluate how they change over time.

Are hoodoos precarious? The man who toppled this one said he did so to prevent the cap from falling on someone.

Some of them are precariously balanced. You have the softer rock underneath the more resistant sandstone cap, and [the softer rock] does tend to weather away. It's surprising that an accident hasn't happened before.

Would this particular hoodoo likely have toppled by itself?

We don't know. It could have toppled over, but it could have lasted another hundred years or more.

What should a park visitor do if he or she sees a seemingly precarious hoodoo?

The proper thing to do, if you see something that looks precarious, is to report it. Let the people in charge make the decisions about what to do.

Are you surprised at the anger people have expressed toward this guy?

The backlash he's experienced shows that people feel strongly about these extraordinary rock formations that are part of the park. And they feel that the rocks belong to everyone.

And what's the message to take away from this crazy incident?

We need to be good stewards of this magical landscape. We should preserve it and enjoy it.

 

41 comments
Meredith Heffernan
Meredith Heffernan

The land should be purchased by a private owner who is interested in the science and then they should have scientists take care of it. If scientists really want to preserve stuff like this, I don't think having it be a state-run landscape will help the cause. Most people in politics won't really care, but a private owner will. I bet some politicians would punch one down themselves if they thought no one was looking.

John Nelson
John Nelson

  I am an Eagle Scout and back in the day (when we actually scavenged wood to build our cook fires) we did things like pick up old trash and bury it or pack it out. If we ran across a dark, stagnant,  mosquito breeding stream, we might build riff raff with rocks to aid the movement of the water.  Years ago a man was stranded in the Adirondacks and survived eating a trapped squirrel and fish. He faced FEDERAL criminal charges for "disturbing" wildlife. Insane.  As a Scoutmaster, we had some adult leaders who just wanted to be the buddies of their boys, instead of actual adult leaders. 

Point is, things change in people's perception. I was initially horrified and embarrassed by what these Scout leaders did. These guys were whooping and hollering at what they did.  We would have just walked away and not allowed our troop to play or climb on these formations.  What would you report about an ancient sandstone formation that looked precarious? It makes no sense to me. I agree with others that we (especially the BSA) need to be good stewards of God's creations such as the hoodoos. But to face criminal charges? No.

J. Say
J. Say

Geez. The first line in the body is so cheesy. But it made my day!! LMAO

john Duczek
john Duczek

These Guys were scout leaders, what the hell were they thinking. Why didn't they just contact the Park Rangers and get an assesment  or just leave it alone and move on.?  I am sure if I did this in some of our Parks here in Australia I would have the full weight of the Law come down on me. John from Kapunda 

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

We can say that nature modifies things as time goes by. These fellows are a part of nature, not separate  and so we can say that in this case nature modified the hoodoo. That however is not the end of the story. The viedo clearly shows that this fellow was getting his kicks from toppling the rock rather than doing the world a favor in that no one would get hurt. It says it all in the body language. Using this logic we suppose it would be alright for El Gabilon  to build a rocket, attach a bomb large enough to destroy the moon, send it up, destroy the moon because scientists may be wrong about it moving away from the earth and we would be doing the world a favor considering the millions that would die should the moon bump into the earth at some future date. We would not doubt for a single moment that this destroyer of the hoodoo read  the poem about the "One Horse Shay" that was built to last one hundred years to the day...logic is logic  I say. We would hope that other Boy & Girl Scout leaders are more intelligent...but hope for the human race seems to be a lost cause. Still nature may be modifying it!

Fabian Perez
Fabian Perez

i can't believe it, unconscious and ignorant people!

Tyler Moulton
Tyler Moulton

It's alarming--but in no way surprising--to see the level of vitriol expressed toward these regular guys who did something dumb. Yes, they should have reported it to the park rangers, who would likely have handled the situation by toppling the "national treasure" themselves. If they hadn't, good old Mother Nature soon would have. Stop pretending this was some tragedy for the planet in order to convince yourselves you're on the moral high ground. They did something dumb. They've been kicked out of the Boy Scouts, and they're facing the possibility of federal prosecution. Cut them a little slack. I can tell you right now that I'd rather have them teaching my kids than most of the folks I see posting on here. By the way, I was very glad for Marc Silver's balanced article. It was the first I'd seen that wasn't trying to foment a witch hunt. 

Peter Johns
Peter Johns

There are too many mindless vandals in this world. Self righteous do good busybodies should not be teaching young kids to join the ranks of the mindless, rather they should teach respect for nature. If danger exists in a natural environment then avoid it but report the situation to the appropriate experts and let then make a qualified assessment.

Lewis L
Lewis L

I was a boy scout as a kid and I can't imagine any scout leader that I ever met doing anything so stupid.  Unbelievable.  More like the red neck scouts of America

Bert Smith
Bert Smith

As a former BSA leader and father of 2 Eagle Scouts, I am incensed by the actions of this boor. The directive about the outdoors of 'leave no trace' is there to keep the environment preserved for those who come after us. If he thought there was a threat his job was to keep the boys away from it, not tumble it to the ground. It also turns out it violates a couple of the 'a scout is' also. There is no place in the organization for people like this. The BSA teaches a deep reverence for all things God has created both living or not which is one of the reasons many Churches donate their facilities for use by the troops and members volunteer and donate to them. I hope this is a lesson and warning to others to leave things alone.

Leslie Lewis
Leslie Lewis

We have hoodoos in the Bow Valley of Alberta that are much younger - ~10,000 years. They were formed by the erosion of deposits laid down at the melting edges of glaciers - sculpted by wind and water. A well-known group of hoodoos, sacred to the First Nations people, is beginning to be attacked by people hollowing out holes in their sides. Idiots!

Bailey London
Bailey London

It's so sad to think that a rock formation that had taken millions of years to make, and could have been enjoyed for centuries to come, was destroyed in a matter of minutes. How irresponsible of these "leaders" to show their boys how we treat state (and national, for that matter) parks, and clearly violate a rule for the very organization they are working through. Sure, no one was harmed or injured in the making, and it was just one hoodoo, but it is still a big deal to Utahns and disrupts the image of natural beauty we have here. It really is just something sad that was caused by a stupid act that didn't need to have taken place. Not evil, but very, very stupid.

Dean Hester
Dean Hester

Eh, that's not so bad.  Couple of guys pushed a 3 foot rock over. Stupid for sure, but not evil. 

R. L. Larson
R. L. Larson

Mormon "scout leaders" and the scouts themselves

have quite the history of destruction to the flora and fauna 

in Utah. Setting forest fires, baiting wildlife and then killing 

said wildlife.  Not the vision that Lord Baden Powell would

have wanted!!!!

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

First off they are now former Scout leaders, the men did not follow Scout rule number one of "Leave no trace".  Or the hikers credo of take nothing but pictures leave nothing but footprints.  Glenn Taylor, the man that pushed the rock off its perch, is trying to get disability for a back injury.  Somehow I doubt he'll get anywhere with his case after this video.  Best question I have heard is who has the higher IQ, the pusher or the rock and betting money is on the rock.

robert brooke
robert brooke

I was shocked when I saw this on the news.These men destroyed in minutes what Mother Nature took millions of years to create.

terry wofford
terry wofford

these guys violated the basic idea of scouting trips into wilderness areas, you DO NOT damage what nature has created unless it is absolutely necessary. I was a scout and then a scoutmaster and I would never have allowed anyone to do this or don it myself, they should be prosecuted and banned for life from scouting 

alan marshall
alan marshall

hard to believe these guys are adults,,i would not want them leading my kids anywhere !

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

It wasn't their decision to make. Whooping half men/half burgers. Ugh.

Pat Flanagan
Pat Flanagan

It's a crying shame, Please make an example out of them, we do not want custodians like that looking after our nature and teaching our children the wrong way.

Jeanne W.
Jeanne W.

What happened to the Boy Scout oath "leave it better than you found it"? What a wonderful example to the young kids on how to treat our natural treasures.
 And those two are clearly so out of shape, how sad for their troupe to have had them as "leaders".

Vernon Cook
Vernon Cook

A complete disregard of Mother Nature, beauty and historical significance while posing as leaders of Boy Scouts. Simply observing their obese bodies tells one much about their regard for life and fitness. Who would possibly allow their sons to even be in their presence?

justice justice
justice justice

These people need to be charged with destruction of a national treasure and incarcerated accordingly.

Jeffrey Schade
Jeffrey Schade

That would be great if there were a permanent guarantee of equal access to citizens, non-development, and proper stewardship. In other words, what it has now, except someone donating the trillions of dollars to buy up these state and national parks with nothing monetary to gain from them, only permanent expenses. So yes, theoretically, great idea, but Gates and Buffett combined couldn't even afford a reasonable portion of our parks.

Skye Coe
Skye Coe

@John Nelson You sir, are part of the problem!  This was intentional and if against the law, these 'leaders' should be charges and tried and convicted.  This was intentional, not accidental.  Thinking like yours will only encourage more disrespectful and destructive activity.  God help those who feel otherwise.  So sad that you are actually call yourself an Eagle Scout.  Maybe in name, but certainly not in heart!  Hopefully you will rethink your opinion on this.  

Tyler Moulton
Tyler Moulton

So, I responded to self-righteous indignation with . . . self-righteous indignation. My bad.

John Nelson
John Nelson

@Bert Smith I agree with your thoughts. Aside from this dopey stunt, the Boy Scouts are under relentless assault from the Atheists and liberals. Municipalities are withholding the use of facilities and no longer support raising good generations of boys. No more government support for an organization that channels boyish energies to a good and productive end. We are seeing the result of these policies by the the number of fatherless children and expansion of street gangs and youth with no guidance. I foresee a new "Boy Scouts" organization wholly dependent upon Churches and community service organizations(the ones not given over to political correctness) able to pledge allegiance and actually recite and live out the Scout Oath, Slogan, Law and Motto.

Tyler Moulton
Tyler Moulton

@Bailey London Stupid, yes. But what would you be saying if the headline were "two boys crushed by falling rock in Goblin Valley." As the expert in the article says, "It's surprising that an accident hasn't happened before." The guys have admitted they handled it incorrectly and should have just reported it. But they did it with good intentions, and it would have happened at some point without them. This "rock formation that had taken millions of years to make" was not likely to last much longer (again, as the expert in the article says) so at some point it would have been destroyed in a matter of minutes even without them. Why are we so quick to judge and assume the worst?

Tyler Moulton
Tyler Moulton

@robert brooke True. But would it not be equally fair to say that these men destroyed in minutes what Mother Nature would have destroyed in minutes in an upcoming thunderstorm? Or does Mother Nature only do what you like?

Maria Guzman
Maria Guzman

@terry wofford Scouts "leaders" like these need to stay home and continue to give away merit badges at their wards and give away Eagle Scout advancements like candy, that way they may apply it for their portfolios.

Tyler Moulton
Tyler Moulton

@Vernon Cook Wow. Amazingly insightful. They made a dumb mistake AND they're not physically fit. LOCK 'EM AWAY!!! Better put their families in a gas chamber while you're at it. SAVE THE PLANET; KILL THE EVIL FAT GUYS!!!

Jeromie Williams
Jeromie Williams

@John Nelson @Bert Smith Leave it to a Republican to turn something completely nonpolitical into a "this all the liberal and atheists fault" witch hunt.  Get a grip.

Dan Libby
Dan Libby

Ignorance is no excuse. Quit looking for excuses and follow your own group, state and national laws even if you have no common sense. Common sense which would be to explain what they were and how they came to be and that it might be dangerous to get too close as we do when spotting predators in the wild where we are the intruders and they the natives. 

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

@Tyler Moulton @Vernon Cook Well put Tyler but I don't think we should blame their families. OK it's the same gene stock and probably the same meme stock but they're innocent until proven guilty - so I think it best we just lock away the fat guys, as you say. No need to kill them, just lock them up and put them on a restricted diet.... I appreciate the sentiment though!

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