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Canyonlands Maze District TR
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“Sorry in advance for the long load time and overly whimsical style – a friend at a local paper actually asked me to write an article-style TR so he can attempt to get it published – he told me halfway through writing it to never mind – that he didn’t have the space after all… I doubt I had the chops for it anyway, but I kept going with that style rather than start over
You can see all the pics here: http://outdoors.webshots.com/album/582751722kRLaza
“We can see deep narrow canyons down in there branching out in all directions, and sandy floors with clumps of trees--oaks? cottonwoods? Dividing one canyon from the next are high thin partitions of nude sandstone, smoothly sculptured and elaborately serpentine, colored in horizontal bands of gray, buff, rose and maroon. The melted ice-cream effect again - Neapolitan ice cream. On top of one of the walls stand four gigantic monoliths, dark red, angular and square-cornered, capped with remnants of the same hard white rock on which we have brought the Land Rover to a stop. Below these monuments and beyond them the innumerable canyons extend into the base of Elaterite Mesa (which underlies Elaterite Butte) and into the south and southeast for as far as we can see. It is like a labyrinth indeed - a labyrinth with the roof removed.” – Ed Abbey
When I first read these words (taken from Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire”) I hadn’t taken a single step on a trail with an overnight pack yet. I was 18, fresh out of high school and with a head full of ideas and ideals and plans for the rest of my life and, somehow, I knew I just had to get into the Maze someday, somehow. After all, of all the places he’d been, Abbey liked it enough to place the climax of his most popular book (The Monkeywrench Gang) in the Maze. I’d concocted crazy plans – a monthlong Green River float trip culminating in two weeks in the Maze. A rented jeep and a couple hundred feet of rope. Taking my uncle’s cathedral-esque 1975 Kelty Tioga, leading it up with a hundred points of rice and beans and bleach drops for the water and setting up home in the Maze alone for a month.
The closest a scheme came to coming true was the Green River trip. I’d gone to the effort of pricing it, outlining the permits and arrengements needed to be made. I had a kayak picked out to buy and spent hours poring over the topo maps, repeating the names of places like some mantra: Spanish bottom, Elaterite Butte, Pete’s Mesa, the Land of Standing Rocks. Several friends expressed genuine interest in joining me – but all backed out at various points, typically when I asked them for a commitment. So it never happened.
For thirteen years, the Maze has always been a whisper in the back of my mind.My friends got tired of hearing about it and I began doubting, myself, if I’d ever make it. The bag nights and trail miles piled up – I began to build a somewhat impressive resume of Colorado Plateau backpacking. But the Maze was still there – still in my mind a step above anything else I could ever do.
Last year, the push I needed finally came. My brother and I were sitting at the side of a lake in this High Sierra, having just gone for a swim in the frigid waters, and I was once more recounting this fabled Maze trip when he stopped me and said “so, let’s do it then.” He committed to getting the work off, so I set everything else up to and we were ready to go for 6 nights in the Maze in the end of October. Then, early October, my grandmother broke her hip and as the complications piled up it became clear that we wouldn’t be going on any trip. It was shelved indefinitely while we spent time with family.
This year we decided to try again. Preparations were made, dates were picked and time-off was requested. This time, the stars aligned for us and we found ourselves speeding across the Mojave into the rising sun on a 13-hour drive to Moab.
We got into town with a couple hours of daylight remaining. The next morning we were to meet at Tex’s Riverways to board the jetboat that would shuttle us some 80 miles down the Colorado River to Spanish Bottom where we would begin our trip. With the extra daylight, we drove into the Island in the Sky district to stretch our legs and catch a couple of viewpoints. From Grandview Point, we could see down toward the Maze, a faint squiggle of white rimrock and canyons behind a pair of towering buttes (Elaterite and Ekker). As we sat on a rock over the viewpoint, a pair of shaggy black ravens landed nearby and sat watching us expectantly – probably mode than a little used to handouts from tourists at these viewpoints.
Next, we went to the Mesa Arch trailhead to walk the easy ½ mile to the famour arch and view. Unsurprisingly, the arch was crowded – there were at least 20 people there, posing in front of it, taking pictures, and all complaining about how many people were around. We did the same – patiently waited for our turn to snap some pictures and gaze over the edge, then headed back out to try and find a campsite in Moab for the evening.
Moab, it turns out, was having its annual car show and, as a result, every campground and hotel in town was booked solid. We managed to eventually find a miraculously open campsite – it having just been vacated by a couple who was furious at the noise and bustle of the car show attendees and their custom mufflers, going all night and well into the morning. After the drive, we could have slept anywhere, so we gladly paid the $40 campsite fee (which seems a little steep, no?), ate half of the best pizza I’d ever eaten (Paradox Pizza in Moab – I would recommend it to anyone and everyone passing through), and slept.
The next morning, after a stop at Denny’s for a massive breakfast, we were standing in front of Tex’s Riverways 15 minutes early, making last minute pack adjustments. The staff arrived and invited us inside to fill out some paperwork. There on the wall was an actual photo of Ed Abbey himself. “Wow, did you guys ever run him?” I asked – mildly starstruck (I was raised on Ed Abbey thanks to a completely awesome uncle). “Oh yeah, all the time… he got to be a cranky guy in his later years,” Darren, the owner, informed me.
We left the car keys on the counter and tossed our packs into an old school bus that would shuttle of to Potash Bottom, where they would launch the jetboat. The boat followed behind – little more than a massive aluminum wedge with two enormous engines hanging from the back, dangling from a flatbed truck. On the way, the bus driver (who would also pilot the boat) informed us that “the transportation authority thinks that what we do isn’t possible… so it wasn’t as difficult to get a permit as you’d think.” At Potash, we climbed aboard the boat and, after a quick safety instruction, were off down the calm Colorado.
It was 40 degrees that morning, and with the boat traveling 30 MPH down the river, we were absolutely freezing in our light sweaters. It was too windy to talk so we sat hunched over, arms crossed, taking in the incredible scene unfolding aroud us as the boat sped deeper into the Colorado’s gorge. Great blue herons and geese scattered ahead of us and occasionally, a fish (trout possibly) would jump at our approach. Near the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, just north of Spanish Bottom, we saw a turkey vulture on an outstretched branch over the river, sitting perfectly still with its wings outstretched, taking in the first rays of sunlight. “That’s weird – it looks crucified” my brother shouted in my ear. Since I was greeted on my 30th birthday by a flock of turkey vultures sitting on my back fence, I decided that if this were to be an omen, it would be a good one.
We arrived at Spanish Bottom around 11 in the morning. The weather had warmed up since we’d departed, but still hovered below 80. The first mile of the hike would be the hardest mile of the entire trip, a 1,200 foot climb out of the Colorado Gorge to the Doll’s House formation above – the entryway to the Maze. We stoped to cache a pair of Foster’s oilcans under a tree at Spanish Bottom, then slowly made our way up the trail, stopping often, swearing frequently, and in general high spirits.
We reached the Doll’s House before noon after taking a fun and narrow detour trail into Surprise Valley and stopped to consult the map. The original plan was to camp here for the night and dayhike to the confluence overlook and back. We decided, instead, to head up into Ernie’s Country and try to make it another 6.6 miles to Clell’s Spring, the first water source we’d come to and originally our planned second campsite.
We weren’t on the trail into Ernie’s Country for a half mile when Dustin, my brother, spotted some petroglyphs on a near wall off the trail. Doing our best to avoid the cryptobiotic crust and cactus, we picked our way across the flat to take a closer look. According to most of what I’ve read, the Fremont petroglyphs and pictographs in the Maze region predate the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) art typically found on the Colorado Plateau and may be as old as 2,000-6,000 years. We had to doubt this based on how well-preserved the art was, but it was certainly something interesting to consider. Of particular interest to us was the image of a deer with the hands and feet of a man.
As we worked our way deeper into Ernie’s Country, the view began to open up for us. To the northeast, we could see the snow-capped La Sal Mountains and the rock formations of the Needles District, across the Colorado River. To the Northeast, the domes and spires south of the Land of Standing Rocks rose up in impossible shapes. To the south, Cateract Canyon yawned and, occasionally as the wind died down, we could catch the faint hiss of the rapids as they tore toward Hite’s Crossing and Lake Powell.
Quickly, I spotted another rock art site off trail. Again picking our way through the cactus, we came to a small and faded panel above a three-foot high alcove. The shady space beneath the alcove was filled with the droppings of thousands of deer, rats and bighorn sheep. We realized, looking around, that it was the only reliable place for shade around, so it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. We also found one ancient pile of mountain lion scat, as well as a heap of cow dung. Cattle had not been grazed in Ernie’s Country since 1945, so we were either dealing with a remarkably preserved turd or an incredibly lost cow. Also, among the droppings, we found hundreds of tooled rock shards and arrowheads, many still incredibly sharp.
Further into Ernie’s Country, the trail approaches the rock formations known as The Fins (which also play a large role in the Monkeywrench Gang) and grows steep and rocky. After a short distance of slickrock scambling over the well-cairned trail, we were at Clell’s Spring, an old cowby camp with a pipe running from underground into a green and weedy trough. We filtered our water and set up camp nearby for our first night in the Maze.
The next morning, the plan was to head up the nearby Range Canyon for some exploration and arch-finding, then camp at Lou’s Spring, only two miles away by trail. We both woke up moderately dehydrated with headaches and decided we’d take our time getting there, fill up our water, and then see how many more miles we could put in before dark. We quickly came to the wide and sandy mouth of Range Canyon and continued down the streambed.Within about 2 miles, the canyon quickly grew more narrow…
Eventually we came to a rockfall that almost entirely blocked the canyon. By scooping out some sand underneath it, we were able to barely squeeze through on our stomachs and continue onward.
Our recklessness was quickly rewarded as the canyon grew into a deep and narrow slow full of absolutely incredible colors. I hadn’t seen a slot canyon like this since Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ, and don’t expect to see another for some time. After another half mile of navigation, scrambling, wading and wandering, we came to an impassible pour-off and turned around.
On the way back to the main trail, we found a way to scramble up out of the canyon, and crossed the slickrock to find Whitmore Arch.
Back on the main trail, we followed the cairns up and over a narrow pass (at one point it was about 18 inches thick) and found outself at Lou’s Spring, a much healthier cowboy camp with three troughs full of clean-ish water. Nearby, we scrambled up to an alcove to find an ancient ruined granary known as “cedar bark ruin” for the composure of its roof. The smell of cedar hit us like incense from about a quarter mile downcanyon – had we not known already where the ruin was located, we could have easily followed the sweet smell to it.
The plan was to camp near here for the night. The next day we were to hike 14 miles across the Land of Standing Rocks and into Horse Canyon, from there following the canyon until the Maze Overlook Spur, loading up on water and camping the next night at Maze Overlook. We decided instread to put in as many miles as we could today instead – maybe get down into Horse Canyon so the next day’s hike wouldn’t be so difficult. So, loaded up on clean water, we did a little more slickrock scrambling and soon found ourselves on a 4x4 road above that ran below the Golden Stairs and overlook Ernie’s Country. Quickly we met the first and last people we’d run into on this trip – two jeeps full of confused enthusiasts who looked at us walking on the road as though we were from another planet, asking if we needed help, water, or a ride and shaking their heads with confusion when we declined.
Somewhere along this hot, sandy and rattlesnake-infested trail, my left ankle started hurting me pretty severely (in hindsight, it was a strained achilles tendon – likely from all the walking on sand). This would later impact the trip a bit so I thought it worth mentioning. Eventually, we found ourselves in the Land of Standing Rocks, looking down into Horse Canyon and wondering, out loud, just how in the name of holy #&%!$ were we going to get down to the canyon bottom.
This area really earned the “Maze” monicker. The trail would appear to descend gently to the canyon bottom until it suddenly came to an 80 foot impassible pouroff. Then another. Then another. The trail itself was lightly cairned and a little tricky in places, but overall was the most brilliant and fascinating trail I’d ever been on. We’d see a cairn some 60 feet below us and walk about a mile and a half of winding trail just to reach it. I was limping heavily by the time we hit the bottom of the canyon and Dustin had been fiercely sunburned, so we set up camp at the first remotely flat area we could find. I say “remotely” flat – it was far from flat and we slept terribly. Of course, the next morning, we would find a hundred perfect campsites within another quarter mile.
My ankle hadn’t mended at all by the next morning, so we slowly made our way toward Maze Overlook through the increasingly beautiful Horse Canyon. This had all of the desired features one would imagine in a Colorado Plateau canyon – narrow side canyons, beautiful amphitheaters and pouroffs, arches, petroglyphs, stone corridors, sandy bottoms, cool-water-filled potholes, etc. If I could only return to the Maze for one day, I would make sure to hike the length of Horse Canyon. Eventually, the Chocolate Drops formation became visible above the canyon rim and we used it to gauge how near we were to the branch off to Maze Overlook.
Finally we reached the cairns for the Maze Overlook trail. I had read that the trail was “a little scary, but really not all that bad.” I read lies. We climbed some moqui steps and came to a point where, to continue on, we would need to shimmy around a 6 inch ledge then climb up a 45 degree slickrock slope, all over a 40-60 foot drop. Deciding maybe if we didn’t have our packs we’d give it a go, we turned around and headed back down. Instead, we headed upcanyon a bit, catching another rock art site and eventually finding a campsite near the mouth of Petroglyph canyon (home to the famous Harvest Scene rock art panel). There, we toasted our scotches, ate dinner, and enjoyed not having falen to our deaths for a viewpoint.
The next morning, we decided to rest my ankle a bit and camp at the same place. We loaded up a daypack and instead headed down Petroglyph Canyon to check out the Harvest Scene. Even knowing exactly what to expect, I couldn’t help but be shocked when we finally reached the panel. The level of detail, the color, the size of the figures… we sat in silence for some time, just taking it all in.
My ankle hadn’t gotten much better, but I was dealing with it. We took a trip up a side canyon to look at a natural bridge that was on my map, but it appeared as though the bridge had long collapsed into a heap of boulders blocking the canyon. So we limped back to camp to watch the bats and mule deer come down.
The next morning we decided to head for Spanish Bottom. The original plan was to load up on 2 gallons of water each and spend the night in Sweet Alice Canyon (if we could find a way to scramble down it), but I didn’t trust my ankle to convey me and 30lbs of water safely down a slickrock scramble, so we played it safe. The trail quickly picks its way up and out of the canyon, eventually placing you on a high ridge just south of Pete’s Mesa with an absolutely mind-blowing 360-degree view of the Maze below. After much swearing, exlaiming, and picture taking, we started south along this ridge to Chimney Rock, where we rejoined the 4x4 road.
Then we were down at Spanish Bottom again. A group of kayakers sat near our beer cache and properly #&%!$ themselves when we dug up and cracked the Fosters. It turns out they had a Tex’s Riverways pickup scheduled for the next morning – so we were luckily (and barely) able to catch a ride out a day early.
The next morning, we packed up our gear and, while waiting for the boat I took a walk down a tril that ran alongside the river. About a hundred yards down the trail, in the first ray of sunlight, there sat a turkey vulture, wings outstretched, catching the sun. As we watched each other, I heard the sound of the jetboat, bouncing miles down the canyon. The vulture waited until the boat came into sight, then lifted off with a brief flapping o its great wings. Within moments, it was gone and we soon would be too.
So, in the end, was it all I had dreamed of? Was it worth it? In short, it was absolutely nothing like I had expected, but everything I had ever dreamt of. This was, by far, the single greatest backpacking trip I have ever been on. And because of my ankle’s misbehavior, I have a good reason to return soon. I hope to.”
“Epic report and trip, nice work! Thanks for posting. Love the pictographs! Great slot pics too! Glad you got back safe. I started looking at the pics the other day but this adds context..”
“Wonderful report! Thanks for sharing. It's an area I've been very interested in...it also reminds me I need to re-read the Monkey Wrench Gang :) A few months back I re-read Desert Solitaire, after 30 year!”
“NICE> Hope to make it there soon for some rappelling and backpacking”
“Great report! Wish I could have worked it out.
Next time bring a lot more ibuprofen.”
“yeah, the ibuprofren wasn't even touching the ankle... but I burned through it pretty quick anyway”
“Awesome report and pics, Pepsis. It's definitely on my to-do list now. Thanks!”
“wow... I just read this over for the first time since typing it and, good lord, I had WAY too many typos... that's what I get for typing up a trip report while on meeting calls and otherwise distracted, and then posting it without reading it over first...”
“All writers need a good editor.”
“What a great trip report and photos - a pretty comprehensive guide for anyone thinking of going there! Pretty good to get through so many miles in the May heat with a bad achilles too.
Please email me if you ever really do plan to go again and are looking for partners.
Which bits would you recommend as the really "must see" areas if I end up having to join others or a tour group and want to make sure they're not missing out the best bits.
If you've got time to name the spots in these photos, and from where they were taken, these really caught my eye wanting to go: 27 (was it Standing Rocks or Ernie's Country), 118, 230 (layers of pour-off) and the canyon views of 230, 256 and 266.
By the way if you like Desert Solitaire, you may like a book called Sheltering Desert - it's about 2 guys trying to survive off the land without being spotted during the war years in Maze-like rock canyons with little water or food in Namibia”
“For the "must-see" areas, the part that really blew me away was Horse Canyon - we came in on the south end of the canyon down an incredible trail that picked its way down above three or four big pouroffs before reaching the bottom. That section was pretty well-cairned so, as long as you take your time going down, there's no losing the trail. From the northern end of Horse Canyon, you can head a mile into Petroglyph Canyon to see the Harvest scene - and from there you can climb out on a different trail for an absolutely incredible 360 degree view of the Maze.
Hypothetically, if you only had two nights to spend in the Maze, I would certainly recommend hiking the entire length of Horse Canyon. It had pretty much everything you'd look for in a Colorado Plateau canyon - wide sandy stretches under towering formations - arches and bridges, petroglyphs, as well as narrower stony sections with overhangs and pouroffs.
You could get dropped off at Spanish Bottom and, after the mile-long climb to the Doll's House, walk the 4x4 road down until you hit the trail branching into southern Horse Canyon - just about 2 miles past Lizard Rock. From there, you can drop into Horse Canyon and camp at one of the many fantastic sites near the descent. There isn't any reliable water here - we found soe puddles and potholes, but it had just rained in Canyonlands a few days earlier, so I wouldn't count on that. Next day you can hike up to the mouth of Petroglyph Canyon, where there are more great campsites (soft sand, cottonwood shade, and a nearby spring) and camp around there, taking the side trip up petroglyph canyon. Then, you can hike east up the trail out and onto a narrow ridge above the Maze, that'll take you south the the 4x4 trail at Chimney Rock - from there, an easy walk back down to Spanish Bottom.
Overall, the trails are pretty well marked where the ground is soft, and well-cairned where it's too rocky to cut a trail. There isn't anything too harrowing, though the trail up to Maze Overlook (if you want to take it) certainly takes a bit of courage. You could get by with a good topo map and a compass, but I'd recommend marking up that topo map with locations of springs, petroglyphs, etc. I got my map together from 4 differetn topos because none were complete and comphrehensive. Also, the book "Canyonlands National Park Favorite Jeep Roads and Hiking Trails" by David Day had some invaluable sections. That said, there were several times where having our GPS turned out to be very helpful. Never in a life-saving situation, but it certainly made things convenient.
As for the photos - I think you're numbering them from the beginning - in which case, here goes:
27 - This is the Doll's House at the top of the trail up from Spanish Bottom. It's pretty cool for a couple hours of wandering around. There's an old granary nearby that looks down into Cataract Canyon.
118 - That's looking down at the "Fins" formation in Ernie's Country from the 4x4 trail near the Mother and Child formation - more specifically, Sand Tank Canyon. The main trail throgh Ernie's Country passes the mouth of Sand Tank and you can walk right into that area. There are a lot of small cowboy/miner camps in the Fins area, as well as a handful of arches.
230 - That's in Petroglyph Canyon, about a half mile south of the Harvest Scene
256 - This is looking down into the maze from the narrow ridge I mention at the top. If you have extra time, it's worth hanging out at this area for a bit - apparently bighorn sheep come down from Pete's Mesa every evening. Though, I think camping isn't allowed in the area...
266 - This is a little further south on that same ridge. There were about a hundred different views like this along the ridge. Just incredible.
As for a future trip - I'm already trying to figure another one out. I want to try and get back this fall with my wife - but I'm also trying to buy a house and move across the state so it may have to wait until next year. I'll defiintely let you know if it pans out.
Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.”
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