Backpacking in the Maze, Canyonlands National Park

Aaron

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In mid-March, Ted Ehrlich and I spent a few days backpacking in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. The Maze is frequently referred to as one of the most remote spots in the lower 48, and though I’m not sure how exactly it ranks on that scale, it did require some significant of amounts of off-highway driving to reach.

Backpacking in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park Utah

The Maze is located in southeastern Utah, west of the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers and bordered by the both to the east. Though bordered by water on one side, water is scarce. Springs are scattered to the south and within the canyons themselves, but can’t always be relied upon. We found the plateaus completely devoid of water, and found little water when dropping into the canyons / the Maze itself.

Driving the Road Towards Hans Flat Ranger Station

Driving the Flint Trail Switchbacks Utah

The Maze - Golden Stairs Trail

Cairn Seen While Hiking the Golden Stairs Trail in the Maze

I’m no 4x4 enthusiast, so we elected to start our trip from the Golden Stairs Trailhead which avoids the roughest sections of 4 wheel drive roads in the Maze. A trail switchbacks down from this spot to the 4 wheel drive road that runs across the southern end of the area where we planned to hike, so a bit of road walking was involved. However, it’s definitely one of the best road walks I’ve ever encountered. From here we essentially route planned on the fly, including an out and back to the Chocolate Drops, a day hike loop past the Harvest Scene, and eventually made our way to the Doll House area and areas overlooking the Colorado River. If you’re carrying a lot of water like we were, the out and backs and day hike loops make things easy by allowing you to temporarily stash some of that weight, and with the way the trails / routes and the roads all seem to intersect in the Maze, many interesting routes can be devised.

Chocolate Drops in the Maze

Hiking to the Chocolate Drops

Water Cache in the Maze, Canyonlands

ZPacks Hexamid Twin Tent - Campsite in the Maze

Hiking to the Chocolate Drops

Sunset in the Maze

The country is beautiful in a unique and desolate way. It’s also a land of contrasts. The plateaus – Hot, windy, and dry, rarely a bird or rabbit to be seen. But the 12,000’ + Peaks of the La Sal Mountains rise in the distance with snow-capped peaks and forests rising up their sides. Plunge into the canyons of the Maze and the winds die down, the sun disappears and you can feel the water in the air – But can’t always find it. Deer tracks run through the sand and each bend brings something new, and something ancient. Sunsets never seemed to disappoint and were some the best I can ever recall seeing. Rock holds it all together in an eclectic array of constantly unique shapes and colors. It’s definitely one of those spots that keeps calling you back – I can’t seem to put the map away and shake the idea of another trip. Or maybe it's the sand I'm still shaking out of my shoes that keeps reminding me. With summer heat on the way, hopefully that return trip happens soon.

Backpacking the Maze

Pictographs in Canyonlands

Rock Window Along the 4WD Road to the Doll House

Overlooking the Maze

The Doll House

Best Time to Go: Spring and Fall. Winter can be quite cold and access difficult due to road closures / access. Summer brings very hot hiking and everything that goes with it.

Getting There: From Green River, Utah travel on Highway 24 south for 24 miles. Near the Goblin Valley turnoff you’ll see a signed dirt road leading East. Alternatively travel north from Hanskville. Travel on this 2wd road for 46 miles to the Hans Flat Ranger Station. (Open daily 8 AM – 4:30 PM) Continue 12 miles (High clearance 2WD / 4WD) to the top of the Flint Trail Switchbacks. Stop here at the overlook to ensure no vehicles are ascending the switchbacks; if any are wait until they get to the top. Uphill has the right of way and passing will be quite difficult on this section. From this point the roads will be high-clearance 4WD only. Descend the Flint Trail Switchbacks, travelling 3 miles to the fork and navigating 3 hairpin, multiple point turns where a spotter will be very helpful. Once at the bottom, taking the left fork will take you to the Maze Overlook (13 miles) or to the turn off for the Golden Stairs campsite / trailhead. (1 mile to the turnoff, an additional mile to the parking area) From the base of the Flint Trail switchbacks, you can also take the right fork and drive directly to the Maze through Teapot Canyon, a much rougher route. One option is to park at the top of the Flint Trail Switchbacks and Hike in via Golden Stairs from there if you or your vehicle isn’t up for the rougher driving in the park. Trails can also be accessed via the Maze Overlook which may require some exposed climbing maneuvers / pack lowering via rope.

An alternate dirt road leads north from Highway 95 at Hite. We didn’t explore this road, but at the time of this writing it’s reported to be smoother but requires a longer drive. From this road you can access the road into the Maze through Teapot Canyon or travel to the base of the Flint Trail Switchbacks / Beyond. The Park Service has listed driving times Here, and we found them to be surprisingly accurate in practice.

Information: Permits cost $30 and are required for camping and backpacking in the Maze. Check the calendar Here to reserve a spot. If backpacking permits are full, check for 4WD site availability – The sites are quite nice. Keep in mind however that visitors staying at 4WD sites are required to pack everything out, while those with backpacking permits are required to pack out T.P. only. (And all other trash, of course) Cryptobiotic soil is prevalent in the Maze, avoid traveling across it and stick to established routes or slickrock / no impact areas. Check with the Hans Flat Ranger Station for water and road conditions prior to starting your trip. The area is remote, take extra water and leave extra in your vehicle. Take a filter and either always carry enough water to get back to your last known source. The Colorado River can be accessed at Spanish Bottom if needed. We carried all the water we needed in a mix of everything from gallon jugs to Nalgene Cantenes, containers from Platypus, and MSR Dromedary Bags.

Maps: We used National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map 312ir?t=20-07-14-12612-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1566954622 and 210ir?t=20-07-14-12612-20&l=as2&o=1&a=156695326X. Delorme’s Utah Atlas and Gazetteerir?t=20-07-14-12612-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0899332552 and this overview map can also be helpful.

Stars in the Maze District

 

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One of those places I'd love to go. The 80 mile drive on a 4WD is the difficult part it seems.

Some day.. :)

 

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It's a really cool place, once snow has settled in here I might have to head back that way. :) It's actually not quite that hard to get there, as you can get all the way to the Hans Flat Ranger Station and maybe to the top of the Flint Trail Switchbacks with 2WD, at least when dry, although high clearance would be preferred for that last stretch from the ranger station to the switchbacks. It starts to get quite rough from there.

A shorter wheelbase might help as well...on the way back up the Flint Trail switchbacks, almost got stuck on one of the hairpin turns (3rd photo from the top) and had to perform around a 15 point turn to make it...no room to go forward, no room to go back, but eventually figured it out! (Much like a scene in Austin Powers some may recall)

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PaulMags

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My vehicle is a true 4WD one with 8.25" ground clearence (vs 8.75" for a Jeep Cherokee), so I think it could do it.  A longer wheelbase..so the hike may be worth it.

 

Now to get rid of this pesky job thing!

Edited by PaulMags

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Gotcha, I know we needed all the ground clearance that my F150 had on the way in...the side rails took a few hits...and while I'm sure it could have probably made it all the way to the Doll House area, I think it would have picked up a little more "character" than I'm comfortable with / was at the time...the break over angle / departure isn't all that great. :)

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A few hours of walking is much better than a very expensive tow for sure!  Plus, I find in VERY rough jeep roads, easier/more efficient to just walk anyway.

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Yeah, drove one of those "roads" locally a few weeks ago trying to strategically start just a little closer to a destination...if nothing else, after a couple hours of driving (at a brisk hiking pace...maybe) I was already exhausted! With the 4WD campsites out in the Maze though, I know a lot of people like to head out there car camping style, bring gear / all the water they'd need, and do day hikes from a basecamp.

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I have KIA Sportage 2009 4-wheel drive. I have never been to the Maze and am wondering if my vehicle is suitable for the roads there? Any advice? 

Thanks!

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I'd imagine it's possible at least for what I drove which was closer in and hiking the rest of the way, although I was scraping the side rails in a few places (did not spot) and that's with a bit more clearance it looks like. I can't report on the road all the way in to the Dollhouse area though (TeaPot Canyon etc.), as from what I've seen it wasn't something I wanted to subject my vehicle to!

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