The Opinionated Hikers on Patrol for You
We’ve been hiking all over the Colorado Plateau for 28 years. The guidebook we wrote—Hiking From Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country—describes “90 trails to the Wonder Of Wilderness” in this astounding region. Books have space limitations, however, so there were many WOW trips we could not include. One of them is The Maze—the most remote district of Canyonlands National Park.
Faced with the need to cull, we excluded The Maze from our book because reaching it by foot is too rigourous a journey for the vast majority of people, and because vehicle access necessitates high-clearance 4WD and requires you to endure a long, rough road.
Having just returned from the Maze, however, we want to supplement our book with this field report, which we hope will inspire anyone with curiosity, energy, a yen for canyon country, and a stalwart 4WD vehicle to explore this high-desert enclave.
Why visit The Maze? Because…
- It’s extremely isolated and therefore very lonely. You’ll probably see others at the Maze Overlook and on the ascent/descent route, but you can easily find solitude if you backpack beyond.
- It’s weirdly, mysteriously, uniquely beautiful. Before seeing it, you think, “Ah, come on, can it really be that different from all the other canyons I’ve seen?” The answer is “yes.”
- You can hike to 16, little known yet spectacular arches within The Maze.
- The Harvest Scene Panel, a mere 2-hour hike from the Maze Overlook, ranks among the most fascinating rock-art sites on the Colorado Plateau. It was painted by the Archaic People who roamed canyon country 8,000 to 2,000 years ago.
- It’s possible to feel a piquant sense that you’re truly exploring here. Not just following bootprints on an established trail, but delving into the unknown.
- The long, forbidding approach to the Maze Overlook trailhead, as well as the scarcity of water within the Maze, enhance the experience by requiring commitment, heightening your anticipation, and later boosting your sense of accomplishment.
- Before or after The Maze, you can dayhike into nearby Horseshoe Canyon to see the justifiably famous Great Gallery pictograph panel, which, like the Harvest Scene Panel, was created by the Archaic People.
The unpaved road into The Maze departs Highway 24 just 0.5 mi (0.8 km) south of the paved spur leading to Goblin Valley State Park. The initial 46 mi (74 km) to Hans Flat Ranger Station is an easy drive in almost any 2WD car. Shortly beyond, high clearance is necessary. A bit farther is a 2-mi (3.2-km) section of steep, rocky, narrow, switchbacking, 4WD-only road known as “the Flint Trail.” After descending the Flint Trail, it’s another 13 mi (21 km) on a rough (but never steep or dangerous) road to the Maze Overlook, where the on-foot descent into The Maze begins. Total distance from Highway 24 to the Maze Overlook: 75.5 mi (122 km). Because you must check-in at the ranger station, and because the road beyond, even when in good condition, prevents swift progress, allow a full day to reach the Maze Overlook.
Overall the road is not seriously challenging. You don’t need a diploma from 4WD School (4wdschool.com) as long as you’re piloting a capable, high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. Though short, the Flint Trail is the crux. Care and vigilance, more than skill, are what you need to safely negotiate it. Be prepared to make a couple three-point turns within a few feet of sharp, vertical drops. Here, as well as elsewhere en route, you’ll want a spotter: someone who can get out and confidently direct you through obstacles where the driver’s seat does not grant the optimal view of where to steer the tires for easiest passage.
A few intrepid backpackers start hiking at Hans Flat, explore The Maze, then hike all the way back out. Between the ranger station and the Maze Overlook (14.5 mi / 23.3 km), they follow the North Trail, about half of which is on the road. The distance seems trivial until you realize it’s entirely dry. Carrying sufficient water to keep you hydrated until you reach the first spring in The Maze? Later repeating that grueling task on the return trip? We don’t recommend it. If the weather’s hot, you’ll risk heat exhaustion, possibly heat stroke. And the scenery isn’t worth it. The beauty and allure of The Maze is evident only after you arrive at the Maze Overlook. So driving to road’s end is undeniably preferable.
Upon arrival at the Maze Overlook (5160 ft / 1573 m), one more hurdle remains: scrambling to the canyon floor (4580 ft / 1396 m). Some might call it “climbing.” Your perspective depends on your experience, and therefore confidence, on steep rock where you must use your hands to prevent an injurious fall. Departing the Maze Overlook, you’ll initially be hiking, but the cairned descent route soon requires you to scramble/climb where the bulbous folds of Cedar Mesa sandstone are too vertical to walk.
The young ranger at Hans Flat said, “You might want to bring 20 feet of rope to lower your packs.” The guidebook we used said the same. Both implied that only one short section of the descent posed minor difficulties and that most people, after roping their packs down, easily friction-walk through it. But you’ll find our commentary below considerably more detailed, accurate and helpful.
It’s true that some backpackers drop from the Maze Overlook, into The Maze, without roping up. They use a rope only to lower their packs in one place. But that one place requires closer to 100 ft (30 m) of rope if you want the pack-lowering exercise to be simple, easy and quick. A 20-ft (6-m) rope isn’t nearly adequate.
The scrambling, however, is exposed. Most people should, and will want to, rope-up in a couple places, then have someone in their party belay them while they down-climb. It’s unlikely an adept scrambler will fall here. But the scrambling does require agility and cool, and the consequences of falling—particularly in such a remote location—are serious. The chief benefit of roping up, of course, is increased self-assurance. That alone is usually sufficient to prevent a misstep.
We recommend you bring a 120-ft (36-m) length of climbing rope, light harnesses for the climber and belayer (or enough one-inch webbing to make swami belts), several carabiners, and some prusik cord. Assessing the descent, you might decide you don’t need the climbing equipment. Fine. But if you want it, and you don’t have it, game over.
Dayhikers—if they twice rope-up and establish belays—might take an hour to descend from the Maze Overlook to the canyon floor. Backpackers might take an additional 30 or 40 minutes if, at those two points, they also use the rope to lower their packs.
Dayhikers should remember they’ll face an approximately 45-minute ascent from the canyon to the Maze Overlook at day’s end. Having already grappled with the terrain while descending, they’ll surmount it quicker on the way out.
Excluding numerous, minor, scrambly steps on the descent route into The Maze, you’ll encounter six places that—whether or not you view them as impediments—are distinctly recognizable:
- A 9-ft (2.7-m) sheer drop into a small, slickrock bowl. It’s relatively easy thanks to contemporary moqui steps. Once the most capable scrambler in your group is down, he/she can spot everyone else.
- A concave, slickrock ledge that narrows and is increasingly slanted until you pass the midpoint. Our acrophobic friend walked it with only a little support from the rest of us.
- A keyhole pouroff where you must lower yourself to a barely-visible platform below. From there, a slender catwalk leads left to a tiny alcove. Below that you must down-climb a vertical 12 ft (3.7 m). Hand and footholds are solid, but most people won’t attempt it without a sitting belay from the alcove. It’s also possible to anchor a rope above the keyhole and belay someone from the top of the pouroff to the bottom of the down-climb. The acrophobe in our group turned back above the keyhole pouroff.
- A short but very narrow crack. Most people will wiggle down through it without hesitation.
- A longer, sharply descending crack devoid of hand holds. Working down through it is awkward, uncomfortable, time consuming, but most people won’t feel the need to rope up, because falling doesn’t seem as likely as getting stuck. Below the crack are a couple steps that are airy, exposed, but most people will take a deep breath, compose themselves, and stride over them.
- A slickrock plunge: gradual at first, then vertical. Though contemporary moqui steps lend substantial aid, most people won’t attempt it without being roped-up. A boulder immediately above serves as a solid belay anchor.
Let’s back up. Did the word “dayhike” surprise you? Perhaps you’re thinking that after such a long drive into The Maze, it would be crazy not to backpack. But dayhiking is viable here. The Maze Overlook is a gorgeous place to car camp. If you enjoy the ascent/descent enough to do it repeatedly, and if you allow yourself at least three full days, you might love dayhiking here. The 9-mi (14.5 km) loop to Chimney Rock is one of several dayhiking options. Backpacking is preferable, however, because it allows you to explore much farther and grants you the sense of being a temporary resident of The Maze.
Whether you plan to backpack or dayhike, bring the Trails Illustrated 1:40 000 topo map titled “Canyonlands National Park, Maze District, NE Glen Canyon NRA, Utah, USA.”
Remember that you’ll be in a national park, so you’ll need a backcountry permit for car-camping at the Maze Overlook as well as for camping down in The Maze. Phone the park office well in advance to make reservations.
Fill your vehicle’s gas tank at Hanksville immediately prior to departing pavement. Driving slowly in 4WD is inefficient, so you’ll be getting poor gas mileage. You don’t want to see your gas-gauge needle dropping to “E” when you’re way out in the wopwops. You’ll probably want a full jerrycan as well, just in case.
Load your vehicle with plenty of extra food and water. Rain or rockfall could make the road temporarily impassable. Getting stranded is bad enough. Stranded, hungry and thirsty is much worse.