Canyonlands National Park-Maze District-Utah
We rendezvoused at the truck at exactly 3:01 pm on a Friday afternoon. We took only a few days off in advance of a Montessori conference taking place in Denver, and had big ambitions to squeeze in as much backcountry time as we could along the way. So, having made all the necessary preparations for our pseudo-spring break we hit the ground running to get a jump on the Bay Area traffic and headed south for the Mojave.
Our vision was to spend several days snowshoeing and winter camping in the high desert La Sal mountains outside Moab, Utah. With peaks of 12,00 feet, the La Sals offer remote, snowy, high country. And so we had packed our snowshoes, winter coats, heavy boots and other winter gear for the trip. However, our en route survey of the upcoming weather, especially the single digit forecasted temperatures, coupled with the deep sense of nostalgia and wonder that filled us as we careened through the Martian landscape of red rock, our interests shifted. We decided to act on the impulse to get lost in Abbey country: The Maze District in Canyonlands National Park.
Henry Mountains in the far off distance
We both knew of the more popular and more accessible part of Canyonlands NP located hear Moab and Arches NP, but a quick look at the Gazetteer showed we were closer to the ever-so-remote and magical labyrinth of the Horseshoe & Maze Units of CNP. The closest we had ever come to this remote place was in books. Edward Abbey wrote of this labyrinth of red rocks and blue waters frequently. He wrote about getting lost and found there. At the end of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Hayduke slips into the maze, disappearing from the law, never to be heard from again. We were seeking the same, if only momentarily—utter wilderness & brief escape from reality.
We topped off the gas tank and grabbed a few bundles of wood at the nearby town of Green River, kicking ourselves for not bringing some from our own woodpile, and headed Southwest towards the miles of dirt road that lead to canyon country. We first set our sights on Horseshoe Canyon, an extremely remote bend of the Green River which boasts some of the most renowned petroglyphs preserved in immaculate detail for the past several centuries. We’d explored petroglyphs together before, and there’s something powerful and humbling about seeing the markings of earlier humans of this land. We camped a mile away from the trailhead to the canyon. Being on BLM land, it wasn’t hard to find a dirt road to a well-worn campsite complete with a fire pit and view of the Henry Mountains. We stoked a nice warm fire to stave off the night chill of the desert air. We ate a budget meal of discount beef franks and canned chili, as we are pinching our pennies and squirreling away every little bit we can for the next adventure. A sliver of a moon made us hopeful for an astronomical show, but cloudy skies threatened a storm and dashed all hopes of a light pollution free viewing of the stars.
The next morning, we awoke to near-blizzard conditions. We crawled out of the camper and hastily packed up camp, stopping only to rub our hands together for warmth. We rolled up to the trailhead and were greeted by a CNP volunteer eager to take us on a guided tour of the 7 mile round trip hike into the canyon. We politely declined (wanting to experience it on our terms) & procrastinated a good 30 minutes in the cab of the truck as we worked up the gumption to head into the snow and wind. Our trepidation turned out to be futile, because the wind and precipitation cleared up almost immediately as we plunged down the 700 or so feet into the canyon below. Walking through canyon country is never boring, and similarly to hiking up a mountain slope, the scenery is changing with every bend of the trail. The canyon walls towered over us as we followed the cairns that conveniently marked the meandering route to the preserved ancient petroglyphs. We learned quickly how to scan the rock walls to identify the glyphs. The art seemed to portray more human images than we had seen at other sites. The blocky figures with small orbs on top seemed to resemble not only humans, but perhaps some of the red rock towers that could be seen in the distance.
After a trail lunch of beef jerky, cliff bars, & gel shots, we headed to the Gallery-the largest section of petroglyphs in the canyon. When we arrived we were blown away by the intricate detail portrayed in these pieces. Amazed by the preserved colors and lines, we sat in wonder and thought about the peoples that told these stories. Cope was somewhat distracted though, because he was addressing some hotspots that had already started to form on his feet. Having prepped for a winter trip, we were both hiking in winter boots. We weren’t really looking forward to regaining the elevation we so quickly dropped at the beginning of the hike, but quickly made our way back to the trailhead where we were welcomed with sunny skies and melted snow. With a quick stop at the trailhead outhouse to make coffee sheltered from the wind, we headed towards Hans Flat Ranger Station to find camp and inquire about a backcountry permit for an overnight in the Maze District. We missed the Ranger by a few minutes, but we picked up a free map and easily found camp a mile from the ranger station.
We set up camp on top of a high mesa in a juniper forest. The primitive camp provided a beautiful panoramic view of the snow-tipped La Sal mountains to the West and the Henry Mountains to the South East. Soaking up the afternoon sun and sorting through backpacking gear, we drank the last of our beers and loathed the idea of caring winter gear on a desert trip. There is no water in this section of the CNP until you get into the canyons. With not enough time to hike down into the maze, we were each carrying 1.5 gallons of water to sustain our 26 mile two-day hike. We went to sleep that night wondering about road conditions and water. A gnarly 4wd road leads to the Maze overlook, but with the snowy conditions and no extra gas we wondered if we could drive to the outlook and drop into the canyon, eliminating the need to carry so much water.
The following morning the long-haired ranger confirmed that the road conditions were too poor to drive to the outlook, but brought our attention to a possible pothole water source 10 miles in. Without wanting to risk it, we packed the heavy water into our packs and slipped on our winter boots. Ready for our desert hike in our winter gear. And so, with another round of hand rubbing and hesitation, we set off, heavy on the hoof and a little unstable on the thin layer of snow covering the red clay and slick rock beneath our boots and began the long descent onto North Point Trail. We followed the zig-zagging network of cairns, grateful for the footprints in the snow. Once again, we dropped several hundred feet as we approached the canyon floor, and enjoyed watching as the blanket of snow dissipated, revealing dark red earth below. We trudged through the sand, winding with washes and drainage networks, and distracted ourselves from the pain in our feet with the beautiful rock formations.
The North Point Trail runs 7 miles until it meets a 4WD road which would take us to the maze, and as we followed it, we (Trailbride) doubted whether our truck would’ve made it over the outcroppings of rock and steep drop offs, many of which hold scars showing where countless vehicles have bottomed out and dragged an oil pan or differential. The road was somewhat underwhelming compared to the canyon, and we anticipated seeing the beginning of the maze at each rise, only to be disappointed again with an endless view of winding road. One fabulous distraction was the copious amount of cryptobiotic soil and the expansive view that the basin brought. Large rock towers jutted upward with impressive columns and the snow covered peaks of the La Sals were in the distance to the west.
After 5 miles of road walking we finally reached our goal: the mesa giving way to the beginnings of the Maze. We camped atop the mesa, just next to the lip of the otherworldly labyrinth that meandered deep below. We enjoyed a long sunset, sipping cans of sparkling water we’d packed in, and wishing they were beer. We had a restless sleep with the crinkling of our mattresses and the soreness in our muscles keeping us awake. The star show was astonishing; they littered the sky in ridiculous amounts, the only light pollution for tens of miles was the occasional light of our headlamps.
The next morning, we sipped our mountain mocha and listened to the absolute silence that this wild spot provided. Not a bird chirping, or fly buzzing, just silence. We packed up and hopped back on the road, anxious to get moving. With lighter packs, we were faster on our feet, and constantly talked of the front country re-entry meal we were going to gorge ourselves on. We had spotted a restaurant that served near beer in Green River and could almost taste that 4% brew on our lips. We covered the ground in haste, charging through the aches in our ankles and feet from the clumsy winter boots, and we covered the climb back out of North Point with speed that even surprised us! Back at the truck, the snow had mostly melted from the previous storm, and after a ranger checked our permits, we slipped on more comfortable shoes, and set out on the 50-mile dirt road trek back to pavement, and burgers.