Member Trip report

Into the Maze


Trip Report/Photos from Mountainrabbit

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A few years ago, Backpacker Magazine declared the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park the most dangerous place to hike in America - a curious choice, as nobody has actually died there.  Nevertheless, the Maze deserves its reputation for orneriness, and it is most definitely not a destination for beginners.  Its roads devour vehicles, and its trails maul gear.  And if you do get in a jam, it's not likely that you will see a search and rescue team in less than three days - you're on your own in the Maze.  


I had my own misgivings about the trip.  I had an extended bout with pneumonia this winter, and I knew I was not in tip-top shape - I have yet to summit a mountain this year.   But I had reserved my permit, and the Maze was the last box I needed to tick on a list of top southern Utah destinations that I had compiled years ago.  Besides, I'm an insufferably stubborn bastard, and I wasn't going to cancel just because I spent the last two months hacking my lungs up.


I started out the trip with a long drive from the highway near Goblin Valley to the Hans Flat Ranger Station west of the Maze.  It is a smooth, lovingly manicured dirt road.  I wish they put half the work into maintaining the one I live on.  After the ranger station the road is another story - it goes from bad to worse to oh-god-how-much-suspension-work-will-I-need in short order.  How far you need to walk to get to the Maze depends on your rig and your four-wheel driving ability.  Not trusting my skills, I parked well short and opted for a full day trek to get to the Maze.


A little to my surprise, this walk, far from a tiresome purgatory, turned out to be my favorite part of the trip.  I have done most of my Utah backpacking in canyons, so it was a treat to hike through the wide open country west of the Maze.  The Orange Cliffs, composed of tough sandstone of the Wingate Formation, are gorgeous in any light, and in the clear desert air, the distant La Sal and Henry Mountains shined with their deep coats of snow.  


Then comes the nasty part - the descent into the Maze.  The main trail in - the Maze Overlook - requires you to lower your pack by rope over a succession of ledges as you descend into the canyon.  I ran into a guy in the ranger station, freshly back from the Maze, who was lamenting the utter destruction of his brand-new Osprey.  My own pack, a durable military spec cordura rucksack made by a small specialty outfit in Bozeman, took some pretty hard knocks, too.  The Maze is no place for wimpy, ultralight gear!


As a rule, I avoid looking at photos of places before I backpack them, so I had no idea of what to expect.  I suppose I pictured Mad Max meets the Donner Party - a sterile apocalyptic wasteland of endless branching canyons, their blood-spattered and bullet-pocked walls echoing with the insane laughter of a few surviving hikers as they fight over the right to feast on the corpses of their less-fortunate companions.  No, actually, the Maze is a rather typical network of Utah canyons: colorful, inviting, and full of life.  It isn't even particularly mazelike - I wouldn't recommend it to somebody not experienced in canyon navigation, but it did not present any serious routefinding challenges.  It has been a wet enough spring to break the drought that has been hovering over the region for several years, so water was abundant.


After I got back from the Maze, I spent a day in Island in the Sky, the most developed unit of Canyonlands National Park.  Sometimes, it's nice to just kick back and play automobile tourist.


Now my Utah bucket list is done - what next?  I suppose I'll have to sit down and write another one.  One thing is certain - list or no, I'll be back for more Redrock Country next Spring. 

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