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2020 - Trip Report - The Maze District of Canyonlands

The Maze District of Canyonlands

October 2020

by Joe de Kehoe

In an attempt to squeeze in one more trip before the winter weather this year, I took a trip to the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah this past October. Canyonlands includes three districts, Needles, just west of Moab, Island in the Sky to the north, and The Maze on the west. The Maze district attracted me because of its remoteness, isolation, and Jeep trails through some fantastic scenery.

In April 2019, I drove the White Rim Trail with some friends from Tennessee, and from the White Rim Trail, we could look to the south and see the labyrinth of canyons and spires that are in the Maze; I decided then I had to return to explore it.

Consequently, I returned in October 2019 to drive some of the trails in the Maze, and traveling south from Green River on a dirt road for 40+ miles, I was in some of the heaviest rain I have ever encountered, but I kept pushing through, hoping the weather would clear. It didn’t. When I arrived at the ranger station to get my permit, you couldn’t tell my Jeep’s color, and I couldn’t see out of the side windows because my tires had thrown up so much mud. I went inside to get my permit and listen to the Ranger’s instructions about camping in the area, and all the while she was speaking I could tell that she was trying to fathom the mental state of a person who wanted to be here in this weather. From the look in her eyes, I decided then that it was probably not prudent to drive out here in these conditions. I hate to turn around – I feel like a quitter, but in this instance my better judgment kicked in - thankfully. I returned to the motel in Green River, and during the night, the rain hardly let up at all. The next morning, I headed back home.

However, this past October, I returned to make up for the trip that I had to abandon. Though the Maze gets very few visitors, reservations are required, camping is permitted only in designated spots, no open fires, and everything has to be carried out (yup, that includes human waste). Other than the rangers at the park entrance, I didn’t see a soul for the three days I spent camping on this trip.

The jumping-off spot to get into the Maze was Green River, Utah, where I topped up with gas and groceries, and then it is a 58-mile drive south on a dirt road through high desert cattle pastures to reach the Hans Flat Ranger Station to pick up my permit. As a side note, a Hispanic family operates the market in Green River. I phoned them when I was leaving Colorado and asked them to marinate a steak for me that I picked up the next morning just before driving down to the park. So my first evening camping in the Maze featured delicious carne asada burritos grilled on my small Weber grill.

The Maze District’s geography is probably best described as two shelves – an upper plateau at the top of the Wingate Sandstone and a lower shelf at the base of the Wingate. The Wingate forms sheer vertical vermilion-colored cliffs 600 – 800 feet tall in this area. At the bottom of the cliffs is the second shelf or bench at the top of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Locals refer to the upper desert plateau area as “Above the Ledge,” and the lower Cedar Mesa bench is “Below the Ledge.” Over millions of years, the Green and Colorado Rivers have carved the area into a labyrinth of canyons, mesas, and spires.

Before 1950 there were no roads Below the Ledge, only horse trails; most of the 4WD roads in the area today were built during the 1950s by prospectors who came in search of uranium.

My camp the first night was at Panorama Point at the end of a long promontory, 50 feet from the cliff edge, and the view was fantastic. Unfortunately, when I was there, the air was hazy with smoke from fires in the western U.S., but it was still an extraordinary overlook. From my vantage point, I could look down several thousand feet to the Jeep trail on the Cedar Mesa bench where I would be driving the next day.

Except for footprints and tire tracks, you would never know anyone had ever been at this campsite before; the sites were pristine, and I hope I left them that way also.

Driving out of Panorama Point the next morning was more difficult than the drive in because of some steep ledges that I had to climb, but I was in no hurry and frequently stopped to take in the view.

The connecting road from Panorama Point to my next campsite is called the Flint Trail, and I was a little disappointed when as I traveled south because it was just a 2WD dirt road with very little scenery. However, that soon changed as I rounded a corner and started the steep descent down a series of switchbacks. My Jeep is a short wheel-base 2-door Rubicon, and several of the switchbacks were too tight for me to make the turn without backing up. I hope this write-up encourages some of the Desert Explorers group to visit the Maze, but I would not attempt the Flint Trail switchbacks in anything but a 4WD vehicle and no trailers.

My second two nights were at the Maze Overlook camp. From this camp, it is easy to see how The Maze district got its name. Standing at the top of the bench and looking east is a jumble of canyons, side canyons, and crazy winding passageways carved into the Cedar Mesa Sandstone over the past ten million years. The Horse Canyon hiking trail leads to the dry wash at the canyon’s bottom from my campsite, where it is relatively easy walking. It took me a couple of hours to hike down to the dry wash, mainly because at every turn, the scenery changed, and I stopped to take more pictures. I found the 

hike back up to the campsite in the midday sun to be a little grueling, and I was looking forward to getting back to camp and a cooler full of Corona (cerveza, not the virus).

The next morning, I left camp and headed for Ekker Butte that was only about 12 miles away, only intending to explore more of the areas and check out the campsite for a future trip. On most of this drive, the road is a few hundred yards from the edge of the rim, but occasionally it approaches to within a few feet of the cliff. It makes you pay attention, though. Part of this drive was almost directly under Panorama Point, where I had camped two nights before.

Some consider Ekker Butte campsite to be one of the less desirable sites because there are no trees, and the site is all on slickrock. Still, personally, it is now one of my favorites because just a short walk from the camp out on a narrow promontory takes you to an extraordinary 180-degree view of the Green River.

I returned to the Maze Overlook camp that afternoon, and the next morning packed up my gear and headed back up the Flint Trail switchbacks and arrived back in Green River by about 4:00 p.m. As one author has put it, “If you are willing to put up with hours of bone-rattling 4WD travel, the Maze District of Canyonlands can provide a richly rewarding wilderness experience.” I’m already planning to return to the area this coming spring. ~ Joe