Wander The Maze of Canyonlands
We were ready for our 7 day backpacking trip into the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. With 5 National Parks, various National Monuments, National Forests & BLM land - Utah is truly a year-round hiking/biking/climbing/canyoneering/water & snow sporting kind of paradise. Several years ago I backpacked in the Grand Gulch of Utah where the Pueblo ruins, colors, sounds and silence of the desert surprised me, delighted me, and I and vowed to come back for more.
With the web at my fingertips and a few aging Utah guidebooks splayed over the floor, I landed on an idea that enticed me: backpacking in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. I had never been to Canyonlands, so that was a plus. It is also a more remote area than other parts of the park, which meant it was less frequented by others, and you could choose where you wanted to camp, which was another plus. It is also big enough that we could hike and explore for 5-6 days easily, extending my total vacation time to 9 days. So I came up with a map of possibilities and started to shop the idea around to a few friends. After settling on the who was coming, I laid out the trip plan a little more carefully, which looked like this:
Day 0: Fly in SLC, drive to Green River, camp overnight Day 1: Drive from Green River > Goblin Valley SP (day hike Bell & Little Wild Horse Canyon & Goblin SP area) Day 2: Drive into GCRA, check in at HF Ranger Station. Drive to North Point, begin backpack: North Point Camp >Maze Overlook Camp (14.1 mi ) Day 3: Maze Camp> 1st Interior Maze Camp (3 mi) plus a day hike to Harvest Scene (~2 mi) Day 4: 1st Interior Maze Camp > Shot/Water Canyon Camp (~9 mi) Day 5: Shot/Water Camp >1st Interior Maze Camp (9 mi) Day 6: 1st Interior Maze Camp > North Point Camp (14.1 mi) Day 7: Drive out, head home
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Cast of Characters
Sweep:Head of Back-End Tech Support & Can Do IT'ness (she's got your back!) My Little Pony: Chief Documentarian (Photography, Video & Audio) Tutti Frutti: Head of the Joyusness Dept, Winner of Best Dressed in the West Hollywood: Trip Instigator/Organizer & Director of Gourmet Foods
I try to choose my backpacking partners carefully, surrounding myself with those I can trust & rely on… to have strengths in the qualities I lack (details is one, height is another, of many). After thinking a bit and asking around, the end result turned out to be 4 fantastic women backpackers. Never before had any of us backpacked with women only, so it was a bit of a social experiment. My mind circled around the fact that 1 of these people I had never hiked with, and knew only by name before Skyping by phone about the trip. Would we get along? Sweep and I had only backpacked together once, long ago… would we have the same mindset on what we wanted out of our trip? Would our paces compliment one another? All were mysteries, bouncing around in our heads, about to be discovered.
Utah has an interesting geological history. Just to give you an idea, it used to have beachfront property on it's west side about 570 million years ago, it later held in an Inland Sea on it's east side, and the lower right quadrant was lifted up by action under the Earth's crust to form a huge, high desert plateau known as Colorado Plateau, where you can find many of the most interesting slot canyons, arches, goblins, buttes, slick rock, and beautiful desert formations in southeast Utah.
Terrain + Teamwork
In late April of 2015, the gang arrived in Salt Lake City, and together we made out way down south. We warmed up with a Saturday 9 mi slot canyon day hike in Goblin Valley State Park, within a region called the San Rafael Swell. Bell & Little Wildhorse Canyon is a popular loop hike in the area, and we enjoyed all the little ups, downs and narrow walls of swirling colors. We also climbed around and over the Goblins, a layer of eroding Entrada sandstone, etched away after years of time by water to form bizarre shapes and goblin-like characters.
On Sunday we drove 1.5 hours to Canyonland's Hans Flats Ranger station, showed our permit, and with map in hand, and asked for a "sanity check" on our itinerary and asked about the water situation. Lucky for us, we arrived in Salt Lake City three days before in the pouring rain, a true blessing. The Western US has been in a 3 year drought, desert included, and the recent rain meant plenty of water in all the camp locations we hoped for. This meant we didn't have to carry 6-7 liters of water everyday - just our first our final days. The ranger listened to my itinerary story carefully, looked us over, and said our plan was doable, and then cautioned us saying "You may not cover all the mileage you think you can". We looked puzzled and started making guesses. "Is it the sand, is it slow to walk in?", a friend asked. "Noooo… ", the ranger replied. "Could it be the heat?", I asked. "It might slow us down?". "Nooo… ", the ranger said again, her voice trailing off. Another guess or two and we were stumped. "What is it?" we asked. "The terrain", said the older of the two rangers, "it might be a little challenging". She reached under the counter and pulled up a photo book and began flipping through old snapshots of people hiking the Maze Overlook trail, a 0.8 mi section of trail I had read about. "Oh that… " I said, trying not to sound surprised. I had read all about this in the guidebooks and via other people's blogs. I had estimated plenty of time to hike that portion, had sent my friends write-ups of the hike, so they had read about it too, and everyone knew we were bringing rope to help lower our packs in tight spots. My friends peered at the photo and none seemed too surprised, except Tutti Frutti. She stared at the pics wide eyes, mouth slightly ajar. "You'll be fine, you're with your friends, you'll help each other out", said the ranger, better than I could have." You're all experienced backpackers, it will be fine." she said to us all with smile.
We left without much worry - or at least no one showed it, and off we went to the North Trail Canyon trailhead. In the end the rangers were right. Parts of the hike were a challenge, mentally and physically. The 14 mi hike from North Point, which took us down the steep walls of the North Trail Canyon and onto the sagebrush flats of the Elaterite Basin, was easy hiking. But the 0.8 mi hike down the Overlook Trail was just as advertised; tricky at times due to the terrain, but very much doable. The size of your backpack could determine your challenge level. If you had a large pack, the more often you needed to remove it for the trickier moves. The smaller your pack, and the lighter, the easier it was to get around. Despite the variation in pack size, we all took of our packs to get through tight squeezes, small "birthing" holes and past some tricky ledges.
The Moki steps, hand and foot holds carved into stretches of rounded rock, or large rock faces, were a fun challenge. Who made the Moki steps is unknown, the previous canyon dwellers? A desert mystery to ponder. The trail up Water Canyon and Shot Canyon were not without it's challenges as well, from strange stone steps that looked like a native ruin, to a short 5.4 rock climb up and out of Water Canyon. These moments, while challenging and a cause for pause, were one of the highlights of the trip for me. Everyone made their way through these moments - but not without some hauling up & down of packs, assistance with hands and foot holds, and taping up a ripped pair of pants. We learned to work together, smoothly and efficiently, and had a ball doing it!
One of my favorite moments came when Tutti Frutti, who often asked for hand and foot directions on the tricky spots, was feeling confident & strong to help direct MLP when she asked for help on a particularly scary ledge. It was nice to see the change in just a matter of days… from needing direction to offering confident directions of her own.
Amazing story! Make sure you check out part 3.
Some of the most beautiful campsites I've had the pleasure of sleeping at have been in the desert. Our favorite camp on this trip, we named it Shangri-La, consisted of a table and 4 chairs made of flat red rock from a nearby wash. Much needed of shade covered the area, there was room for about 4 tents with plenty of places to hang our food, tired socks and other items. Someone had plenty of time and good fun making that campsite - and we fully enjoyed the opportunity - twice! We also found a nice camp-spot in Shot Canyon in a shallow cave, not far from the stream.
The lack of water adds to the desert challenge, as it can limit your period of time out, may alter the timing of your trip, or the trip location, as you search for the most reliable sources. Springs come and go; they dry up seasonally, or can suddenly appear with a good dose of rain. We were lucky to have water at every spring we wanted it. I tried a new gravity filter (Platypus GravityWorks 2L) all all our water spots. I loved the instantaneous of it, the simplicity and hands-off ease. If you're base camping or prefer not to use chemicals, I would recommend it (for groups, try the 4L version).
A trip with 4 women would not be complete without unusually high amounts of chocolate and/or dessert. I picked up a few items from Pack It Gourmet, including Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes. We were able to finagle the Jetboils with river stones to make ourselves a steamer system. In 10-15 minutes time, we had 4 warm & oozing chocolate cupcakes to devour - plus a bunch of leftover batter!
Flora + The Lizard
Spring in the desert is a magical time, full of flowering cactus and other desert blooms. A new flower for me was the Evening Primrose, which stands on it's own, looking fragile as it waves it big, white flower above the dry soil. Little Northern Plateau lizards were everywhere, scattering themselves to sun on rocks, or fleeing our presence, dashing into the shade.
Art + Culture
We also visited areas where the early canyon dwellers made their mark. We saw artwork from the Pueblo and Basketmaker periods, including both pictographs (paintings) and petroglyphs (drawings/engravings) on the walls using the minerals and materials in the world around them. The size and diversity were a wonder toarred with lesser-inspired markings of the much later, modern man period (BTW: "Nick was here").
This trip went off without a hitch, which amazed me at times, knowing all the questions and uncertainties of unknown personalities, water availability and terrain. Counting only 9 people seen in the whole 5 days of backpacking, we experienced the solitude and wilderness the Maze can offer. My women's lightweight backpack withstood the rough sandstone far better than any other pack, and stayed comfortable even as it nudged it's comfort limit at 35 pounds on it's heaviest days. We had an amazing adventure together, and before it was over, we were cooking up future plans together. We were challenged by the terrain and came out ahead of schedule with an extra day for a day hike! Thank you Utah for having us - I hope to be back again soon.
This post was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Julie LePage and Editor. All photos used with permission. Photo credits: E.Grinnell, J.LePage & J.Varney