With the web and a few aging Utah guidebooks in hand, 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. The Maze is known as a more remote area than other parts of the park, which generally means it's less frequented and you can choose where & when you want to camp within your permit timeframe, another plus! It's also a big enough area that one can 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 who was interested, I laid out the trip plan a little more carefully, which looked like this:
|The Maze - Area of Backpack|
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
After revealing the plans to each trip member - the idea was a plan! We bought plane tickets, reserved permits and campgrounds... we were going to Utah:)
Cast of Characters
Sweep: Head of Back-End Tech Support & Can Do Itness (she's got your back!)
My Little Pony: Chief Documentor of 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
|Cast of Characters|
I like to choose my backpacking partners carefully. I want to be surrounded by 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 we backpacked with only a group of women, 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 our paces compliment one another? Would we gel? 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 had Inland Sea on it's east side, and the lower right quadrant was lifted up by action under the Earth crust to form a huge, high desert plateau, while many mountain ranges formed on either side. That plateau, many millions of years later, known as Colorado Plateau, is where you can find many of the most interesting slot canyons, arches, goblins, buttes, slick rock, and beautiful desert formations in southeast Utah. Canyonlands National Park, and therefore the Maze, is located right in the middle of this very plateau. Millions of years of erosion by wind and water, has helped to deepen and enlarge the canyons, make new formations, and break down older ones.
After arriving late on Friday night, we warmed up on Saturday with a 9 mi slot canyon day hike near Goblin Valley State Park, in the San Rafael Swell, which well worth stopping for a day hike or overnight. Bell & Little Wildhorse Canyon is popular loop hike in the area, especially with families, as its the perfect place for kids to explore. Us adults loved it too, with lots of little ups, downs and narrow walls of swirling colors. We also climbed around and over the Goblins closer to the campground, a layer of eroding Entrada sandstone, etched away after years of time by water to form bizarre shapes and characters. Everyone got along swimmingly on the hike, we ate out afterwards and purchased the soon to be known "bling" hats, a trademark on our backpack. We camped overnight at the Goblin Valley SP Campground, which is quite spacious, offering hot showers in the bath house, and little, clear glass shelters with a roof and picnic table for eating at. Free range camping can be had on the west side of the Wildhorse Butte, just outside the state park border.
|Little Wild Horse Canyon|
|Does this Goblin make my Butte look big?|
On Sunday morning we made the 1.5 hour drive to Canyonland's Hans Flats Ranger station. Showing our permit with map in hand I asked for a "sanity check" on our itinerary and checked on the water situation. Lucky for us, we arrived Friday night in Salt Lake in a pouring rain. While rain might not be a welcome site on the first day of a vacation, for us it was a true blessing. The Western US has been in a 3 year drought, desert included, and all this recent rain meant plenty of water in our camp locations. This meant we didn't have to carry 6-7 liters of water everyday - just our first our last 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" so you just need to be aware of that, and may need to alter your plans. 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 ranger, "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 seen photos in other people's blogs. I knew about it, and I had estimated plenty of time to hike that portion already. I had sent my friends writeups 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 where we had to take them off. My friends peered at the books. None seemed too surprised, except Tutti Frutti. She stared at the pics, mouth slightly ajar. "You'll be fine, you're with your friends, you'll help each other out", said the ranger directly to TF." You're all experienced backpackers, it will be fine." she said to us all with a smile. True 'dat.
|Backpacking into the Maze|
|Nuts and Bolts formation|
|A little "scramble"|
The Moki steps, hand and foot holds carved into stretches of rounded or hard to friction-click rock faces, were a fun challenge. Going down them, you had to turn around, face the rock, and search around for the first foothold, the second and so on, till you finished. Who made the Moki steps is unknown, the previous canyon dwellers? A desert mystery to ponder.
|Series of Moki Steps|
The trail up Water Canyon and Shot Canyon were not without it's challenges, 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. Everyone made their way through these moments very well - but not without some hauling up & down of packs, assistance with hands and foot holds, and taping up a few ripped pairs of pants. We learned to work together, smoothly and efficiently, and had a ball doing it!
|Shot Canyon staircase, watch that first step!|
|Shot Canyon staircase|
|Hollywood lowers the packs to Sweep|
|UP we go!|
|MLP and TF in a bowl|
|TF and her "monster" pack. Time to come off.|
|All in for The Squeeze|
|And we're through!|
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 rocks from a nearby wash. There was plenty of much-needed shade area, and room for about 4 tents with places to hang our food, tired socks and other items. Someone had time and good fun making that campsite - and we fully enjoyed the opportunity - twice! We also found a nice campspot in Shot Canyon in a shallow cave, not far from the stream. This site offered the unique opportunity to listen to the evening serenade of frogs, hopping in the water, while chirping loudly at one another for hours. We sat in our own silence as we listened to the frogs, amazing by their volume, too dark to see... but their presence was clear. The quietness of the desert (aside from the frogs) is one of my favorite highlights. In the day, the sudden flap of a raven's wings startles you as it flies above. A rustle in the sage can make you jump with it's sharpness. A rock tumbles a 1/4 mi away and you hear it clearly, clacking crisply to the next ledge and out of sight.
|Campsite with a sweet view|
The lack of dampness is a welcome treat, coming from a place where cloudy skies & 2-3 days of straight rain is not an unusual forecast. The abundance of water at home does have a few advantages, and the need for water carries of 7 liters is unheard of in New England! The desert's lack of water adds to the 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, as they dry up seasonally, or can suddenly appear with a good dose of rain. We were lucky to have water at every spring we planned for. I tried a new gravity filter (Platypus GravityWorks 2L) all all our water spots. I loved the instantaneous clean water, 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).
|Molten Chocolate Happiness|
Flora + The Lizard
Art + Culture
|Horseshoe Canyon Rock Art|
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 to look at, from the life size figures of the Great Galley, to a funny fat cat on a nearby wall. The Alcove Gallery, a great big amphitheater, was unfortunately marred with lesser-inspired markings of the much later, modern man period (BTW: "Nick was here"). A volunteer ranger stood in the shade by the Great Gallery and helped explain some mysteries of these paintings. A box with heavy binoculars inside allowed for a closer look, as the galleries were almost always far out of reach and hard to see in detail with eyes alone. No one is really sure why the artwork was made, or why it was placed out of reach, or how they got up there in the first place! Yet another series of desert mysteries.
IN the end, 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. We had an amazing adventure together, and before it was over, was thinking up plans for another week of backpacking together. We were happy to traverse the sometimes challenging terrain without issue and even ahead of schedule! Thank you Utah for having us - hope to be back again soon.
|Bling Hats shine in the desert sun|
- All photos used by permission, taken by E.Grinnell, J.LePage & J.Varney.