Farther Than It Looks—Backpacking the Canyonlands Maze

By Michael Lanza

With our first steps on the descent from Maze Overlook into the labyrinth of mostly dry desert canyons that comprise one of the greatest geological oddities in the National Park System—the Maze in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park—we already face our first obstacle: Removing our backpacks, we scramble one by one over a ledge drop of several feet and pass our packs down.

But this introduction to the most technical section of our route merely hints at the arduous and improbable terrain awaiting around the corner.

Shouldering our packs again, the four of us follow a wildly circuitous trail mostly across slickrock, marked by cairns but otherwise unobvious and not visible on the ground. It takes a winding downhill course below redrock cliffs and towers, past mounds of shattered boulders resembling ancient ruins, and along the sloping rims of giant bowls of rippled stone. In several spots, we again remove and pass our packs down and scramble through tight crevices or downclimb a ladder of shallow footsteps chiseled into a sandstone cliff face.

A backpacker descending the trail off Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Pam Solon backpacking down the trail off Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

After a shocking amount of time and effort—taking nearly three hours to descend just a mile and 500 vertical feet—we reach the sandy bottom of the South Fork of Horse Canyon. There, we commence a search to find the one natural spring that we’re counting on to sustain us for the next three days.

It’s the second morning of our five-day backpacking trip into the Maze, in the first week of March. My friends Todd Arndt, Pam Solon, and Jeff Wilhelm and I had arrived here two nights ago, spending the night before starting the hike in a primitive, waterless, roadside campsite on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land just outside the park entrance, at around 6,500 feet. We awoke there yesterday to temps in the upper teens and—fortunately—warm, late-winter, high-desert sunshine.


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A backpacker descending the trail off Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Pam Solon backpacking down the trail off Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

After checking in at the Hans Flat ranger station—surely one of the most remote ranger outposts in the country—and driving a few miles of rough road to the trailhead, we spent our first day hiking about 11 miles and 1,700 feet down the North Canyon Trail. The sun shone warmly but the temp probably never topped 40° F all day, if it even got out of the thirties, while a slight but wintry breeze kept us often wearing a couple of layers. By late afternoon, we found a place to camp near the rim of Horse Canyon, about a mile northwest of Maze Overlook.

When I stepped out of my tent during that clear and cold first night in the backcountry, my breath condensing in front of my face, the brilliant streak of the Milky Way across the ink-black sky felt almost alarming.

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Maze Overlook

We awoke on our second morning to another bluebird sky and ice in our water bottles and slammed a hot breakfast while gazing at distant cliffs burning red in the early sun. Hiking about 45 minutes up a four-wheel-drive road from our first camp—and seeing no vehicles on it—we reached the Maze Overlook.

It could be called Amazing Overlook.

Standing at the brink of the Maze Overlook’s white cliffs, the name bestowed upon the vast, chaotic sweep of sandstone fins, towers, and canyons below makes perfect sense: It could only be called the Maze. And from that prospect, it’s hard to imagine another place deserving of the moniker. Mesas and pinnacles loom above the twisting labyrinth of chasms, including the four tall, slender, brown pinnacles called the Chocolate Drops, misshapen as if partially melted.

A backpacker at the Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm at the Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

After our arduous descent off Maze Overlook, now well into our second afternoon, we follow occasional cairns and boot prints in sand down Horse Canyon’s South Fork, looking for the water source known as the Below Maze Overlook spring—which the ranger who issued our permit yesterday told us should be flowing.

After some searching, we find a trickle of water and attempt to trace it upstream to its source. But the trickle diminishes to stagnant puddles—and then disappears completely. After some bushwhacking, slogging through sand, and clambering over rocks in the dry creek bed, we realize that trickle was as good as we’re going to find. The ranger had warned that this had been a dry year and some springs may be dry already—even before the end of winter. Despite the cold, we were wise to come this early in the season.

We backtrack to the trickling stream, locate its deepest pool—perhaps four inches, enough to pump water—and, happy the stream is at least clear, we fill every bladder, bottle, and dromedary we brought. Then we hike maybe a half-mile farther, entering the mouth of the canyon traversed by the Chimney Route and turning onto a footpath leading up a short, dead-end side canyon. There, we find soft, flat ground for our tents, surrounded by towering walls of desert varnish.

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A backpacker at a campsite in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm at our second campsite in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

Rising above the canyon rim behind our camp, one of the Chocolate Drops seems to peer down at us curiously—at once closer to us as the crow flies than we would have anticipated but miles from us via any route that bipedal primates could walk.

As the sun sinks behind a cliff, heralding another calm, clear, and cold night, we pull on warm layers—and I contemplate how, over several hours today, we hiked a grand total of just over five miles.

Already, we’re learning this truth about the Maze: There are no direct lines and everything lies farther away, in both distance and time, than it looks.

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The Chimney Route

On our third morning, we awaken once again to ice in our water bottles; but in the steep-walled canyon enclosing our campsite, the sun’s warmth only reaches us as the four of us set out to dayhike a loop of almost nine miles—one that will prove more adventurous and scenic than I think any of us anticipates, despite the Maze Overlook vista having set the stage for it.

Less than an hour from camp, we stop before a panel of slightly faded pictographs painted across one wall of the broad, cottonwood-punctuated Pictograph Fork in the Maze—ancient art known as the Harvest Scene.

Dayhikers on the Chimney Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Jeff, Todd, and Pam dayhiking the Chimney Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

Believed to have been created by the Archaic People who lived in this region from 8,000 to 2,000 years ago, predating the more widely known (but still little-known) Anasazi, the Harvest Scene’s age has been estimated at 3,000 years—created a millennium before the birth of Christ and the rise of the Roman Empire. Experts consider it identical to one of the most elaborate and best-preserved examples of rock art in the Southwest, the Great Gallery in the Horseshoe Canyon District of Canyonlands, not far north of this spot as the crow flies but also much farther away for non-flight creatures like humans.

Following the Chimney Route past the Harvest Scene, we walk along a nearly flat, sandy river wash in a dust-dry canyon that spans hundreds of feet across, with colorful and complex walls of red and white rock rising 200 to 300 feet tall. 

 

The canyon grows steeper and more rugged as we follow a well-cairned route up a narrow, overgrown, dry creek bed, eventually zigzagging up ledges on a canyon wall. In spots, rocks stacked by trail builders act as step ladders, enabling us to clamber over the smooth lip of a high ledge or a pour over carved by water from the rare downpours cascading off these cliffs. Patches of ice linger in shaded corners.

Pausing to survey the vertical landscape of rock all around us, an insignificant pocket within the much vaster breadth of the Maze, I can make out no obvious route through it; we’d be lost without these cairns or having the route mapped on a GPS app on Pam’s phone.

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Dayhikers on the Chimney Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Todd and Pam dayhiking the Chimney Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

It’s eerily quiet in that way of environments rarely visited by moisture, where only small populations of the most tenacious species of plants and animals cling to a fragile existence. We step carefully around miniature gardens of biological soil crust.

Reaching the canyon rim, we follow widely spaced cairns indicating our route across a slickrock plateau. A slender tower of what looks like hardened, dark-brown mud appears ahead: Chimney Rock. Below that distinctive landmark, at the end of a four-wheel-drive road, we encounter the only other person we’ll see all day, a dayhiker on a roughly nine-mile loop from his campsite at Maze Overlook. In fact, he’s among just a handful of people we’ll bump into in five days out here.

Hikers on the Pete's Mesa Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Todd and Jeff hiking the Pete’s Mesa Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

Like the frozen hands of a broken clock, three twisting trails emanate from Chimney Rock: the Chimney Route that brought us here; a trail that charts a winding course through Water Canyon and to the Dollhouse; and the faintest of the three, Pete’s Mesa Route, the one we want to take to complete this loop from our camp.

And there’s no trail signage. Except for the cairns and four-wheel-drive roads, little has visibly changed probably since the Archaic People walked these canyons.

Pete’s Mesa Route traces a high, broad ridge arcing back toward Horse Canyon. For most of its course, we stay up high, seeing the Chocolate Drops in the distance and nearer formations that resemble them. Trailless side canyons choked with fallen rocks and desert scrub tumble away to either side of us.

In the far distance, the topography subtly hints at a deep abyss where the Green River’s Stillwater Canyon meets the canyon of the Colorado River. Beyond that rise the candlestick towers of Canyonlands’ Needles District, while the muscular mesa of the park’s Island in the Sky District looms over everything.

A few miles from Chimney Rock, Pete’s Mesa Route rolls abruptly off the tableland, mimicking the Chimney Route’s zigzags across ledges where we can easily imagine bumping into desert bighorn sheep. We scramble down short, vertical drops, using more step ladders of stacked rocks. Reaching the bottom of another tight, anonymous side canyon, we walk down it until it dumps us back onto a familiar trail, where we know the way back to our tents.

As we stroll back into camp, about six hours after we left, Todd—who has taken countless hikes of all distances with me—calls today’s outing “one of the 10 best loop dayhikes I’ve ever taken.”

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The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack, trekking poles, rain shell, stove, sleeping bag, and air mattress I used on this trip.

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How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking
8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking
5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking
How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be

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