Overland Destinations: The Maze

Overland Destinations: The Maze

by Stephan Edwards

Welcome to Overland Destinations, a new regular feature from the Overlander Notebook - practical and inspirational ideas to fuel your next overland adventure, whether it's close to home or a world away. 

This week, Utah's Maze District in Canyonlands National Park.

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.
- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

The Maze teaches patience. It expects silence. It commands respect.

It seems like I’ve always been trying to get there. Years of studying maps, refreshing Google Earth, talking to my friends about it until they told me to stop, reading Desert Solitaire over and over - the Maze has been calling for a long, long time. This spring I finally had a short window to take the Maze off the map and into reality. What I found is that when you finally answer the call, you need to be prepared.

Land Rover in Utah


The Maze sits at the heart of Canyonlands National Park's most remote reaches. From 7500 feet in elevation on the rim of the Orange Cliffs to 3600 feet at the banks of the Colorado and Green Rivers, it spans a nearly incomprehensible landscape with some of the best adventure driving routes on which you will ever turn a tire.

At some point I stopped trying to take pictures because no lens could hope to capture the vast spectacle of stone and sky that is the Maze. You need to see it for yourself, and if you choose to go, you won't be disappointed. What's the experience like? Ride along shotgun with me on a solo trip into the very center of American red rock country and we'll find out.

Canyonlands National Park

The largest of Utah's "Mighty Five" national parks, Canyonlands sprawls over a huge swath of high desert south and west of the tourist hub of Moab. The Park Service says "a lifetime of exploration awaits you", and that's no hyperbole. Split into three distinct units - Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze - Canyonlands offers primarily a backcountry kind of experience. This makes it unique in a lot of ways.

Land Rover at Hans Flat Ranger Station
Hans Flat Ranger Station, Canyonlands NP

Where nearby Arches National Park sees nearly two million visitors every year, whose throng of RVs can back up traffic all the way into downtown Moab on busy days, Canyonlands is almost eerily quiet. With only a few miles of paved roads traversing its 338,000 acres, seeing most of its geologic and cultural wonders requires lacing up your boots, swinging a leg over your mountain bike, paddling a raft, or taking the wheel of a stout four wheel drive. That's music to an overlander's ears. 

The Maze district is particularly remote. Not even accessible by vehicle except from the south or the west by a 45 to 60 mile drive over heavily washboarded ranch roads, you need to be committed just to reach it. And prepared. This is extremely remote country, and there are no facilities except the small gift shop and pit toilet at the Hans Flat Ranger station. Forgot your hat? It's two hours back to the hamlet of Hanksville, the last outpost of anything close to resembling civilization. Never mind cell service.

Land Rover in Canyonlands National Park


So undeveloped is the Maze that the Park Service asks you to sign what is essentially a waiver, and listen to a long speech by the ranger detailing the many dangers you will encounter before descending from the main road into the heart of the Maze. If you are seeking silence and solitude, here is where you will find it. Overnight access is by permit only, and you must reserve one or more of the 17 primitive campsites sprinkled throughout the district. The difficulty of getting there coupled with the permitting system guarantees that you will be one of only a handful of people rambling around this immense wilderness at any one time.

Tires aired down, permit in hand, fuel and water tanks filled to the brim, let's go rambling.

Land Rover on Flint Trail Canyonlands NP


Into the Maze

The watchword for overland travel in the Maze is patience. There are many roads - some barely paths - that demand a walking pace. There are obstacles that you will need to get out of your rig to assess on foot before tackling. You may need to pile rocks or use your traction devices or winch. You will take hours to traverse only a few miles. You may need to turn back. So, it pays to prepare mentally for slow progress. 

The Neck campsite Canyonlands NPThe Neck campsite on the rim of the Orange Cliffs is often overlooked, but simply amazing.

This is doubly true if you are traveling solo, like I was. Mechanical sympathy for your vehicle and careful discretion is a requirement if you are alone here. A breakdown or getting stuck might mean waiting days for assistance. In my few days down in the canyons, beyond the ranger station I encountered only half a dozen other explorers.

You must be self sufficient on every front. There are very few regular water sources in the Maze, save for two access points to the Green and Colorado Rivers, and a handful of highly remote springs. Carrying more food and water than you think you need is a necessity, along with the tools and spare parts you commonly use for your particular vehicle. You are required to carry a portable toilet (it doesn't matter which kind) to pack out waste. Make sure your first aid kit is fully stocked. 


Road in Canyonlands NPI turned away from this obstacle near the Chimney Rock area because it seemed too sketchy as a solo traveler. 

The rewards for your patience are many, however. Not only is the challenge of the driving itself a highlight of any trip into the Maze, but the otherworldly landscapes you will traverse promise to rearrange your brain.

Going Solo

My own trip "under the rim", as Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire, was solo in every sense of the word. Just me and my Defender, which, if we're being honest has started to feel every one of its thirty years and three continents on this planet. This adventure was likely the swan song for Toto the Land Rover in its current iteration. She's arthritic, osteoporotic, and just genuinely tired, even if still dead-on reliable. When the ranger at Hans Flat looked her over with a skeptical eye, I said, "You've got to be an optimist to drive an old Land Rover, or you wouldn't go anywhere."

Broken Land Rover

And what a send-off it was. It only broke twice, the worst was blowing apart the right rear shock somewhere deep into the canyons. I had a spare (because, Land Rover), but when I went to remove the nut for the upper shock mount, the rusty spindle just twisted off instead. No repairing that. The remarkable thing was that even on only three shock absorbers, I traversed some of the most challenging terrain I've ever encountered without a single complaint from old Toto, and she saw me home 800 miles back to Montana with no drama, too.

The Harvest Scene pictographs
The Harvest Scene pictographs are well worth the hike down from the Maze Overlook.

In the in between we bounced our way through the dust and over the ledges to the Maze Overlook, Millard Canyon, and Panorama Point. I wandered along the trails in the canyons, and sat transfixed for two hours under a tranquil cottonwood simply staring at some of the most sublime pictographs in all of the Southwest. I marveled at the 1500 foot overhanging cliffs that cascaded down, down, down in huge successive stair steps to the Colorado River. I swam in the Green River below the towers and spires of the Island in the Sky. I talked to the ravens, I talked to the Land Rover, and I talked to myself. I rode in silence with nothing but the regular thrum of the engine as my companion.

Canyonlands NP


The Maze is exactly the kind of destination we live for as overland explorers. It asks a lot of you, but gives back in ways that are hard to comprehend. Edward Abbey writes again in Desert Solitaire,

"If you wish to see it as it should be seen, don't wait – there's little time. How do you get there? Well, I couldn't tell you.” 

I will, though.

Getting There:

The Maze District is Canyonlands National Park's most remote and undeveloped unit. Most people access the Maze via the Lower San Rafael Road, the turn-off for which is approximately 20 miles north of Hanksville, UT off State Route 24.

Once you reach the Hans Flat ranger station, the journey down to the canyons begins with one of the most challenging roads in the whole Park - the Flint Trail. Not for the faint of heart, or those who suffer from vertigo, this one-lane switch-back pass that seems to cling to the side of a vertical cliff is also heart-stoppingly steep and riddled with soft sand and intimidating rock ledges.

Take your time. On your way back, even though uphill traffic technically has the right of way, if you meet someone coming down try not to force your fellow adventurers to reverse up the road. 

When to Go:

My favorite times to visit southern Utah are in the late fall and in May. The weather is cool and mostly dry, and in the spring, the desert wildflowers are in full bloom. If you go in the spring, I would recommend arriving after the Easter Jeep Safari - a huge event based in Moab over Easter weekend that attracts thousands and thousands of people. The trails will be busier, and accommodations more expensive, should you need them.

 

Canyonlands NP

Special Considerations:

A trip to the Maze requires that you obtain a permit, which is included with your campsite reservations, which are also required. Using the recreation.gov website, you can book your trip without hassle. You can also call the Hans Flat ranger station at 435-259-2652 to check on campsite availability and travel conditions. 

You will need to carry a portable toilet that allows you to pack out waste, as there are no facilities at any of the Maze's campsites. Include as much water as you can, and have extra fuel on hand. 

Temperatures and weather in the high desert are highly variable. From triple digit highs during the day, to near freezing at night, you can expect to encounter a wide range of conditions. Pack for the mountains as well as the desert. 

If you'd like to see more of the Maze, check out this great short video made by my colleague here at Overlander, Pat Rich. I think it really captures some of the beauty and trials you may encounter in the Maze.

 

Millard Canyon Campsite
Millard Canyon Campsite is an oasis on the banks of the Green River.

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