Maze Circuit

Leaving my kayak at the base of Water Canyon, I climbed upcanyon and hiked a circuit through much of the Maze district. This covered about 60 miles in four days, visiting several areas in the park with nice dramatic names — the Land of Standing Rocks, the Fins, the Maze itself, and, uh, Ernie’s Country.

This trip included several long off trail detours, and while most of the hike followed trails these were often just routes along canyon bottoms and stream washes. Over the four days I saw about five small groups of hikers and a few car camps; getting to the Maze requires coming in either by boat or by a reportedly long and grueling trip on jeep roads, an adventure in itself. Pretty wild country, and amazing backpacking.

View Maze Circuit in a larger map

Even after all the canyon side trips I’d done upriver, hiking the two miles up from Water and into neighboring Shot Canyon was like entering a different world. The dominant layer in the Maze, the Fins and many of the district’s canyons is Cedar Mesa sandstone, which forms red and white bands that pile up into cliffs, mounds, towers, many holes in the rock, formations that simply defy easy description. I’d seen some areas with this stone upriver and in Salt Creek Canyon a few weeks ago, but the sheer scale and extent of it here was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Days in, I still found the terrain bewildering.

Below is the view from the bottom of Shot Canyon. From here the trail passes through the gap between these cliffs and climbs up to the canyon rim.

Climbing out of Shot Canyon brought me into the Land of Standing Rocks. This is a mesa that sits on top of the Cedar Mesa layer. Flat or gently undulating terrain, dirt and scrub and some slickrock, punctuated occasionally and dramatically by towers of uneroded Organ Rock Shale, a deep brown stone that formed over the Cedar Mesa. Looking towards some of these towers across canyons to the south:

The mesa offers fast and easy hiking. With a jeep road running through that most of the area’s trails connect to, the Land of Standing Rocks is effectively a binder that makes traveling between and accessing the canyons eating into it relatively easy.

After the trail met the road at Chimney Rock, one of the standing rocks, I followed the road a mile west before turning south into the Fins, a series of canyons ringed by some exceptionally crazy scenery. The canyon walls here have a pronounced wedding cake structure, with layers of relatively flat slickrock separated by cliffs of 20 or more feet. With periodic spots to scramble between layers this area is a blast to hike around and explore. Rather easy to get blasé about the risk, though. My boots stuck to the stone, but in many places a slip would lead to serious injury or death and I couldn’t let my attention wander.

The Fins are riddled with holes, small arches and bridges, and several very large arches. I was out hiking to look for a few specific arches; hunting these is pretty fun as most of the arches can only be seen in a small area or from specific angles, and even knowing the location of an arch there is a lot of route finding to do in trying out approaches. In the background below is one of the arches I was looking for, a triple arch that is pretty easy to get up and walk on. The surrounding area has several more nice arches.

Below is Tibbett Arch, the largest arch in the Maze district. Not much of a hunt here, this arch can be easily seen from the road a couple miles to the north.

Very dry country outside the canyons, unsurprisingly. In 15 miles of hiking from when I left Shot Canyon to when I entered the Maze the second day, the pothole below was the only water I found, tinted green with algae. Interesting taste. I could carry four liters of water, twice as much as I normally do while backpacking but still pushing it. I can’t imagine hiking here later in the year when the canyons themselves have dried up.

To the north of the Land of Standing Rocks lies the Maze proper, a network of canyons and side canyons and side side canyons that are all part of Horse Canyon and drain to the Green River upriver from where I left my kayak. After several hours in the Fins I returned to the road and hiked a trail on a ridge overlooking the Maze on either side, reaching the Chocolate Drops in the evening. These are standing rocks and the best known landmark in the district. After a long first day I camped a bit to the east of the drops. Viewing the drops and a northerly bit of the Maze:

The second day started with following cairns down a slightly tricky route to the canyon floor east of the drops. There were a couple attractions I wanted to see in this area of the canyon: a fairly obscure arch, and the Harvest Scene pictograph. This is the largest pictograph in the Maze, about a dozen life size figures painted thousands of years ago, before the Anasazi came to the area.

Returning north I scrambled up another route to regain the canyon rim at the Maze Overlook. This spot offers a great viewpoint back over the area I’d been hiking through the last one and a half days. The Chocolate Drops are to the left below, with the Land of Standing Rocks in the distance. While not a big area — north to south, the Maze covers only about 5 miles — the canyons here are so incredibly intricate that finding your way through them takes hours and hours and needs good route finding and map reading skills (or, if you’re lazy like I am, a GPS. I had quads loaded up on my phone and an iPod and frequently checked my position, which made quick travel through this area and, especially, the Fins, much easier).

I dropped back into the Maze and headed through the south fork of Horse Canyon, the area on the right side of the photo above. The hiking in this canyon is pretty nice, rugged. There is a trail here, which just follows the streambed and doesn’t seem to get as much use as the routes to the east. Slow going, lots of twisting around and walking through sand, with occasional batches of slickrock, as below, providing some relief. After four or five hours of hiking I was most of the way through the canyon and camped on the floor for the second night.

The next morning I climbed out of the canyon, reached the road and crossed it to get back into the Fins for a few hours. More poking around looking for arches here, then I cut west back to the road and south to the Mother and Child (more standing rocks) to start the next leg of the trip. There is a well marked trail leaving from here which runs east almost all the way back to the river, skirting the Fins and traveling through Ernie’s Country.

Former grazeland, the hiking here is pretty mellow compared to the rest of the trip, only a bit of scrambling. The main attractions are convenient access to the southern parts of the Fins, some grand vistas such as below, and seclusion (the only other option to get back to Water Canyon would be to follow the jeep road).

Below is Whitmore Arch, the most user friendly arch I came across on the trip, and I think the second largest after Tibbett. Easily visible from the trail a few miles in, there is a quick hike up slickrock to get right under its span.

Well, another main attraction of this trail is that it actually has water available. There are two springs near the western part of the trail, both of which were running. These were the only places I saw water between the south fork of Horse Canyon and my return to Water Canyon two days later. Unfortunately, “running” in this context really means “dripping as if from a leaky faucet.” Both streams have water troughs installed the better part of a century ago, which are a little beat up and overgrown with weeds but still serviceable. I was able to fill up my water from these troughs and keep moving, thankfully. The water I took on here lasted until the streams midway down Water Canyon, though just barely.

Past the springs the trail flattens out further, and the eastern two thirds just follows washes and plains. I took another detour up into the Fins to look for some more arches from the canyon bottom, then returned to the trail and kept trudging along. Camped the last night along the trail, and the next morning reached the eastern terminus back at the jeep road and, shortly afterwards, the Doll House. This is another major landmark in the Maze, a small area with lots of spires of Cedar Mesa stone. Having seen so much of this stuff the last few days I was a little jaded getting here; the main points of interest about the Doll House are that (a) it is the only Cedar Mesa stone you can drive right up to in the Maze district, (b) it therefore gets a lot more concentrated traffic than all other areas, though I didn’t see anyone while I was there, and (c) the NPS disallows all off trail hiking in the area because of this traffic.

So I didn’t linger, and after a quick hike through the trails around the Doll House I continued north towards Water Canyon. I was getting a bit footsore at this point, but found the energy for one last side trip. There is a spur trail going to overlooks of the Colorado and Green Rivers, just a couple miles from the confluence. Great views, and nice to relax and reflect on the trip. The last miles of the Green are shown below; the confluence and a bit of the Colorado are on the right.

Returning to the main trail the drop back into Water Canyon was straightforward and I made it back to the kayak in the late afternoon. Enough light to paddle to the confluence and then down to Spanish Bottom, a flat area below the Doll House popular for camping, for the night. Some hiking the next morning (still sore), then the jetboat came in for the ride back to Moab. Quite the trip.

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