Each autumn I am called to the Southwest. It’s my recharge. My time to escape cell phones, breaking news and social media. My way of finding that electricity I need to power myself, rather than being, too often, shocked by the way the aforementioned outlets wish me to view the world. When I’m in the desert, Nature is my social network. Tracks in the sand of a great battle between bird and mouse, ghoulish shadows cast by moonlight across 300 foot high cliffs and of a perfect spring gurgling out from the earth–those are my push notifications, and pictographs are the only walls I’m reading.
Various photos from the Southwest
It comes each and every year, that sudden realization that I’ve arrived in a world as different from the one I set out from as you can get. Peaks dressed in snow and glaciers, and valley’s as green as they are wide–that’s my home state of Washington. The desert, though, it is a landscape made up of contradictions. On one hand it is arid and desolate, a scared and ancient land of sand and stone. On the other hand, it is a testament to the tenacity of life. A place as wondrous and as amazing as home. My heart beats harder for both, ain’t no denying that.
LEFT: Washington State's Diobsud Wilderness RIGHT: Utah's Capitol Reef National Park
Images from a solo trek across the Beehive Traverse in 2021
October 22-23, 2022: Approach to Hans Flat and descent of Maze Overlook Trail
In southern Utah, in between Hanksville and Greenwater, with Highway 24 in my rearview mirror, my RV rumbled over washboard, and shook like a possessed washing machine. Ahead of me, storm clouds painted the eastern sky, dark and foreboding. Beyond even those faraway clouds is a place called the Maze District, my destination. It is one of four districts in Canyonlands National Park (Needles, Island in the Sky, and River being the others), and is country about as remote as you can get in the contiguous United States. Convoluted. Stark. Emptier now then it was a 1000 years ago, and a logistical challenge, as we’d soon discover.
Only a few miles in, I spotted three trucks fast approaching. Out the window of the first, hand in the air, an old man waved me down. Through his window I see his torn shirt and patched jeans. His adventure, rig, though, is the end-all of every 4×4 enthusiast. This guy knows what’s important in life! And I’d reckon he’d agree that a day spent is better than a day saved. Or in his case, four thousand dollars spent on tires is made all the more possible with the dollars he saved on jeans. Well, by God, I’m with ya buddy! I’ve bought my last pair of jeans. Come forth adventure!
Stopped in his car behind me, Jeff Rich, my hiking partner for the week, joined us for this middle-of-the-road huddle southwestern-style.
“You should turn around,” the old man urged. “Trucks are up to their axles in mud, and many are stuck. You’ll never make it.”
We agreed with him, but we weren’t turning around, no sir. We had a secret weapon. On our hitch racks were our four-stroke stallions, and they weren’t so easily corralled by mud, not at all.
After Jeff scouted ahead in his car, we found camp on a side road, atop a high hill. Taking my chair out, I sat down next to my RV, beer in hand and watched fractals of light break across the western horizon.
Sunset and light beams
The next morning, frozen dirt crackled under my feet as I levered myself out my RV. By his car, Jeff had fired his dirt bike up, so I did the same. Soon both pawed at the Earth. “Steady,” we cautioned, “there’s miles to go yet!”
On the previous day, we’d cut a few miles of road off, but not enough. Initially we’d planned on reaching the Maze Overlook, but to get there and back again is 150 miles, which is too far, even with the extra gallon of fuel I carried. To stay within range, we had to have an alternate plan. As it turns out there’s the North Creek Trail, which breaks off from the road much earlier. Unfortunately, this alternate plan adds 15 miles each way, just to reach the Maze Overlook, a point we could dirt bike too if we had the fuel.
Plans set, bikes warmed up, hands shoved into winter gloves, I set off. Jeff, behind me, was set up for a mud marathon. Around his pack, he had a Garbage bag with cutouts for his shoulder straps!
As soon as we mounted our steeds, we grabbed a handful of throttle and threw our front wheels in the air. With engines whinnying, we were off. Maze District, here we come!
Dirt biking past sand dunes
The first outpost is Hans Flat Ranger Station, about 40 miles in. “It’s so remote,” said the ranger on duty while printing our permits, “we live onsite.”
After getting back on the road, we soon reached the Flint and North Point Road intersection. Before we committed to the aforementioned plan, we double checked our fuel. Not enough, but that was no surprise. Just then I thought I heard a truck, but it was just a plane or so I thought. Just a moment later, a 4×4 pulled around the corner and stopped. Was providence on our side? I think so. As they opened their window, we shyly asked, “Do you happen to have any extra fuel we could buy?” They did, and were more than happy to oblige.
Once our saviors had departed, our stallions squealed back to life. “Maze Overlook, here we come!”
Now we're getting somewhere. And, yes, there was snow!!!
Some tough road, a mix of rock ledges and snowed over corners, were broken up by endless boulders and sand, a handful of miles in a river bed, and high desert grass fields. After all this, we finally came to the Maze Overlook, mud covered and freezing to our cores.
Immediately, the view struck us dumbfounded; it’s a sight that stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the great western vistas, such as the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainier, Yellowstone Falls and Price Canyon. And being called, “The Maze” is as true a name as there ever could be for this alien landscape.
The Maze. I'm reminded of the Man in the Maze, an example of Native American symbolism.
After an hour, we turned our mechanical steeds out to pasture, finding a small parking area at the trailhead. I immediately, with all the grace of a newborn, fell off my bike and landed on the rocks in a heap. Turns out I’d forgotten about all my bags and caught a foot!
I still rubbed my bruises as the hoofing portion of our adventure began. On our backs, we carried a weeks worth of supplies. Besides that, we had a rudimentary loop we hoped to complete, but nothing was set in stone. From the little I’d read of the area, by and large, there are no trails, at least as they are traditionally understood of as being. Instead there are cairned routes, at best, and as many creative ways to go about this country as you can imagine, but hikers are forewarned; this is difficult country and there are many dead ends, very little water and no easy regress. Selling points, all, at least for the likes of Jeff and I who appreciate solitude at whatever cost.
At the edge of the canyon rim, I climbed down a four foot ledge. From there, Jeff and I rounded one corner after the next, all along traveling between shadow and light, and towers of rock. Jeff yelled that there were Moki steps and those are something else! A time machine to the past, back to when long ago Native American’s carved steps into the sandstone, as a way to ascend to the canyon rim.
At the floor of the South Fork of Horse Canyon Jeff and I dropped our packs and before we knew it we’d wandered off in different directions. I became lost in the lonely quiet of this place until we rejoined and pitched camp in the dark.
October 24-27, 2022: Circuit through the Maze and Fins, into Ernies Country and back
The dirt bike approach and the hike (circle at the end). 176.5 miles round trip.
The Chocolate Drops
Late the next morning, with sand already filling my shoes, Jeff and I hiked toward what’s become know as the Pictograph Fork. Just a short way down canyon, we dropped our loads at the head of one of the first canyon spurs. In the interest of exploration, we set off without gear. After some scrambling and wandering, it occurred to us that we were climbing toward the Chocolate Drops! These four thin towers of white sandstone and red shale are prominently visible from the Maze Overlook. We’d made plans to visit them, but via the usually taken, and less technical route that comes from the Dollhouse Road. No matter, it was a happy surprise, and a reward we took every advantage of.
Views, spring, and petrified roots
The Chocolate Drops
We made two other detours that day. The first was to the Harvest Scene, a collection of Native American art, and another that went upward. These mid-canyon detours, the ledges and slick rock just below the rim, were the most intriguing and striking. The views provided a canyon perspective that gave us a sense of scale to the spiderweb of canyons we were, most of the time, in the guts of.
At sunset, we pitched camp on the rim, near the Plug. Puddles of water were cupped in the rock from the previous days’ of rain, and they reflected a darkening sky. As dusk approached, the clouds broke for just long enough for a sunset to cross the sky before being overrun once again by clouds.
Scenes of the desert including the Plug and Standing Rock
Camp scenes from our second night
Our next day we had it in our minds that we would try for the Fins, an area south of the Maze, and less explored. Water had given us more flexibility than we expected, and confidence in having time to regress if need be, even if for a few days.
From the Plug, we rose over the spine of this rugged area where the Dollhouse 4×4 road crosses. And there, out from the dirt and rock appeared the very same old man we’d seen on the way in. Again he waved us down, and instead of offering us advice, offered us water, which was hard to refuse, even though we very much didn’t need it, but the man was so insistent and generous that it seemed unkind to turn him down. While we ate some cookies he gave us (for which we didn’t even try to refuse), he told Jeff about his life. All I overheard was that he’d sailed around the world, and that’s something! Meanwhile I was attempting to wrestle a gallon of extra water in my pack.
When the old man had left, we continued toward the Fins. How exactly we’d get into the canyons was up in the air, but we figured a coin flipped is more likely to land on heads than one never flipped at all. A eventual sighting of a lone cairn, poised at the canyon edge gave us all the confidence we needed to drop into an even more mysterious area than we’d come from. It was the last sign of humans we’d see until evening, at which point we’d find a spring with various old relics of the past.
On our way to the Fins
The Fins are unlike the Maze, with those namesake narrow columns of rock that intersect the main thoroughfares. Many of the abutting canyons have dead ends and no way through. Complicating the travel here is the lack of water that’s even more desperate here than elsewhere (rains helped us in that regard). The further south, the more arid and dry, especially in Ernies Country.
Reflection at camp, Jug Arch, and roots
We headed west across Ernies Country, cutting across the lower Fins region. We ended up walking far enough that the excitement of the day had worn, and heads were pointed at the sand more than the country about us. As such, when we saw water and a flat spot, we heaved our loads to the ground and laid about for sometime. Before it was fully dark, we went exploring, because there’s always a little extra fuel in the tank for that, right?
Scenes in the Fins
The fourth day’s plan was to strike out across the Fins and Maze District. To get there, we headed up what appeared to be a good canyon, with broad topo lines. Of course, they were deceiving, but you can only hope for the best in this country. Before long, the canyon squeezed in on us, and we were stuck in a slot. Jeff, God rest his manhood, struck out across nearly frozen water up to well past his chest. The screams that echoed pulled up my attempt to follow. I lamely yelled, “How does it look?” In answer Jeff threw out another high pitched holler.
Our exit canyon from the Fins
The slot was a no go, and while Jeff dried, I searched for alternatives. On the western walls, I was able to surmount it, but found no viable way, even after searching out half a dozen side canyons. Back to Jeff a half an hour later with no bypasses, we started back down canyon. A few bends down, with some effort, we surmounted the eastern canyon wall, and with a few small detours, arrived at the canyon above the slot that had stymied us. A short way and we arrived at another impasse, only this one included an arch! Again we searched out both sides of the canyon, and eventually found a way on the eastern wall. A last challenge that brought us up and out of the Fins.
Back at the Dollhouse Road, we crossed and walked a quarter of a mile. Hiding from a cold wind, we huddled behind rocks appropriately christened, “The Wall”.
Horse Creek Canyon was a surprise. The hike into it was circuitous and interesting, much more so than the Pictograph Fork. Even so, we had come into our stride, and ate up the canyon in a few hours. Before we knew it, we were back at the climb up to the Maze Overlook.
The ascent back to the rim of the canyon and our dirt bikes, was as enjoyable as the way down had been. It is among the best of what we found in the Maze, and I could see much of the terrain we’d crossed as soon as we climbed over the top.
From the rim, we watched the sun descend, and shades of shadow being pulled down past one canyon to the next until the blue hour had come. Just then, as the chill had nearly forced me to my tent, I saw an unusual object in the southwestern sky. I wouldn’t know until later, but it was a Space X launch! It’s the first launch of any sort I’d ever seen, and it blew me away with how big it was, even hundreds of miles away.
Last views of the Maze
A crescent moon, Space X Launch and morning coffee
On our last day, we corralled our metal steeds again, and set off, back the way we’d come days earlier. I found myself reflecting on this journey I had imagined taking for so long. I’m sure it was the same for Jeff, as there were many miles of riding ahead of us. For me, though, this is one of those bucket list areas I’d wanted to see for myself ever since I’d first come into the area with my dad on a scouting mission in 2018. And did it live up to expectation. Most certainly. Will I be back? No doubt. But even if I never do return, the heart of this place is now a part of me and each time recollections cross through these memories, I’ll smile and by God, I’ll be A-MAZED once again, if only for a second.
Great storytelling and photos Jason. Thanks for helping keep the adventure stoke high.