From the faded blue outlines of the La Sals to the convoluted highlands of Elephant Butte, from the great watery depths of the Green and Colorado Rivers to the towering sandstone cliffs of Island in the Sky–these scions of time wear their wrinkles. Wear their mystery. Their secrets. Their bare and simple beauty.
And each place I visit in these wilds of Utah, I find more than I ever expected. And sometimes, I find that there is more to see that wasn’t found in my first go around–so it was that I returned to the Maze District. Sand had yet to be shaken from boots, dead ends had yet to be reached and corners of the map had yet to be tattered or torn from use.
(The previous years trip: A-mazed in Utah’s Maze District).
October 21, 2023: Highway 24 to Pete’s Mesa Trail
I stood at the rim of the Maze Overlook, just as I had the year before. Newly minted Mazerite, Kelly Lewis, made a third. She had been, no doubt, convinced to come this year by our talk of Utah. “The canyons . . . the night’s sky . . . the quiet!” It doesn’t sound so unbelievable when recounted as such, but our enthusiasm made up the difference.
To be fair, our pontificating wasn’t all lies and misdirection; there’s honest to God magic behind the stories we cast.
What truth we glossed over certainly included the 70-odd miles of dirt roads that lead to even rougher 4×4 paths. Not to mention the week’s worth of gear that tossed us around like a wild mustangs. And, as for those mustangs, they were the biggest kicker. “Our approach,” we advised her, “is by dirt bike.”
The Flint Trail
Below castles of rock, and across parapets of stone, we rode. Through vast tablelands of pinyon pine, juniper and sagebrush, we bobbed and weaved. To edges of great rocky cathedrals, we flung our voices in great, rebounding echoes.
Then we rode on, eventually standing, as I’ve said, at the Maze Overlook. Crisscrossing it from end to end, I was dumbfounded. For such an incredible viewpoint, how benign is “Maze Overlook” for a name? But, to be fair, this is Utah. Such insane vistas are as common as sandstone.
Back at my dirt bike, I found my pack resting next to the wheel. I rolled it over, and dusted it off. But, no matter, a little dust is like make-up, and between us, we had our fair share. Sadly no amount of dust would hurt our looks, not one bit.
For the faint of heart, I’d imagine the trail to the canyon bottom is terrifying. For those like me, it’s a jungle gym for adults. A hundred helpings of cracks, ledges, sieves and slots, each drooling with gravel and sand. The chef’s special–received with a smile and consumed with abandon.
The descent to the South Fork Horse Canyon
South Fork Horse Canyon and it’s sandy bottom was reached, and rounding the corner, we found our first spring. Compared to the year before, much less water was seen. In the Maze, there are two primary sources of water: seeps/springs and potholes. The former is preferred, while the later can be water that’s been cooking for weeks. The catch phrase, “What’s for dinner,” isn’t so much of a joke as you’d like it to be.
In a short way, we cut east toward Pete’s Mesa. Spooling out before me, were fields of golden grass. Rising above, autumn colors dressed every branch. To each side, towering cliffs danced from shadow to light as we meandered. And the sky, it’s blue so rich and deep, I swore I could hear a splash when a tossed pebble was thrown.
Before long, we spun out of the canyons and weaved our way through rockier terrain. It came as a relief to me, as I’m sure it did to Jeff and Kelly. Too much time in a canyon, is like too much time at home; eventually you have to escape, or you’ll climb the walls. And, let’s be honest, whether it’s the walls at home or the walls out here, only crazy people climb them. Or perhaps, as my nephew once parried with, “I’m not crazy; I’m just practicing.”
A long day had wound us out from the uplands on dirtbikes, to the canyon depths and, as I crawled up a streambed, to the ramparts of Pete’s Mesa. Since no camping is allowed atop this particular mesa, we found a secluded spot lower down. Such a restriction, as I understand it, is for limiting your visual footprint.
After we were established, and the chill began to settle onto the ground, I thought of warm tea. But no, water is gold in this country, and not to be wasted on pleasantries. Instead, I satisfied myself with shooting stars, flickering constellations, and the rising local arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Talk about a visual footprint!
October 22, 2023: Pete’s Mesa to the Colorado River
That morning we climbed up, then across the remainder of Pete’s Mesa. You’d think it was flat, but we crossed more varied terrain than I ever expected. The views slapped us in the face like a wayward sand devil. It arrived with sights of Jasper Canyon. It’s depths, and entire length, are permanently closed to public access. Open-grazing policy’s of the late 1800s and early 1900s led to cattle wrecking havoc upon the local biology. This canyon was spared that fate, but not our gawking. Like kids at a window display, of toys we could never purchase, we stared wide-eyed into this canyon of mystery.
One small step for Jeff, one giant leap for Jeff-kind.
Soon, Chimney Rock thrust it’s head above the surrounding country. Further out, beyond our view, was the Dollhouse. It was country Jeff and I didn’t explore the previous year. This time, though, it was a priority. One of the few we had, since there were no hard set rules on where or when we needed to be anywhere in particular. Our engines of decision were increasingly being driven by whim and chance.
To reach the Dollhouse, we descended into Shot Canyon. It intersected with Water Canyon. As the name suggested, we expected water. If not, then the name’s creator is laughing, cause the jokes on us.
A series of rudimentary stairways, made up of piled rock, are followed deeper and deeper into Shot Canyon. Just as we rounded one bend, a surprise greeted us; Jeff spotted big horned sheep. Only as we descended 300 feet to the canyon floor, were we able to make out a old ram, along with nearly a dozen ewes and lambs. Thus far, they’d been the only large fauna we’d seen in this dry and rugged country. And what better animals to be introduced to than these proud and elusive creatures.
Shot on a 400mm lens, with a 50 percent crop, making for an equivalent shot of nearly ~800mm
As two canyons came together, greenery rose from rocky depths. In between grass and leaves, a shimmer of water appeared. Hopes crescendoed into happy smiles when we noticed that it was the cleanest water found yet.
At the sandy shore, we filtered our fill while the cottonwoods chattered like old debutants lording over their personal oasis.
As we left Water Canyon, the major changes in the terrain came in the form of large mounds of rock jutting up between flat country. After being mostly canyon-bound for two days, the change was welcomed.
Several miles before the Dollhouse, we detoured eastward. Between two pinched cliffs, the land fell away onto a rocky promenade. In a matter of minutes we inched toward the edge. What resolved before us was the Colorado River. A thin line of water melted into the bluffs, north and south. Thousand foot walls of stone stood between us. Silent statuettes, ten thousand strong, encompassed the Needles District. Quietly hovering in the middle, was air made heavier by the gravity between us.
Whim and chance, it appeared, had lead us to Shangri-La.
12 image panoramic of the Needles District from the Maze District
Later on, alpenglow sheared the cliffs in bands of golden light. In the hunt for the best views, I soared the canyon rim like the raven I’d communed with earlier.
Let's fly buddy, just you and me
Legions of shadows warred between moonlit cliffs, slowly gaining ground as the night progressed. I found myself wandering back, hours past dark, tiptoeing along the cliff edges. Soon I returned to camp, and sleep.
Night's sky and a greenish air glow (not northern lights)
October 23, 2023: Colorado River to the Fins
From sunset to stars, sunrise to daylight–as true a cycle as any–the beauty drew my tiredness up by the bootstraps, and sent me scurrying across the canyon edges all over again.
After camp was sorted, we set off for the Dollhouse. As I rounded a bend, a few hours later, Beehive Arch appeared. Unlike other regions in Utah, not every arch is named, or even mapped, in the Maze. Certain aficionados search out previously unrecorded arches, and when they find them, they catalog them. Such a pastime sounds exciting, and I can appreciate it in the same way I do my Washington Glacier Project.
At the Dollhouse, I propped my backpack next to Jeff and Kelly’s packs. We rested in the shade, explored the area for a few hours, and returned rejuvenated. Our position then a crossroads for three forms of transportation. The 4×4 roads end there, a water trail brings rafters and tourists up from the river, and hiking routes, such as the one we were on, crossed through. Even with all of that, we only saw a few folks.
Looking toward the Dollhouse
From the end of the Dollhouse Road, we transitioned into a entirely new region called the Fins. The name is descriptive, and pertains to the rocky fins that bisect the area. Few people explore it, as water is rare, even more so than the Maze. Neither are the routes clear cut, or established. There’s an even greater sense of exploration that exists here, too. It’s what I love most about Utah. That trails aren’t so much paths as routes, and they are left to personal interpretation and creativity. Few national parks are capable of that sort of freedom, either due to terrain, overuse, or environmental constraints. The rocky terrain, and web of stream beds found in this country, lends itself to this form of travel.
More scrublands, an arrowhead (we left where found) and the fins
As boots filled with desert sand, so too passed the miles. Eventually, we added up the water we had, and confirmed that we had enough to detour into the heart of the Fins. Atop one of the sandstone mounds, we laid our packs down, took in the view its prominence offered, and shook out my shoes.
Before daylight faded entirely, I found myself exactly where I wanted to be. The real and imagined had intersected, if only for a moment.
The Fins aglow, and the moon rising
On this night darkness was absent. A mighty moon, brilliant and blazing, swept onward. It rotated around the Earth like a second sun. It allowed only the brightest stars to shine, but I could compete with neither; I fell asleep long before they would.
October 24, 2023: The lower Fins to the upper Fins
Exploration was the word of the day. Big packs slumbered on while we all set off to explore. First up the left canyon where we found arches, then up the main canyon where we found more arches, then to the end of two other canyons, where our hopes for an exit were squashed, as well as our hopes for water.
Finally, next to a tower, our last arch, Tibbetts arch, was presented. Bill Tibbetts was an outlaw. After his father was killed in an attempt to save a distressed wife from an abusive husband, his young son fell into the rough and tumble life. He blazed his own way through this world, and through these canyons.
Jeff and I knew of a water source we’d used before, so when we returned to camp half a day later, we packed up.
An hour or two later, at the spring we found less water than the year before. Even so, Jeff grabbed up his filter, and went to the pothole. Soon after, I heard Jeff’s disgusted curse followed by an “Ughhhhh!” There are lot of things you don’t want to see floating in your water source, but really only a select few that will make you chew sand and carry on, no matter the sifting, filtering and boiling you may put it through. Let’s just say, we coined this pothole, “Batwater Spring”. Although, I surmised, “Batwater soup” was more fitting. I’m reminded of the worm at the bottom of the mezcal bottle. I laughed when I thought of that. “Bottoms up,” would take on a whole new meaning then!
Some distance later, we arrived at the only marked spring in this region. It consisted of a seep with an old pipe that ended in a cattle trough. It’s some innumerable years old, and rusted up. The water was clear, but upon closer inspection, it was a biome all its own. Fishes and creatures paraded through. And, yet, in comparison to our last offering, this soup was on the menu and we weren’t turning our noses up at it this time.
We continued on a cross country route that wound west and north until it briefly connected to the route Jeff and I took the year before. Since we were looking to take the Chocolate Drops trail back to South Fork Horse Canyon, and our exit, we again detoured, staying near the edge of the upper Fins.
By the time we arrived at camp for that night, in was late afternoon. In a rush, I pitched my tent and soon set off to explore, and to ogle. From my vantage, the light painted a scene from another world, an older world where light and shadow raced through epochs. I stayed out and watched until well past dark. By then, sunlight was exchanged for moonlight. The clouds retreated, and the sky broadened. Silence reined there, on the edge of nowhere, as deep as any I’ve enjoyed.
October 24, 2023: The upper Fins to Highway 24
A forced march through open scrublands was proceeded with exploration of the canyon depths. It was a nice precursor, as once our hiking began, we set a hard pace. Not hard because the hike isn’t beautiful but because sometimes the march has a beat of its own, and you can’t stand in its way.
An exploratory walk into the Fins from above
In a few hours, the Chocolate Drops rose overhead. They peered downward through the ages, much like the night before, only in reverse. Each layer another tale of mystery for geologists and layman’s to ponder. Such a thought sharpens a glint in my eyes. Nature is, after all, such a powerful force. “This world,” it shouts, “is not ruled by humankind.” It’s not even leased or rented. At most, we are leafs clinging to the cottonwood trees far below me. Like them, one day autumn comes, and as a stiff breeze buffeted me, a thousand leafs shook loose below. Another breeze will one day trigger our own spiraling dance toward Earth. Then, with time, we’ll be just one more layer in the rocky monuments above me.
As I reached the first drop off beyond Chocolate Drops, I recalled my last time coming up this way, and smiled. We passed packs to one another from ledges, lowered ourselves from ledges, wandered along ledges, jumped from ledges and got misplaced on ledges. But, in the end, there were no more ledges, and my feet eventually rested, quite happily, on the sands of Pictograph Canyon.
At our final climb, we reversed through the same terrain we’d just come down, only much easier. Even so, it was hard to leave it all behind. So much seen. So many memories carried away, secrets stolen and mysteries unraveled. But these scions of time still wear their wrinkles, their mystery and their secrets– their bare and simple beauty. No amount of exploring, even by us self-described Mazites, will uncover anything more than a few whispers of truth. But even whispers can fill up a human lifetime. All one has to do, is listen.