Four Days in The Maze

Across the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park lies The Maze.

Receiving only 12,000 visitors a year, The Maze holds an allure for anyone who dreams of canyons, ancient travel paths, and the rugged, wild, and awesome country of The Colorado Plateau.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit it three times now.

Once on my solo walk across Utah back in 2017, again this past November, and for a third time over Presidents Day Weekend with Joan.

And the third trip might be the best yet.

No coincidence, the most extended trip in this special place is perhaps my favorite. And getting to share the journey with a like-minded wilderness soul only set the trip up as a higher bar for future backpacking trips.

No matter how much time we walked along the red rock and canyons of The Maze, it will never be enough.

Joan and I easily could have spent five, six, or even seven days out there, and we’d still not have seen it all.

And I know we’ll be back again.

Note: The info on how we crossed over at Spanish Bottom is towards the end of this article.  


Our trip started appropriately enough for us on Valentine’s Day.

We did not have reservations at the hot new restaurant in town. But we did have four days planned to be in one of the more remote parts of Utah. And I think that qualifies as romantic for us.

After a reasonably quick drive to the trailhead, we hiked through the Needles District of Canyonlands and made our way to the Colorado River.

And, as always, we merely followed the path of many centuries.

We soon made our way down “The Grabens” with its many signs of ancient sea life.

We reached an overlook and could see across the river to our waiting destination.

Joan with The Doll House to the right and in the background.

And further down, we went through the layers of rocks. Finally making to the Paradox formation and the Colorado River itself at Spanish Bottom.

We soon found it time to cross the river and enter The Maze.

Though Joan has minimal experience with a packraft, she has much more extensive experience with kayaking than me and made the trip quickly. I followed behind in my less elegant, but effective, fashion.

We stashed the rafts away for retrieving on the way back, grabbed some water, and then made our way up to the Doll House.

I always thought of the Doll House as the antechamber to The Maze. The towering spires and multicolored layers of rock seemed especially inspiring in the later afternoon light.

We made it to a place I camped near before. And the views still did not disappoint.

The evening light show, in particular, seemed especially memorable.

The intense night sky above ended the first perfect day.

The following morning, we made our way to another canyon where we would do an out and back to a well-known panel. Though not technical, the descent did require some moderate scrambling at times.

We made our initial way along the empty road.

On the quiet, later winter day, the jeep track seems more like a wide trail.

And in the past, no doubt many people walked along the same path.

A lithic.

We made our way into the canyon bottom.

I love meandering along these broader, less technical canyons with the walls climbing to the sky. To me, they are the most scenic types of canyons in the area. Walking these canyons, I feel immersed in a different world.

We reached our destination and took in the mix of Ancestral Pueblo and Barrier-era images.

The pictograph Barrier Era panel, in particular, contained an immense amount of detail.

We then retraced our steps out of the canyon and made our way back to the still empty jeep track.

Getting towards dusk, we overlooked where we planned to spend our third day of travel.

And we continued to enjoy our walking in that magical winter light.

A sheltered nook protected us from the evening wind, and we soon fell asleep.

We briefly continued along the road the following morning.

And then we turned south in the area on the map labeled “Ernies Country.”  An area full of lower and less steep canyons, but no less magical.

The area saw old cattle trails in the 1930s during the CCC era, and two springs still show the work of this period.

A quiet oasis in the desert.

And, again, a place long visited.

Glass shards of 80+ yrs old next to a lithic of 800+ yrs old.

Images in the spring alcove.

Soon later, we reached a side canyon we wanted to see.

A canyon full of more impressive imagery.

The petroglyphs embedded in the pictographs intrigued me. We can only guess at the meaning and purpose so many centuries later.

Further, in our travels, Joan spotted some petrified wood. Something not found in the immediate area. How and why did it arrive here?  

We joined the main canyon again and continued to make our way back towards the Colorado River.

The topography changed again, and we entered a broader, more open area. We could see The Doll House in the distance.

And at a prominent and high boulder, at a canyon junction, a hunch paid off. We saw a panel not listed in guidebooks and not one I saw listed online.

But more than the imagery, seeing all the lithics and potsherds around the site meant few visited in this already lightly visited area.

And Joan even spotted some “Black on white”  Mesa Verde-style pottery sherds.

A long journey to this remote part of the Colorado Plateau now…or nearly 900 years ago.

Our journey continued through this part of The Maze.

And we continued to see evidence that people passed this way to reach a Colorado River crossing for many generations.

We put ourselves in a good position for the Colorado River float the following morning. And enjoyed one last evening light show.

The following morning, we made our descent back to Spanish Bottom, grabbed our pack rafts, and floated back across the Colorado River.

Safely across again, we made our way through the layers of rock.

And we soon arrived back to our waiting vehicle.

We concluded four days in The Maze. And we are already planning future trips.

As I said many times before, I enjoyed my longer hikes. But these shorter trips into the back of beyond over the years add immeasurable richness to life.

And I don’t think Joan, and I would have it any other way.


Getting to The Maze via packraft

After my November trip, and once I posted some of the photos on social media, people asked a fair amount of how we made it across to The Maze.

So this section will answer some of the basic logistic questions.

The Options

  • You can catch a jet boat from Moab to Spanish Bottom and back. About two-hours each way and $170 total for both trips per person.
  • You can drive to various places in The Maze. From Moab, you are talking an all-day drive on some rough 4WD road. Assuming you have the right vehicle, the skillset, the equipment, and if the way’s open.
    • You can drive from Hite, UT via a different way, but that route takes even longer than the already 9-hour drive to the Doll House via Hans Flat Ranger Station
    • Some people do drive to the Golden Stairs Trailhead, and that road is usually stock 4WD friendly. That drive takes about 4.5 hrs and the hike in, of course.
    • Another option is to hike about 15 miles from the 2WD accessible Hans Flat Ranger station to The Maze Overlook. As The_Stickerbumper on Reddit stated:
      “I will add that if you are a resonably fast hiker but don’t have a 4WD that can make it down those roads, then it’s about half a day to hike from the ranger station to the Maze Overlook. And it’s a pretty hike, both ways!  ”  Not much longer time-wise driving than from Moab to Needles, either.  About 3hrs.
  • Of you can go in via packraft in various ways. We opted to go in via Spanish Bottom via the Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail as it is quicker and logistically easier.  Since we were floating across, and not traveling on the river for any length, more accessible that way too.  Once across, we hiked the visible and maintained trail on the other side of Spanish Bottom up to The Doll House to get into The Maze proper.
    • There are two apparent places were people launch or land going to and from the Needles. When you look across the river, you can see these places easily. I recommend the eddy heading downriver when floating TO The Maze, and launching from the site that is upriver a bit when going back to the Needles side of the river. Both places have carved in dirt steps and cut wood steps, too.
    • Please read the Canyonlands NP excellent info on packrafting for more details. 

The trailhead to start if packrafting

You can begin at the Confluence Overlook Trail at Spring Cayon and hike about 10 miles, or Elephant Hill near Chesler Park and hiking about nine miles.  Only a one-mile difference, but the jeep road walk option is more direct and easier hiking overall for bulky backpacks schlepping a raft, oars, and other equipment. Meaning, more time in The Maze!   A passenger car can get down this well-maintained road to the main Elephant Hill Road trailhead.   And I find the Elephant Hill jeep road scenic. And then there’s a road closure in February.

Map for overview purposes only; not for navigation.


The Packrafts

There is no way I can cover all the packraft options, so I’ll talk about three options I am familiar with:

The Dirtbag Option – The Intex 200

For $20, the Intex 200 is good enough for very simple floats and flatwater conditions. I used it on my first Maze trip back in Nov 2017. It is heavy at 8lbs and bulky, but it works!  Esp since you can stash it after a crossing, the weight might not be too bad. Long a choice for dirtbag canyoneering folks who need to make quick floats.

The Budget Option – Klymit LiteWater Dinghy Packraft

From “Patman” on Trailspace

I know people who used this raft for similar crossings. At $100 +/-  (a new model just came out for $130, the older model is sub-$100). The listed specs are generous, and it is closer to 3 lbs. Still, lighter than the above option and more durable.

If you go with the Dirtbag or the Budget option, I suggest kayak paddles rather than oars as I found out, much easier to control this way.

The Deluxe Option – The Alpacka Scout

Joan paddling at Ken’s Lake near our home.

A splurge for us, but we picture us doing more flatwater travel beyond just quick floats. Though not meant for white water, more straightforward rapids should not be out of the question once we get our skills dialed in a bit. When/If we get into more substantial white water travel,  we’ll have to get different packrafts. But, I have different skis for various uses, too.  Until then, future plans involve more extended flatwater travel on the river with this purchase.

Trip Planning Resources for The Maze

We found the following resources invaluable for trip planning. Use these resources for your trips as well.

And a video

For the more visually inclined, I put together a more detailed video of the actual crossing.

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John D
4 years ago

It seems to have been raining since August, here in Scotland, and now snow is hitting the window so this enjoyable post is timely. I may have to start planning a trip for next year. The combination of scenery, history and weather that you found is a powerfully attractive. Thank you for writing up your trip report.

6 months ago

Hi Paul–I am interested in backpacking in The Maze with friends this Spring. Do you have any idea when the daytime temps get too hot? Do you have any idea what the time window is for somewhat reliable water sources to have water is? Thanks!