More time in The Maze

Isolation is more than just mere miles from a road or how far a person walks into a place.

If you look at a map of the Moab area, many places seem so close.

From where I sit, Geyser Pass is only sixteen miles away in the La Sal Mountains.  Yet it is a drive that takes about an hour or so.

Similarly, the Hans Flat Ranger Station at the lightly visited “Maze District” of Canyonlands National Park is only 41 miles as the flying crow people like to discuss.

Yet it is over 3 hours of driving on some rough roads for the last part.  It feels distant.

And if you follow the ancient travels path of canyon and river that connects the area more directly, you get an even better feel for how terrain can make places feel isolated.

“The Maze” only sees 12,000 visitors a year. Compare that to Arches National Park with its over 1.5 million annual visitors a year, and the stark difference in accessibility becomes readily apparent.

I’ve visited this fabled area before, and I’ve only hit the highlights. We want to see more.

Joan and I planned a long weekend to visit the area and see a part of “The Maze” new to both of us.

We planned a lollipop that took in a hiking trail and a one-mile road walk of about 6.5 miles. At a moderate pace, a little over three hours of hiking. Or slightly long hiking time vs. driving if we started the hike from “The Maze Overlook.”    The road makes a circuitous and rough drive that is doable with our stock 4WD truck but not necessarily more fun than a hike in a broad, non-technical canyon that takes less time to travel to get to a part of our loop.

Shortly after we popped out of this canyon, we reached the border of The Maze District proper and found our unmarked but the cairned route into a canyon.

Fall has fewer reliable water sources than spring esp. in a drought year. The one-gallon of water plus three+ days of food indeed became noted as we worked our way down the canyon.

We found a perfect campsite for cowboy camping on the slick rock to bring in our first evening. The stars above proved nothing short of spectacular.

The following day, we continued to follow the canyon and observe images reminiscent of other area panels.

The day became hot, and our water ran low.

However, not far from a canyon junction, we found a site that brings happiness to any high desert hiker: A running spring with deep pools.

Joan and I spent a few hours exploring the immediate area, finding other panels, and just enjoying this oasis.

Another canyon had trail markers of sorts if you looked up in the right way.

And soon after, we camped near another oasis with more deep pools.

From there, we decided to hike out the following day and leave another canyon for another day. A day spent in the nearby Horseshoe Canyon (by car, and by foot if you look at the map) beckoned instead.

Another dazzling night sky brought in the night.

The following day we hiked up The Maze Overlook. Or perhaps scrambled might be a more accurate word with some Moki steps, chimneying, ledge walking, and a bit of a rope haul to get our water laden packs up to canyon rim.

I think Joan, in particular, became pleased after every obstacle crossed. 🙂

But the views from the top of the canyon made the difficulty more than worth the effort.

We made our way through the trail we walked in on before. But with fewer supplies and much water, we made excellent progress on a gorgeous temperate day.

We popped out of the canyon and did the brief road walk to our truck. A cold drink later and some fruit, we did the not-so-quick drive to the ranger station, checked in, asked a few questions for a future trip already planned, and went to Horseshoe Canyon for the second part of our journey.  But we know we’ll be back again in the spring!


A word about our logistics:

Getting to the Hans Flat Ranger station is on a washboard dirt road. A 4WD vehicle is not 100% necessary, but very useful.  I saw a small AWD SUV there, for example.  Do not go on these roads if wet!

However, getting past the ranger station, the NPS pretty much mandates a 4WD vehicle with good clearance and 4HI/4LO with the appropriate supplies.

Some roads are rougher than others.  The Hans Flats Ranger Station has the most current road conditions posted outside. Call ahead first, of course.

We drive a Totoya Tacoma SR5 with 4WD. Good enough for “rough roads” as designated by the NPS.  However, the rough roads sometimes take as long, if not longer, to drive than the more direct canyon hiking paths that follow ancient routes.  If can look at a map, there is an obvious trail not far from the ranger station that leads to a loop that takes in a longer canyon, and then goes to The Maze Overlook for a climb up and then back along the same way for a total of about 30 miles or so. With side trips in other canyons, a mellow 3.5-day lollipop style trip.

Water is, of course, the other issue.  The Hans Flat Ranger station water report proved spot on.  Some people cache water for the way back at a prominent junction to eliminate carrying more water on the climb up The Maze Overlook trail. It’s mainly a downhill walk to the intersection, so stashing two liters of water each would be something I’d do differently. But not a deal-breaker.

Speaking of The Maze Overlook trail,  yes, it is a scramble. With light packs, not hard at all with careful footing.  With a pack full of water and assisting a partner? Take your time, be patient with your partner, and enjoy the views. 🙂  About 5 meters of rope proved useful in one spot to assist Joan so she could climb up without a pack.  Going up, there are two places the proved tricky overall with three places with very moderate climbing.  Climbing up, I find it easier than down climbing. But you do get to the excellent water below The Maze Overlook quicker (11 miles or about 5 hrs of hiking vs the ~4 hr drive) if you want to base yourself out of there for a few days vs. the more traditional backpacking loop we did. YMMV.

As usual, we find Gaia GPS layers, the NatGeo overview map, and Kelsey’s densely written but accurate guide always helpful.

Go forth, have fun, and happy exploring!

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3 years ago

Excellent write-up, as usual. My family did some exploring on the not-to-be-taken-lightly 4WD roads in the Needles this summer. Yeah, most the time, I would rather have been hiking or biking. But it did allow us to get 25 gallons of water into the backcountry. I can’t wait to explore the Maze and this post will help.

3 years ago

Fabulous pics, Paul and Joan! You certainly do live in a diverse area for exploring.
I’m in Northern AZ and, unfortunately, cannot ever get out this time of the year (my favorite) due to the endless hunting seasons here.
I’m just not willing to wear orange and take the risk. Hopefully, December will bring pleasant temps, not too much snow, and the opportunity to get back to what I enjoy.
Thanks again for sharing your most recent adventure!