Packrafting Into the Maze
Canyonlands National Park
March 10-14, 2011
I am a longtime lurker on this site who rarely contributes so I thought this might be a good opportunity to post a trip report, even though “light” backpacking was more of an inspiration than practice on this trip.
I had always wanted to see the Maze. I just didn’t know how I would get there.
The two basic options for getting there are a long dirt road or Colorado River crossing. Inspired by a post in this forum on the subject, I decided to go for the raft option. Sevylor had been making a fairly light packraft that was cheap and light, around three pounds, but it had been discontinued. I was, therefore, forced into get something bigger from the same manufacturer – the Colossus 2 – which weighs in at around 8 pounds with paddles. It retails at Amazon for about $26 shipped (though it looks like the price has gone up recently). It's not exactly ultralight, but the extra weight was a cost I was willing to accept.
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The original trip plan was ambitious. I knew it would be difficult to complete the whole route in three days, and with that in mind, I was ready to pare it down once on the trail. Additionally, I am used to backpacking alone, following an ambitious hiking schedule that usually involves being on the move from dawn until sunset. But for this trip, I invited a friend along and I couldn’t ask him to endure such long days. He is a semi-experienced outdoor traveler, but not really a subscriber to the light backpacking way of life. This became more apparent when I picked up his pack at the trailhead. It weighed somewhere between 50-60 pounds with the raft attached. Mine was probably less than half of that.
We flew into Denver on a Thursday night. After driving to Grand Junction and resting for a few hours we continued onto Moab and Canyonlands.
The alternate route into Moab from Denver along 182 is well worth the few extra minutes drive.
DAY 1 – HIKE TO COLORADO RIVER
The most direct route from the Elephant Hill trailhead to the first destination, the Colorado River, starts with several miles of jeep trail hiking. Total distance to the river is about nine miles.
The jeep trail, while not the most exciting terrain, is the quickest way to head towards the River and the Maze District. The surroundings are still quite scenic, but one must dodge the occasional four-wheel drive enthusiast.
There is one spot on this route where the trail was hidden once we left the four-wheel drive road. It took a little bit of exploring before we found the proper path. There are some spectacular sights in the area especially as the trail crosses Devil’s Lane and Cyclone Canyon.
The final four-mile stretch to Red Lake and Red Lake Canyon was tricky. The trail is maintained infrequently and had been used very little over the winter. The terrain varied from sandy and thorny, at times, in the Red Lake area, to steep and rocky as it descends the side canyon. It was not an easy four miles, especially on such little sleep. But the trail was very scenic, and, at times, sort of reminded me of having a private path to the Grand Canyon. There was not another soul within miles.
We were pretty beaten up by the time we arrived at the Colorado River. The original plan was to cross that afternoon, but I could tell my hiking partner was starting to get tired under his heavy pack. At this point, we made the decision to wait until the next morning to cross the river into the Maze and to it as a day hike. We would aim to get a close as we could to the Harvest Panel and then head back to camp at the river.
One thing worth mentioning is that the weather had been beautiful. High temperatures were close to 70. The skies were almost cloudless. I felt confident enough to sleep without the rain fly that night. It did drop into the 30s that night, but I slept warm and toasty in my 15-degree bag, occasionally peeking up at an infinite number of stars.
DAY 2 – DAY HIKE TO THE MAZE AND BACK
There are a serious set of rapids downstream from the where we camped. The backcountry ranger told us that the river in this area caused more loss of life than anything else in Canyonlands. Because of this, it was advised by just about everyone to put in as far upstream as possible, to leave room for error. The big issue then was eyeing Spanish Bottom on the other side to find a safe place for coming ashore. Much of it was overgrown. Our departure and landing area selected, we decided to get in the water.
I just have to say that I will never do this crossing again in a cheap raft. While there was probably no point where we were in real danger, there was an acute panic and helplessness that set in once the river current began pulling the raft downstream as I paddled across. An experienced rafter might have had better confidence, thereby making the process easier. Because of my uneasiness in the current, I actually aborted the first crossing and returned to the Needles side. After some encouraging words from my friend who made it across successfully, I tried again. The key was only using one paddle and ignoring the flimsy paddle locks on the raft. Two strokes on each side. SWOOSH SWOOSH. Two strokes on the other side. SWOOSH SWOOSH. Don’t panic when the current grabs ahold of the raft. Don’t think of the backcountry ranger warning you about all of the eager young hikers who met their watery deaths on this river. Keep your eyes on the prize on the other side. We ended up about 20 or 30 yards downstream from where we had set off, but on the water it feels like the shore is passing at a mile per minute.
Having successfully crossed the Colorado, it was onto the Doll House. We spent a little bit of time trail finding, and, at the very least, we got to explore the northern gulch at Spanish Bottom. After consulting the map, we found the proper trail at the southern end. It’s worth noting that Spanish Bottom is a relatively large area and the trails are not easily found. The Trails Illustrated Maze Map is highly recommended for a backpacker unfamiliar with the area.
I was excited to have made the crossing successfully. Our riverside camping spot is located somewhere near my left hand.
Having climbed the mile or so from Spanish Bottom up to the Doll House, the next hike was along a three-mile sandy jeep trail to Chimney Rock. As we were hiking away from the Doll House, eyes slightly squinted to guard against the morning sun, a slight movement and sharp hiss came from the trail about 15 feet in front of me. My firm belief that snakes were banned from being active during the month of March now in tatters, I was 150 feet in the other direction a split second later. My friend graciously volunteered to take some pictures of the highly venomous but otherwise bored creature. I believe this was a midget faded rattlesnake, a species common to the area.
The three miles of jeep road to Chimney Rock are not exactly exciting, but the scenery is pretty incredible.
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Finally we arrived at Chimney Rock. This is a good place to get your bearings before entering the Maze proper: in the center of the Maze are the Chocolate Drops, bounding to the left is Elaterite Butte, and bounding to the right is Pete’s Mesa. Granted, it is still incredibly easy to get lost even with these geographic features in mind, but it still helps to have some general sense of where these things are.
From Chimney Rock, there are four or five trails that split off, so it’s a good time to check the map. Going clockwise from the south, there is the jeep trail back to the Dollhouse, jeep trail to the Golden Stairs, an unnamed canyon trail, Pete’s Mesa trail, and the Shot Canyon trail. We took the unnamed canyon trail.
Heading towards the Maze proper from Chimney Rock the landscape is flat and descends only slightly. Very slowly an immense network of canyons comes into view.
This trail, which is well marked by cairns, heads slightly towards Elaterite Butte before dropping into a canyon.
The otherworldliness of the geology in the area becomes apparent during the approaches to the canyons. Thin layers of rock, pockmarked by millions of years of wind erosion, are stacked one on top of the other hundreds of feet at a time. Somewhere in the middle of all of this is a trail to the bottom of the canyon.
The trail became pretty confusing once we reached the bottom of the canyon. This was even more true finding the trail on the way back. There are a myriad of side canyons, gulches, and ravines in which one could very easily get lost, so it’s important to take note of surroundings and trail markings.
The terrain seemed pretty unspoiled. We didn’t really see anyone else the entire day. Unfortunately, though, since we only had one day pack between us, we had to turn around at this point and head back to camp on the Needles side.
Lots of terrific views to make the hike back easy, though.
The view down towards Spanish Bottom
The river crossing back did not disappoint. We made it across just as the sun was going down.
DAY 3 – BACK TO ELEPHANT HILL
This is the camp on the Colorado River. It is about two-thirds of a mile upstream from where the trail comes down the canyon. There is a lot of brush and vegetation along the river, so camp sites take some finding. This upstream spot was chosen since it provided more margin of error for making the crossing into the Maze District and Spanish Bottom across the River. Why? About a mile or so downstream is Cataract Canyon, which contains some pretty serious rapids.
The slog back out of the canyon was not easy. The first five miles are extremely steep and rocky. Adding to this, was the lack of a clear trail at certain points.
Once we reached the top of the canyon it was much easier going. There is one spot in Red Lake, though, that is very overgrown with brambles. Crunching throw that, I was waiting for a rattlesnake to attach itself to my leg, given the encounter from the day before. But no such luck on this day.
The last three miles on the dirt road was a straight ahead burn with very little stopping. The fact that the finish line was so near makes it easier to push ahead despite whatever tiredness had set it. Finally, the trailhead and parking lot came into view.
Their life purposes fulfilled, the rafts met their heroic end here.
This was an extremely satisfying hike. While I think I could have covered more ground hiking by myself, it was more comfortable having someone along owing to the remoteness of the area. There is a trail down to the river from the Water Canyon area that is not on the official Park map, which would have made for a terrific 13-mile raft trip to Spanish Bottom, but that is for another time. Thanks to BPL members for all of their emails and help with planning this trip.
NOTES ON LOGISTICS:
Backcountry permits and a park pass are needed to do this hike. I also recommend checking with Hans Flat Ranger station for water sources, as they vary by season. That said, the veteran Hans Flat ranger with whom I spoke on the phone was slightly rude and impatient. The other backcountry rangers at Canyonlands, on the other hand, were extremely helpful and eager to discuss trails and routing. It is also worth noting that two private outfits run Colorado River crossings at Spanish Bottom for backpackers, thereby negating the need to lug a raft 10 miles. These companies’ crossings begin at the end of March (the week after my hike, unfortunately) and run through the end of the season.
The river patrol rangers with whom I spoke would not flat out say this but they heavily implied that river crossings without toilet, flotation device, and repair kit were okay so long as no downstream travel was attempted. Downstream travel means more red tape.
Maze trail map
Needles trail map
More pics, better pics, and bigger pics here:
*Maze Journey on Flickr*