Saturday, April 7
The forecast for our week in the desert is pretty good : warm and dry. I awake, however, at 4am, to the sound of rain -- strong rain -- falling on the tent. "Crap!", I think, "the forecast is wrong! What's with this rain? The roads leading into the Maze will be impassible!". I hope the strong shower will soon pass, but it doesn't. My spirits continue to sink, and I have a quick peek outside the tent to see how bad things look.
See that glistening grass?
I notice stars above. Strange, I think... how is it I can see stars, and lots of them, with such a deluge? I then become aware of a hissing sound that is accompanying the rain. Hissing -- as in, sprinkler system hissing! Pretty upside-down-bowl shapes of water have sprung up all along our little stretch of front lawn, which is apparently mined with inset sprinklers, and they had come on precisely at 4am! And one of them is practically under our tent.
[on our 'faux' rainstorm]
"When we moved the tent out of the direct line of sprinklers, I was thinking that it might be best to move the tent way away from the sprinklers onto some very dead looking grass (all that grass around us had to be staying green somehow), but in the early morning exhaustion we moved the tent only a couple of feet away. All went well until 5 am as I was packing up the gear inside the tent, the ground lifted up underneath it and it was sprinkler city all over again! Arggg! Everything that was finally dry was soaked again."
Muttering and cursing about having to camp in a sprinkler field, and of being woken up so early, and about our gear getting soaked, we quickly get up and relocate our tent far enough away from the sputtering sprinkler system, and get a few more winks of shut-eye before getting up at 5am. Bleary-eyed and grumpy about our faux-rainstorm, we gather around the vehicles (there's no picnic tables or campsites on the front lawn) and have a cold breakfast.
"many accounts describe The Maze District as one of the most remote spots in the lower 48 states"
We have a full day ahead of us. We need to drive to our trailhead in the Maze and backpack in a ways before setting up camp. That may seem straightforward, especially since it is early (6am) and it is only about 150km from where we are to the trailhead. But things are not so simple in the Maze. Of that 150km of driving, about 125km is off-pavement. And some of it is REALLY off-pavement. In fact, some would have difficulty classifying some of it as a road. As a result, the park gives a rough estimate of SIX hours to drive from the start of the Hans Flat road to the Land of Standing Rocks in the Maze District.
Directions to the Maze
We also have to pick up our backpacking and camping permits. Although I've reserved them in advance, the park requires you to stop at a ranger station to actually get the permits. I think this is so that they can suss you out, make sure you give somewhat of an aura of experience, and also so they can give you the spiel about what you can and can't do while backpacking in the park.
We want to make absolutely sure we have enough gas to get in and out, so we hop over to the 24-hour Hollow Mountain gas station and avail ourselves of the automated pumps. The part of Canyonlands we're going to is very remote, and running out of fuel and getting a tow will cost ya at least a bill, maybe more!
The edge of civilization
After gassing up, we head north up Utah 24. It is pre-dawn, and the road is ramrod-straight, cutting north through the San Rafael Desert. Dim shapes of colorful desert scenery start to emerge out of the gloom. It isn't long before we reach a non-descript junction with a small, brown sign. This is where 'terra incognita' starts for me. This is the road to Hans Flat -- the first stage of our journey into the Maze.
Heading off pavement
Canyonlands is a park I've visited before, but it is quite large and is divided into three distinct districts: The Island-in-the-Sky District, the Needles District, and the Maze District. Each has a unique character, and each is wonderful in its own way. The first two districts are easily accessible, and I've visited them before. The Maze District, the last of the three, is a very remote area. In fact, many accounts describe The Maze District as one of the most remote spots in the lower 48 states. Cool! We're (or at least I am) excited about exploring this new and rarely visited part of the Utah Desert!
It is a long drive into the Maze, as I've said before. The first segment of our journey is to drive the well-graded road across the San Rafael desert to the ranger station at Hans Flat. Hans Flat is the only park ranger station for this side of Canyonlands National Park. It isn't even in the park, strictly speaking, but is rather in the Glen Canyon National Recreation area, which sandwiches the National Park on this side. The ranger station is the last outpost for us, where we'll get our permits and our spiel.
The first part of our remote drive is simple - the Hans Flat road is wide and well, graded, if a little dusty. We first cross big flat areas of the San Rafael Desert, past the 'Flat Tops', then past a spot with a small field of sand dunes, where we stop and get some nice early morning pictures, and then gradually up through various other flats to Hans Flat, where we encounter the nice little ranger station in a forest of pinyon pine and utah serviceberry.
The small complex of the Hans Flat Ranger Station is neat: There is the station itself to one side, and on the other is a nicely maintained, modern outhouse. Behind are several residences and a maintainence facility.
Green power source
Just off a side road is a large array of solar panels -- one of the 'green' features of this little outpost of humanity. It was installed so that the primary source of power could be something other than a continuously running diesel generator. It [the solar array] also has a very nifty powerless auto-tracking feature. From the NPS website
: "Within each frame, freon is heated by the sun. Once the freon begins to boil, vapors condense on the side of the frame which is in shadow and therefore colder. This process moves weight around in such a way that the panels will always orient themselves toward the sun"
. Tres cool -- literally.
Reorganizing at Hans Flat
We've arrived slightly before the opening time of 8:30am, which we use to have a quick breakfast on a picnic table in front of the station. I've tried to schedule our day such that we get our permits and are on our way as soon as possible -- if the road takes as long as promised, then we need every minute possible to reach the trailhead before it gets too late. Plus, who knows what scenic wonders we'll just have to spot and enjoy while on the drive? Stops for scenic wonders take time.
A video account of the drive along the Hans Flat Road:
Hans Flat Road - Click on video above to start
Scoping out maps
At 8:30, the ranger-lady opens up the station and Ewart and I head in. We state that we're here for our permits and the ranger tells us that she must give ALL of us an information session before she can give us our permits. We browse a bit (there are books and maps and such for sale at the station), while we wait for the others to finish their breakfast.
Maze Topo Map
Once everyone's in the station and paying attention, the ranger goes through the "dos" and "donts" of our trip into the Maze. Mostly the list consisted of "donts". Most prominent on the list were (and the "donts" are in bold to emphasize the seriousness in which they were told to us):
1) keep off the fragile desert cryptobiotic soil
2) don't disturb or take any historic artifacts (including any sort of chert chip that is remotely wedge-shaped);
3) while backpacking, pack out any toilet paper you use
4) camping group size no greater than five people
(as a result of #4, we need to split into two camp groups, camping at least 1 mile apart from each other (because we were 6, one over the max 5 group size. And our request for an eeny exception to camp together with only one over the limit is flatly denied)
Getting the lowdown
But wait, there's more! On our last day in the Maze, we reserved a backcountry vehicle campsite. These are specific sites along the jeep roads for people with vehicles. The rules at these sites are such that you must (a) pack out your 'business' as well as your TP, and (b) you must pack it out in special chemical toilet bags. I'd never even heard about these bags before this trip, but I did do my research, and I had picked up a pack of 12 of these bags (the particular ones I bought are called 'wag bags'). Pretty strict rules in this park!
Bright morning at Ranger Station
With all of the 'pleasantries' out of the way, it was time to head off. We were keen to forge ahead and explore this mysterious, remote land. I was looking forward even to the drive, which promised to be an event in itself. Maze, here we come!
The next stage of our journey into the maze is on the 'Flint Trail'. This narrow, sometimes rough route allows us to get from the Hans Flat ranger station, high on its plateau at over 6,000 feet, down a couple of formidable drops in the landscape on the way to the maze. The Flint trail was originally used by cattle ranchers and was improved a little during the Uranium Boom of the 1950s, before this place became a National Park. I say 'little', because this is no four-lane Interstate.
I am Dirty
The flint trail starts just behind the ranger station (well, actually, I'm not sure if that's the actual start of the flint trail, but there's a sign behind the ranger station that says 'flint trail ->', so I'm going on that). It starts off fairly easily, heading south through more pinyon-pine-juniper forested benchland. It is narrower, and a little rougher, but not too bad. Any 2wd vehicle with reasonable clearance could make this section.
As we head south on the flint trail, we stop at the first of several beautiful overlooks. It is our first real look into the landscape of Canyonlands on this trip. The first overlook is right at the edge of the Orange Cliffs. The cliffs are the edge of the plateau we've been driving around on for the last while, and they go on, sinuously, for a hundred miles in either direction. We're standing on a section that runs north-south, and from our viewpoint we look out east over a vast, classic western landscape. It appears wild and uninhabited, for as far as the eye can see. Wide sage-dotted basins with monumental sandstone buttes are arrayed here and there like battleships. The scenery continues, on and on, to a hazy horizon, upon which high mountains are faintly visible. Simply fantastic.
Soon we reach another overlook -- the Flint Trail Overlook. Specifically, this overlooks a very specific part of the Flint Trail, namely, the Flint Trail Switchbacks. This is the spot where the Flint trail exploits a weakness in the otherwise sheer Orange Cliffs and switchbacks steeply down into Big Water Canyon below. Off in the distance, we get our first hazy glimpse of the mysterious maze itself. From this distance, it looks like a knobbly stretch of beige rock.
A Flint Trail Switchback
The overlook is spectacular, much like the previous overlook. This time, though, we can see a ribbon of orange snaking back and forth down a steep-but-not-vertical spot in the Orange Cliffs. The road switchbacks sharply several times near the top, and then more gently near the bottom. The road then straightens out and abruptly changes color where it reaches the strata of rock underlying the Wingate sandstone of the Orange Cliffs. Because I've read that the switchback portion is very narrow with no room to pass oncoming traffic, we carefully peer all along the road for as far as we can see, and there are no other cars. ok, we're good to go!
The Distant Maze
In a few minutes, we've gone from the Overlook to the start of the Flint Trail Switchbacks. The road approaches the edge of the Orange Cliffs in a quite ordinary manner, and then suddenly dives steeply down. Ewart, Jenn and others get out to survey this cool bit of road, while Luke and I switch to 4wd-Low and start to inch down the slope. It is one lane wide, and steep, but not overly uneven or technical (at the top, just before the road descends, is a wide area where cars not willing to drive down can park).
[on driving in on the Flint Trail]
"Now this is cool. A winding dirt road, with super tight hairpins, and steep enough drops to warrant some serious attention to gear selection and brakes. I'm loving this and my passengers are bearing up well (given the fact that neither Soph nor Catherine are big fans of car travel in general!). The weather is gorgeous and the scenery spectacular..."
We take our time, taking scenic shots here and there. Halfway down, we notice another truck has approached the bottom of the switchbacks, but the driver has spotted us, and has stopped and is waiting for us to complete our descent.
Start of the Switchbacks
I discover that, strictly speaking, it isn't necessary [to avoid heading down if another vehicle is coming up], although it is probably good courtesy. The descriptions I've read on the 'net are either overblown, or are out of date. The switchbacks, while sharp, all have nicely graded runoff areas. Areas big enough for two or three vehicles, and more than ample enough to allow easy turning around and for other vehicles to pass. Have a look at some of the pictures and you'll see what I mean. We stop loitering quite so much and make our way down to the bottom, so that the vehicle below can start their way up.
Down the Flint Trail
At this point, we're slightly ahead of my time estimates for the drive in. Will the rest of the way to the Land of Standing Rocks be not as difficult as predicted?
Below the Flint Trail Switchbacks, the Flint Trail becomes quite easy again. The road looks like its been graded recently, and it is reasonably wide. We switch back to 2wd and the going is fairly easy, although very scenic. The trail winds east out of Big Water Canyon and turns south again, staying on a bench below the Orange Cliffs and above the cliffs of the Moenkopi formation. Eventually the road will find its way down these lower cliffs, and once below, we'll be at our destination level: the level of the Maze.
A video account of the drive down the famous Flint Trail Switchbacks:
The Flint Trail - Click on video above to start
Junction to Maze Overlook
As the trail winds south, we get better and better glimpses of our destination. The Land of Standing Rocks is quite visible, although still far off, with its namesake standing rocks appearing as tiny little pimples and sticks on the great flat of the earth. The tawny sections to the left and right of the Land of Standing Rocks mark the areas of the Maze itself. I imagine the multitude of deep defiles that are hidden within.
As we wind south, we pass the junction with the road leading to the Maze Overlook. After that, we begin to see down into the upper reaches of Teapot Canyon, and our route parallels, in reverse, the Land of Standing Rocks Jeep trail, which leads in the opposite direction below us. We'll be on this road in a little while, heading towards the Land of Standing Rocks. For now, though, we're forced by the restrictions of topography to drive a long way to the south in order to find an easy way down to the land below. We can see the Land of Standing Rocks Jeep trail below us at various overlooks. It doesn't look too bad from up here, but I know that if there's going to be challenging and rough going on our drive today, it'll be in this section.
Mother and Child in distance
Driving beneath the Orange Cliffs
Standing Rocks Jeep Trail
After pretty straightforward backroad driving (no 4wd required, but a few rough spots encountered), we descend down through the Moenkopi cliffs and reach a broad flat area known as Waterhole Flat. Here we reach a prominent junction: straight ahead is an access road leading out to Highway 95 and the town (if you can call it that) of Hite. To the left is where we're headed, to the Land of Standing Rocks.
Land of Standing Rocks Junction
We've noticed that we have consumed about a third of a tank of gas getting here, and I'm mildly concerned, because we still have a little way to go, and we need to get all the way out again. No gas stations in the Maze! I'm thinking that we will probably exit via the road to Highway 95 and to Hite, and so we'll probably be ok.
Now, apparently, the fun stuff is supposed to begin. We're doing good timewise, and the distance to the Land of Standing Rocks is less than 20 miles away, and probably closer to 15. How long can it take to go 15 miles, anyway? Well, as it turns out, apparently, a lot!