Entering the Maze
Saturday, April 7
Teapot Canyon Roughness
At first, the Land of Standing Rocks Jeep Road is a flat one-lane track that leads east across Waterhole Flat. Very soon, though, it reaches the area of upper Teapot Canyon, and the rough stuff arrives, as predicted.
The upper reaches of Teapot Canyon are a series of shallow drainages, each of which must be crossed by the road. These drainages have many sections of bare, rough slabs and ledges of white sandstone, and it is in these sections that we encounter the roughest part of our entire drive in.
Ewart points the way
The road is in places simply a marked route across short stretches of naked bedrock. Ewart is impressed with the tortuosness of this 'road' (and even exclaims that his Civic couldn't manage it.... which is true: his Civic would have its undercarriage ripped out by it!).
In this section, we need to go slow and we need spotters. Having bone-stock Jeep Liberties means we don't have the luxury of having lift-kits, nor do these Jeeps have skid plates, so we need a bit of extra care to ensure we don't scrape the undercarriage of our vehicles on the rough stuff. By rough stuff, I mean: pointy boulders and rocks, sandstone ledges and drop-offs, sudden dips and rises, and sections of laterally and diagonally uneven surfaces (the kind of thing that forces opposite corners of the vehicle to be unweighted, forcing the suspension to articulate and sometimes resulting in wheels coming off of the ground).
A video account of the rough jeep driving in Teapot Canyon:
Teapot Canyon Jeep Road - Click on video above to start
All of this is actually kind of fun (and Ewart, with his love of 'boulder-gardening', loves the running around and stuffing boulders and rocks under the wheels). It goes on, and on, and on, though, and does get a bit tedious after a while.
A few steep sections
Catherine is totally sea-sick in the back of her Jeep, and so she's taken to walking alongside outside -- something perfectly doable since our average speed is no faster than a fast hiking pace. The other non-drivers also get out, stretch their legs, take pictures and movies and in general hang around. This is Luke's first exposure to technical Jeeping, and he's doing very well -- although I think he's a bit worried about damaging his Jeep.
"Ewart, with his love of 'boulder-gardening', loves the running around and stuffing boulders and rocks under the wheels"
I know that the end of the really rough stuff is marked by a distinctive double tower formation known as the mother-and-child, and I can see it in the distance. It grows larger at a maddenly slow pace. After almost three hours of 'technical' Jeeping, we finally reach it. Three hours to go less than 10 miles.
Approaching mother and child
After all this rough driving, I'm feeling a bit drained -- and I haven't even started hiking yet! The rough stuff is behind us, though, and that's good. It is past 3pm and we need to get the first part of our backpack started soon!
Entering the Maze District
In a few more minutes, we arrive at the actual boundary of Canyonlands National Park [Maze District] (as you may recall, we'd been in the neighbouring Glen Canyon National Recreation Area for most of the drive in). We've finally arrived!
[on Technical Jeeping in Teapot Canyon]
"Whew! This is tiring work. The concentration required is pretty intense - more so than I thought. I'm hyper-sensitive to what each wheel is doing, where each tire is, and how much ground clearance we have as we lumber up and down the rather impressive inclines. I watch Andrew's routes over obstacles carefully, and get annoyed when he romps off out of sight ahead of me. The challenge is taking a toll on me and I become snappy and irritable. It's hot and slow, and as the day progresses I find myself fighting the temptation to hurry because I want it to be over. After several long hours of it, I'm not having fun any more. Luckily, Sophie is doing a great job spotting for me, Ewart is hefting good sized rocks into strategic positions for me to drive over, and Andrew is guiding me along from the Jeep in front - small things it may seem, but they all help me get through the latter part of this day. Upon reflection, I realized that it wasn't the actual activity of driving the Jeep that took the enjoyment out of it for me later on, it was the stress of potentially making costly (dangerously critical?) mistakes."
"I'm not sure which is more fun... twisty roads or super 4x4! I loved it, but spent most of my time outside helping to build rock structures with Ewart and Sophie, and a bit of filming too. I was impressed by Andrew and Luke's stamina. The driving must have been exhausting!"
The landscape has become more gentle: we are entering the Land of Standing Rocks, and in the near distance we can see many dark red ochre-colored formations sticking out of a pinyon and pine-dotted flat. This dark red rock is known as the Organ Rock Shale, and it is a very soft layer. In fact, these standing rocks are the last remnants of a thick layer of the stuff that used to cover this whole area.
In the far distance to the north are the large, prominent buttes that have been visible to us for most of the day. In the foreground, off to one side of the Land of Standing Rocks, we can see a sea of tawny, convoluted looking bumpy rock. This is more than just uneven ground: what is concealed from us at this shallow angle is a labyrinthine, twisting collection of canyons, side canyons, and side-side canyons. It is the heart of the Maze.
The standing rock formations are arrayed about in a very scenic and park-like fashion. There are wide wall-like structures, squat, fat towers, tall, skinny spires, and everything in between. Our destination is one of these towers, known as 'the Plug'. It is from a route near this squat tower that we will start our backpack into the Maze.
The Land of Standing Rocks
Organizing at the trailhead
Now that we've reached the Land of Standing Rocks, the road has smoothed out considerably, and our speed goes way up. By 4pm we've reached the Plug Trailhead, and we unload everyone and everyone's gear, while Luke and I shuttle one of the Jeeps to the end trailhead, which is a little ways down the road at Chimney Rock.
Our backpack, as you might have guessed, doesn't start and end at the same place. We plan to start at the Plug, go down 'the Plug Route' into one of the canyons of the Maze, down this side canyon, and then, on the third day, we hike out via a differnent route and end up at the Chimney Rock trailhead. I had originally planned a much longer backpack over the same 3 days / 2 nights time period, but prudence intervened and I thought it would be best to err on the side of caution and make the itinerary shorter. My plan was to have easy short backpacking sections, and fill the rest of the days with short day-hike type trips -- This way, those who aren't interested in longer days can optionally skip the extra stuff.
Starting off on the Plug Route
By 5pm we are all packed and ready to go. We have enough time get down into the Maze and set up camp before dark -- but just, so there's no time to lose. A couple of cairns mark the start of the Plug route, and for the first few hundred feet, a nice path leads north. Soon, though, the trail starts to descend, soon leaving the crumbly red ochre dirt, and leads down into the realm of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. This rock unit comprises most of the rock we'll see in the Maze, and it forms steep, bulging cliffs, occasionally interspersed with bands of color.
We're headed down there
From here on down the route is cairned, but it isn't overly-cairned, so we need to pay attention. The route makes its way down, finding weakness and easy drop-points that allows us to descend through several levels of bulging cliffs. Some scrambling is required in spots. We soon descend below the rim, and the wide landscape we've been in all day so far disappears from view. The size of our world has shrunk by several orders of magnitude.
Beautiful Plug Shot
We are entering the drainage of Pictograph Fork, Horse Canyon. This canyon, which I'll refer to from now on as simply 'Pictograph Fork', is one of the major side tributaries in the Maze. It is most famous, as you might guess from its name, for an excellent prehistoric rock art panel. The panel is one of the attractions we'll visit on our backpack.
A bit of scrambling
The side-canyon we are in is deep and has high walls, and after some period of descent, it seems like there's no way the route could descend past some impassible cliffs. Following the cairns, though, the route stops descending, and instead leads us horizontally along a ledge, at the top of the aforementioned cliffs. At one point, I drop my sunglasses and forget to remember to pick them up until I'm half a kilometre further down the route. Everybody graciously waits while I run back, sans pack, to fetch them.
Ledge walking, Plug Route
After following the horizontal ledge for a while, we round a corner at a low point in the cliff above us and cross over into the next small side-canyon, and it is clear that this is how we'll descend to the bottom. This next side canyon has less precipitous walls, and the cairned route leads steeply down over sloping slickrock to the bottom. It has become overcast and the day's light is starting to fade a little.
Without taking much of a break, we start heading downcanyon. The only objective now is to find a spot that is flat and suitable for camping. In deference to the park's rules, we've decided to split up into two separate groups: Luke, Sophie and Catherine will set up camp at the first suitable spot, and Ewart, Jenn and I will continue down-canyon to another suitable spot. I give Luke one of the communicators, and keep the other, so that we can talk to each other and co-ordinate our activities.
After about a half-hour to an hour more of hiking (more for us, less for Luke, Sophie and Catherine), we set up camp. The forecast being what it is (essentially the forecast was reasonably good, with only a small chance of showers), we decide to set up on the banks of the wash in the bottom of the canyon.
A video of our late-day backpack down into Pictograph Fork:
Descent into Pictograph - Click on video above to start
We have a quick dinner and quickly hit the hay. Even though Ewart has pitched his tent a few hundred yards down from us, we rediscover that Ewart does indeed... snore. During the night, I notice, annoyingly, that we're getting a few sprinkles of rain now and then. It never amounts to much and the night is more or less dry.