May 9-11, 2016
Back in 2003, Ed and Burt Lamborn invited me to join them on a trip to explore the Maze District of Canyonlands. The Maze District is the least visited of the three sections of Canyonlands National Park, divided by the Green and Colorado Rivers. It is very remote – roughly 40 miles of Jeep road to get there, and some sections of the trail require advanced 4WD equipment and skills.
It is possible to explore the park much quicker on a dirt bike than in Jeep. Street legal dirt bikes are required.
Now that my family has street legal bikes, I have wanted to take my children to visit the beautiful country inside the park. With Jason finishing up his first year of college, we figured it was the perfect time to go. Jamie was also able to arrange time off from her research to join us.
We left home Sunday afternoon, after church. It had rained most of the week, and it rained most of the way down to Hanksville where we stayed in a cheap motel. We worried that the trails might be too muddy to ride on dirt bikes, but the desert really soaks up the water fast.
After a long night on uncomfortable beds, we enjoyed a great breakfast at Duke’s Slickrock Grill. It was good that we had a great breakfast, because lunch (and dinner) would be late that day.
I asked the lady at the motel how much rain they received the prior week, and she said she thought it rained for a few minutes. That puzzled me since the weather radar showed rain over the Maze District most of the week.
As we drove south towards Hite, we started to see signs of recent rain; the road surface was wet and the stream along the side of the road was flowing. So again, we started to worry about mud.
We stopped at a scenic overlook above Hite and where Lake Powell used to be. We could see the Colorado River flowing by, but virtually no sign of a lake.
Once we found the turnoff, we drove about 20 miles up a dirt road towards the Maze District. The more popular entrance to the Maze is north of Hanksville, but we decided to come in from the south. The road was a little rough in spots – especially towing our utility trailer loaded with camping gear and three dirt bikes. My bike tipped partially over and was leaning on the tail gate, which scarred up my hand guard, but otherwise didn’t do any serious damage.
It took us about an hour to get to our selected campsite in Cove Canyon. We quickly unloaded our bikes, changed into our riding gear, and headed off towards the Maze at about noon (only about 3 hours behind schedule).
While I refer to this trip report as the Maze District, by far the bulk of the area is actually inside Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Only the last few miles of each day’s ride is actually inside the Canyonlands boundary. And our campsite was outside both parks on BLM land.
From our camp, it was approximately 13 miles to a 4-way junction; left goes to Sunset Pass and the Dirty Devil River, straight goes to the Flint Trail and Maze Overlook (tomorrow’s destination), and right goes to the Dollhouse section. This 13 mile stretch is pretty easy on a dirt bike, but riding it both ways two days in a row did get old.
The first part of the Dollhouse trail is easy and fast as it crosses open desert. I warned the kids via our helmet radios to not ride too fast because there may be a speed limit inside these parks. Five minutes had not passed when we came across a lone Jeep – and sure enough, it was a park ranger.
The ranger was really nice. She did verify that we had street legal bikes and asked about our plans. She warned us of the clay along the shelf road on the way to the Flint Trail and Maze Overlook and said that it would be impassable if wet. She had been out patrolling for six days and was on her way back to the Hans Flat Ranger Station.
The Dollhouse trail was really fun on a bike. It has a lot of variety, with sections of easy dirt road, easy sand covered road, rocky climbs and descents, sandstone ledges, and deep sand in wash bottoms. The trail reminded me somewhat of Devil’s Racetrack in the San Rafael Swell, minus the more technical “steps” section.
The most technical section of this trail is in the area near Teapot Rock. This section contains a lot of sandstone ledges and rocky spots. A few of the more technical spots caused Jamie a little trouble when she would stall her bike, but everyone made it through the entire trip without a single crash.
There were a lot more technical sections on this trail than I remembered, but it was all really fun.
We stopped for a late lunch in the shade of Standing Rock, and enjoyed the views of the canyons of the Maze.
After lunch we continued on to the Dollhouse area. We explored the spurs to the three campsites in the area. They all looked like nice campsites, but you need a permit to camp there. We elected to camp outside the park so we could base camp from our car and not worry about obtaining permits.
We planned on hiking to the Granary, so we carried our hiking shoes and my walking poles along on our ride. It was hot and we were running late, so we never made it to the Granary. Plus, my memory isn’t so good anymore – I sent the kids on a death march thinking they could see the confluence of the Green and Colorado River from the Spanish Bottom trail. In my memory, Spanish Bottom was right below the confluence – but in reality it is a few miles upstream.
Even though we never made it to the Granary, we did enjoy the most interesting portion of the hike as it goes through a narrow slot canyon.
We finished our hike and started back for camp at about 5:00 PM. We enjoyed the 35 mile ride out here, but at this time we were pretty tired and hungry and not anxious to ride 35 more miles back to camp. But the ride went swiftly and without problem. Jamie set a great pace and we only stopped for two breaks on the way back.
We got back to camp at about 7:00 PM, set up camp, and cooked BBQ hamburgers for dinner – at about 9:00 PM.
We were too tired to even build a fire, so after an enjoyable evening watching the stars come out, we went to bed.
The Flint Trail
Not long after going to bed, it began to rain. In fact, it rained on and off throughout the night. I worried that the mud would prevent us from getting to the Flint Trail or the Maze Overlook due to the clay shelf.
When I got up in the morning, I was surprised that the ground was bone dry. I was sure it rained pretty hard during the night, but it sure didn’t look like it. But then I noticed water on our table and food boxes, so I knew I wasn’t totally crazy.
A few minutes later Jamie got up and said; “I thought it rained last night.” Five minutes later Jason got up and said the same thing.
We enjoyed a great breakfast of “Dee’s Super Scrambled Eggs” and “Bob’s Hash Browns”, and then started off for the day’s adventure at about 10:00 AM.
We returned to the 4-way junction, and then rode straight through towards the Maze Overlook. A few miles down the road we came to a long and rocky climb. It seemed to go up and up. I had absolutely no memory of that climb from my visit back in 2003. It wasn’t overly technical, but it was steady. This led us to the clay shelf, which offered some spectacular views.
The trail soon came to another junction; left to the Flint Trail switchbacks which climbed about 1000’ up the cliff, or right to the Maze Overlook. Our primary destination was the Maze Overlook, but I really wanted to check out the switchbacks since they were closed due to snow and mud when I was here in 2003. We decided to try it out now while we were fresh. We decided to at least ride to the base of the cliff, and then press on only if it didn’t seem too technical.
Jamie and Jason stopped at the base of the cliff, so I assumed they didn’t want to ride up. I passed them and started up the trail. Later on I found out they were following me, but I didn’t get too much video of them coming up the trail.
The trail is fairly steep, but most of it is pretty easy on a dirt bike. There are, however, three or four nasty outcroppings of rock that take good line selection and momentum.
Everyone made it up okay, although Jamie came pretty close to looping out in toughest spot. I almost got it on film, but my camcorder was in the wrong mode.
We enjoyed the view from the top and ate a snack, hoping we could make it to Maze Overlook for lunch. As we were about ready to ride back down, two Jeeps came along, so we had to wait for them to get down the trail. They went a lot slower than we did.
The ride back down was pretty easy. Once we passed the two Jeeps, we were able to quickly return to the junction and ride out to the Maze Overlook.
The Maze Overlook
The road to the Maze Overlook isn’t as technical as the Dollhouse trail, but it does have its share of rocky climbs and descents, deep sandy washes, and short ledges. One rocky climb has a sharp left turn at the top, so it is best to not ride too fast and risk missing the turn and going off the ledge on the backside of the ridge.
We were surprised to find the Maze Overlook totally deserted. There was one car in the parking lot, but no people. All of the campsites appeared to be empty as well. As I mentioned, this is very remote country – we were 50 miles from the nearest pavement, and another hour to Hanksville, and a few more hours to Richfield which has a hospital. Being this remote with my children caused me to seriously consider purchasing a personal locator beacon for emergencies.
After eating lunch near the cliff overlooking the “maze”, we started our hike. Our goal was to hike to the Harvest Scene petroglyphs, but that turned out to be far too ambitious for us.
I remembered the hike down off the cliff being very interesting. The trail includes the use of some Moki steps cut out by Native American’s many years ago. On the way down, Jamie spotted a granary high on the cliff across the canyon from us. We marveled at how they could live in such rugged country.
The hike down turned out to be a lot more technical than I remembered. On my last visit, I made it to the canyon bottom, but then started back up while others hiked to the petroglyphs. This year I only made it about ¾ of the way down. There were some pretty exposed sections of the trail that just seemed too risky at my age. Jamie and Jason continued on, and said the trail got even worse. They made it essentially to the bottom before heading back. Watch my video to get an idea of what this trail is really like.
After completing the hike, we enjoyed another snack, and then began the ride back to camp.
One thing I enjoyed was that the trail seemed totally different coming and going. The ascents become descents, and visa-versa. Both the Dollhouse and the Maze Overlook trails were really fun on dirt bikes – both directions. They are not for beginners though – these trails require at least a strong intermediate skill level and very reliable bikes.
After returning to camp we enjoyed some BBQ hotdogs and sat around talking the evening away. We took a short hike up a box canyon near camp and found some very heavy, black chunks of petrified wood that probably got washed over the cliff at the end of the canyon.
Poison Spring Canyon
The next morning we awoke to cloudy skies. I wondered if another storm was moving, which might threaten our day’s ride.
After breakfast, we began packing up camp, when it suddenly began to hail. It was a strange hail storm – it wasn’t cold and it wasn’t windy. The hail just lightly fell from the sky. Luckily, the storm only lasted about five minutes.
We secured the bikes in the trailer better this time, so none of them tipped over on our way back to the highway. By the time we arrived about the Poison Spring Canyon trailhead there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful day.
I always had the impression that Poison Spring Canyon was a fairly technical trail. I imagine that some days the sand may be fairly deep and soft, but the day we rode it, it was pretty easy. It was a bumpy ride with lots of baby-head rocks, but they were mostly submerged into the ground so it wasn’t as challenging as some rocky trails.
The canyon was really scenic and interesting to ride through – especially the middle section which had numerous small stream crossings. Jason was trying to wheelie across the water, without much luck at first. On the return ride out, he did much better, but unfortunately I wasn’t filming him at that time.
The trail is 16 miles long to the Dirty Devil River. I was glad we didn’t have to cross the river, because it was running fairly deep and swift, and there was about a 5’ steep bank on the other side. If you do cross the river, you can ride through Hatch Canyon and come out at Sunset Pass and then the 4-way junction discussed earlier, thereby providing an alternate way to enter or exit the Maze District.
After a short break at the river, we returned to the car and loaded up. On our way home we stopped at Stan’s Burger Shack in Hanksville for a burger and shake.
We found this trip to be exhausting, but it was really fun. Camping takes a lot more work than staying in a motel, and we longed for a soak in a hot tub, but the overall experience was wonderful.
The Maze area is truly spectacular and well worth a visit if you have the right equipment and skills to make the journey.