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Posts tagged “Horseshoe Canyon”.

Hikng Utah: Stranger in a Strange Land

By guidebook authors Craig & Kathy Copeland, originally published in the travel section of the Calgary Herald.

Fisher Towers

Fisher Towers

“Where the heck are we?”

Typically that’s not a question you’re happy to hear from your hiking companions. Especially when you’re thinking it yourself, and you’re the trip leader.

But staring in bewildered astonishment is common in Utah canyon country. Not because you’re lost, but because what you see strongly suggests that last bend in the trail somehow transported you to Mars.

Suddenly nothing in sight jives with your conception of Earth. Your mental wheels spin furiously: no traction whatsoever. And that’s the appeal of this exotic realm. Exploring Utah canyon country is as close to vacationing on a distant planet as we earthlings will probably ever manage. It’s as otherworldly as it gets without requiring a space suit to step out of your vehicle.

Yet a three-hour flight or an 18-hour drive is all that separates Calgarians from southern Utah’s redrock cliffs, ancient ruins, soaring arches, and certified massage therapist known as “the desert sun.”

The first hint you’ve arrived on alien soil is the region’s colour palette. It’s as appetizing as it is arresting. Honey, mustard, salmon, tangerine, pumpkin, peach, coffee, and chocolate appear in distinct strata representing 300 million years of geologic history.

Next comes the antigravity sensation of walking on sandstone. Known as “slickrock,” it’s frequently underfoot and rapturously liberating. The rock’s gritty surface (“slick” is a misnomer) grants extraordinary traction, enabling you to negotiate steep pitches with Spiderman confidence. And it’s rock, so there’s no vegetation to shunt you this way or that. You can follow your bliss.

Wherever your bliss leads, you’ll soon realize you are indeed a stranger in a strange land, because you’ll encounter evidence of the natives who preceded you thousands of years ago.

They carved and painted bizarre, dramatic images on rock surfaces. They built fantastic, multistory, stone-and-mortar structures. Much of their art and architecture remains remarkably intact. Alert hikers see it constantly.

Slickrock hiking, or "slick walking"

Slickrock hiking, or “slick walking”

Then there’s the topography itself. It’s called “canyon country” because it’s cracked open. Shot full of fissures. From airy vantages, gazing across it is like staring up at a clear night sky. The baffling, dizzying complexity of southern Utah is as unfathomable as an infinite, star-filled universe.

And many of the canyons harbour natural wonders-arches, bridges, alcoves, hoodoos, fins, pinnacles, domes, hamburger buns, mushrooms, flying saucers-as if the rock had once been Play-Doh in the hands of an imaginative child.

Some of these geologic anomalies are delicate, intimate. Others are massive, overwhelming. All look so improbable you’d expect to find them only in a book by Dr. Seuss or perhaps a documentary film about Planet Zenon.

You can of course sample the beauty and mystery of southern Utah without hiking. All the state’s famous, national parks-Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches-have paved roads and convenient viewpoints.

Why shoulder a pack and plod beyond? For the same reason Neil Armstrong didn’t just peer out the window of his Apollo 11 lunar module once he’d landed on the moon. He came to experience, not just sightsee. So he went for a walk. You should too.

Fisher Towers

location: Colorado River Canyon, northeast of Moab

round-trip distance: 7.4 kilometres

elevation gain: 320 metres

hiking time: 2.5 to 3.5 hours

The Colorado River is a prolific artist. But her most famous work, the Grand Canyon, overshadows her myriad, extraordinary creations. One of them-the Fisher Towers-is a cluster of lofty, rococo monoliths including the 274-metre Titan. The trail winding among them provides a fascinating encounter with the eccentric towers plus sweeping vistas across the Colorado River Canyon and into the La Sal Mountains. Parents herding kids find this an ideal outing.

Corona Arch

location: Potash Road, west of Moab

round-trip distance: 5 kilometres

elevation gain: 170 metres

hiking time: 1.5 to 2.5 hours

Closer to Moab than any of the arches consecrated in nearby Arches National Park-yet equally impressive and far less crowded-is Corona Arch. It’s mammoth: 43 metres high, spanning 102 metres. The setting is magnificent: on the wall of Bootlegger Canyon, in an amphitheatre also containing Bowtie Arch. This very short hike is a fun romp, mostly on slickrock, suitable for families with children.

Angels Landing

location: Zion Canyon, Zion National Park

round-trip distance: 8.4 kilometres

elevation gain: 457 metres

hiking time: 2 to 3 hours

Angels Landing

Angels Landing

If angels actually visit us, and they need a majestic place to alight-someplace near to earth yet close to heaven-this would be it. Angels Landing is a peninsula, a mountainous wall, thrusting into Zion Canyon, forcing the Virgin River to detour around it. A short but very steep ascent culminates atop the slender, airy crest. Here, high above the canyon floor, you can overlook the heart of Zion National Park. Though the trail is quite safe given the vertical terrain, acrophobes should hike elsewhere.




Navajo Knobs

location: Capitol Reef National Park

round-trip distance: 14.5 kilometres

elevation gain: 762 metres

hiking time: 4 to 5 hours

Starting along the Fremont River, ending atop a panoramic promontory, you’ll gradually ascend broad, gently-ramping sandstone ledges. This is among the longest, easy slickwalks in the state. Constant, panoramic views allow you to admire the Waterpocket Fold-the 161-kilometre-long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust that Capitol Reef National Park enshrines. Think of it as a thousand suspended waves-all part of a stone tsunami leaping out of the desert.

Horseshoe Canyon

location: Canyonlands National Park, Maze District, northeast of Hanksville

round-trip distance: 11.9 kilometres

elevation gain: 213 metres

hiking time: 3 to 4.5 hours

Great Gallery

Great Gallery

A long drive on a dirt road, then an easy hike into Horseshoe Canyon, is all it takes to see North America’s premier display of prehistoric rock art. Known as “the Great Gallery,” it’s 4.6 metres high and 61 metres long. The 75, life-size, phantom-like figures were painted 2,000 to 8,000 years ago by Desert Archaic Indians. The centerpiece is a 2.1-metre-tall, ethereal presence known as “the Holy Ghost.” It has huge, vacant eyes, a head that appears to waver, and a streamlined, arm-less, leg-less body that seems to be rising. The anthropomorphs surrounding it also look like they’re in perpetual vertical motion. Researchers believe the artists where shamans attempting to show their spiritual journey from the human world to the realm of the spirit. Shedding their physicality, they felt weightless, hence the streamlined bodies. Departing for the unknown, they felt they were traveling, hence the skyward trajectory. Perhaps they were saying to the tribe, “This was our experience. This is what is possible for our species.”

Paria River Canyon

location: Paria Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, east of Kanab

one-way distance: 62 kilometres

elevation loss: 345 metres

hiking time: 3 to 5 days

Canyons are terrestrial lacerations. They range from paper cuts to gaping wounds. You’ll witness the entire spectrum while hiking Paria River Canyon. It ranks among the world’s great treks. With the riverbed as your trail, you’ll often splash through ankle-deep water. The vertical walls rise 823 metres high. The serpentine narrows constrict to just 2 metres. Sleeping within the depths of this exquisitely serene canyon, you’ll feel the embrace of Mother Earth. Go with friends so you’ll have a second vehicle. Arrange a shuttle, then hike one way, downstream, between the White House and Lee’s Ferry trailheads. Backpacking know-how is a prerequisite for this moderately difficult venture.

When To Go

Utah canyon country (blistering summers, nippy winters) affords about thirteen weeks of optimal, warm, hiking-camping weather: late September through mid-November, and mid-March through April. That’s just 25% of the year. Carpe diem.

Where To Stay

Sorrel River Ranch (www.sorrelriver.com) offers luxury a la Louis L’Amour. The property, the rooms, the service, the food- all live up to the grandeur of the surrounding high desert. Sorrel is the only Small Luxury Hotel in Utah and the only AAA Four-Diamond resort in Moab.

Boulder-a molecule of a town between Escalante and Capitol Reef National Park-is graced with the Boulder Mountain Lodge (www.boulder-utah.com). Outside Magazine raved about it in an article titled “The Perfect 10: Adventure Lodges We Love.” Next door, the Burr Trail Grill is the place to eat, according to long-time locals.

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Hiking The Maze, in Canyonlands National Park

The Opinionated Hikers on Patrol for You

We’ve been hiking all over the Colorado Plateau for 28 years. The guidebook we wrote—Hiking From Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country—describes “90 trails to the Wonder Of Wilderness” in this astounding region. Books have space limitations, however, so there were many WOW trips we could not include. One of them is The Maze—the most remote district of Canyonlands National Park.

Faced with the need to cull, we excluded The Maze from our book because reaching it by foot is too rigourous a journey for the vast majority of people, and because vehicle access necessitates high-clearance 4WD and requires you to endure a long, rough road.

Having just returned from the Maze, however, we want to supplement our book with this field report, which we hope will inspire anyone with curiosity, energy, a yen for canyon country, and a stalwart 4WD vehicle to explore this high-desert enclave.

Why visit The Maze? Because…

  • It’s extremely isolated and therefore very lonely. You’ll probably see others at the Maze Overlook and on the ascent/descent route, but you can easily find solitude if you backpack beyond.
  • It’s weirdly, mysteriously, uniquely beautiful. Before seeing it, you think, “Ah, come on, can it really be that different from all the other canyons I’ve seen?” The answer is “yes.”
  • You can hike to 16, little known yet spectacular arches within The Maze.
  • The Harvest Scene Panel, a mere 2-hour hike from the Maze Overlook, ranks among the most fascinating rock-art sites on the Colorado Plateau. It was painted by the Archaic People who roamed canyon country 8,000 to 2,000 years ago.
  • It’s possible to feel a piquant sense that you’re truly exploring here. Not just following bootprints on an established trail, but delving into the unknown.
  • The long, forbidding approach to the Maze Overlook trailhead, as well as the scarcity of water within the Maze, enhance the experience by requiring commitment, heightening your anticipation, and later boosting your sense of accomplishment.
  • Before or after The Maze, you can dayhike into nearby Horseshoe Canyon to see the justifiably famous Great Gallery pictograph panel, which, like the Harvest Scene Panel, was created by the Archaic People.

The unpaved road into The Maze departs Highway 24 just 0.5 mi (0.8 km) south of the paved spur leading to Goblin Valley State Park. The initial 46 mi (74 km) to Hans Flat Ranger Station is an easy drive in almost any 2WD car. Shortly beyond, high clearance is necessary. A bit farther is a 2-mi (3.2-km) section of steep, rocky, narrow, switchbacking, 4WD-only road known as “the Flint Trail.” After descending the Flint Trail, it’s another 13 mi (21 km) on a rough (but never steep or dangerous) road to the Maze Overlook, where the on-foot descent into The Maze begins. Total distance from Highway 24 to the Maze Overlook: 75.5 mi (122 km). Because you must check-in at the ranger station, and because the road beyond, even when in good condition, prevents swift progress, allow a full day to reach the Maze Overlook.

Overall the road is not seriously challenging. You don’t need a diploma from 4WD School (4wdschool.com) as long as you’re piloting a capable, high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. Though short, the Flint Trail is the crux. Care and vigilance, more than skill, are what you need to safely negotiate it. Be prepared to make a couple three-point turns within a few feet of sharp, vertical drops. Here, as well as elsewhere en route, you’ll want a spotter: someone who can get out and confidently direct you through obstacles where the driver’s seat does not grant the optimal view of where to steer the tires for easiest passage.

A few intrepid backpackers start hiking at Hans Flat, explore The Maze, then hike all the way back out. Between the ranger station and the Maze Overlook (14.5 mi / 23.3 km), they follow the North Trail, about half of which is on the road. The distance seems trivial until you realize it’s entirely dry. Carrying sufficient water to keep you hydrated until you reach the first spring in The Maze? Later repeating that grueling task on the return trip? We don’t recommend it. If the weather’s hot, you’ll risk heat exhaustion, possibly heat stroke. And the scenery isn’t worth it. The beauty and allure of The Maze is evident only after you arrive at the Maze Overlook. So driving to road’s end is undeniably preferable.

Upon arrival at the Maze Overlook (5160 ft / 1573 m), one more hurdle remains: scrambling to the canyon floor (4580 ft / 1396 m). Some might call it “climbing.” Your perspective depends on your experience, and therefore confidence, on steep rock where you must use your hands to prevent an injurious fall. Departing the Maze Overlook, you’ll initially be hiking, but the cairned descent route soon requires you to scramble/climb where the bulbous folds of Cedar Mesa sandstone are too vertical to walk.

The young ranger at Hans Flat said, “You might want to bring 20 feet of rope to lower your packs.” The guidebook we used said the same. Both implied that only one short section of the descent posed minor difficulties and that most people, after roping their packs down, easily friction-walk through it. But you’ll find our commentary below considerably more detailed, accurate and helpful.

It’s true that some backpackers drop from the Maze Overlook, into The Maze, without roping up. They use a rope only to lower their packs in one place. But that one place requires closer to 100 ft (30 m) of rope if you want the pack-lowering exercise to be simple, easy and quick. A 20-ft (6-m) rope isn’t nearly adequate.

The scrambling, however, is exposed. Most people should, and will want to, rope-up in a couple places, then have someone in their party belay them while they down-climb. It’s unlikely an adept scrambler will fall here. But the scrambling does require agility and cool, and the consequences of falling—particularly in such a remote location—are serious. The chief benefit of roping up, of course, is increased self-assurance. That alone is usually sufficient to prevent a misstep.

We recommend you bring a 120-ft (36-m) length of climbing rope, light harnesses for the climber and belayer (or enough one-inch webbing to make swami belts), several carabiners, and some prusik cord. Assessing the descent, you might decide you don’t need the climbing equipment. Fine. But if you want it, and you don’t have it, game over.

Dayhikers—if they twice rope-up and establish belays—might take an hour to descend from the Maze Overlook to the canyon floor. Backpackers might take an additional 30 or 40 minutes if, at those two points, they also use the rope to lower their packs.

Dayhikers should remember they’ll face an approximately 45-minute ascent from the canyon to the Maze Overlook at day’s end. Having already grappled with the terrain while descending, they’ll surmount it quicker on the way out.

Excluding numerous, minor, scrambly steps on the descent route into The Maze, you’ll encounter six places that—whether or not you view them as impediments—are distinctly recognizable:

  • A 9-ft (2.7-m) sheer drop into a small, slickrock bowl. It’s relatively easy thanks to contemporary moqui steps. Once the most capable scrambler in your group is down, he/she can spot everyone else.
  • A concave, slickrock ledge that narrows and is increasingly slanted until you pass the midpoint. Our acrophobic friend walked it with only a little support from the rest of us.
  • A keyhole pouroff where you must lower yourself to a barely-visible platform below. From there, a slender catwalk leads left to a tiny alcove. Below that you must down-climb a vertical 12 ft (3.7 m). Hand and footholds are solid, but most people won’t attempt it without a sitting belay from the alcove. It’s also possible to anchor a rope above the keyhole and belay someone from the top of the pouroff to the bottom of the down-climb. The acrophobe in our group turned back above the keyhole pouroff.
  • A short but very narrow crack. Most people will wiggle down through it without hesitation.
  • A longer, sharply descending crack devoid of hand holds. Working down through it is awkward, uncomfortable, time consuming, but most people won’t feel the need to rope up, because falling doesn’t seem as likely as getting stuck. Below the crack are a couple steps that are airy, exposed, but most people will take a deep breath, compose themselves, and stride over them.
  • A slickrock plunge: gradual at first, then vertical. Though contemporary moqui steps lend substantial aid, most people won’t attempt it without being roped-up. A boulder immediately above serves as a solid belay anchor.

Let’s back up. Did the word “dayhike” surprise you? Perhaps you’re thinking that after such a long drive into The Maze, it would be crazy not to backpack. But dayhiking is viable here. The Maze Overlook is a gorgeous place to car camp. If you enjoy the ascent/descent enough to do it repeatedly, and if you allow yourself at least three full days, you might love dayhiking here. The 9-mi (14.5 km) loop to Chimney Rock is one of several dayhiking options.

Backpacking is preferable, however, because it allows you to explore much farther and grants you the sense of being a temporary resident of The Maze.

Whether you plan to backpack or dayhike, bring the Trails Illustrated 1:40 000 topo map titled “Canyonlands National Park, Maze District, NE Glen Canyon NRA, Utah, USA.”

Remember that you’ll be in a national park, so you’ll need a backcountry permit for car-camping at the Maze Overlook as well as for camping down in The Maze. Phone the park office well in advance to make reservations.

Fill your vehicle’s gas tank at Hanksville immediately prior to departing pavement. Driving slowly in 4WD is inefficient, so you’ll be getting poor gas mileage. You don’t want to see your gas-gauge needle dropping to “E” when you’re way out in the wopwops. You’ll probably want a full jerrycan as well, just in case.

Load your vehicle with plenty of extra food and water. Rain or rockfall could make the road temporarily impassable. Getting stranded is bad enough. Stranded, hungry and thirsty is much worse.

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Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

Never hike alone. Before setting out, check the weather forecast and current trail conditions; adjust your plans accordingly. Always carry a map and compass, a first-aid kit, extra clothing, a personal locator beacon, plus enough food and water to survive an emergency.

If you doubt your ability to negotiate rough terrain, respond to wild animals, or handle sudden, extreme weather changes, hike only in a group led by a competent, licensed guide.

The authors and the publisher disclaim liability for any loss or injury incurred by anyone using information published on this website or in the books presented on this website.