Maze Super Loop

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The remotest spot in the lower 49 states is supposedly in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  But that is defined as distance from the nearest road, which might not be the best indicator of “remote” … on Saturday, I was on a road that itself was a 5 1/2 hour jeep ride to the nearest paved road, plus another 1/2 hour to the nearest telephone or water supply, and a total of 8 hours to the nearest doctor; off this road would put you much further away.  Unless “away” is where you want to be.

The Maze is where the Monkey Wrench Gang went to lose their pursuers.  The Maze is iconic; this is where you go to get really gone.

I call this route the “Super Loop” because it encircles most of the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park.  It’s a clever route, requiring a few crux entrances and exits to canyons, which then enable one to connect a 90+ mile loop consisting of jeep roads, sketchy trails, and creekbeds.  Water is where you can find it, there are no signs or markers, and finding solitude is not a problem.

I’ve run numerous routes here, but didn’t think I could run this; the only water is seasonal seeps that are far apart and must (must) be located, and off-trail navigation at night is tricky.  So I decided to hike it over three days.  This is how it went.

4/25 5 PM Start. Rather than wait till morning, I’m ready to go, so I go.  I make the very circuitous and slow drop off the rim and into trailless Willard Canyon; my first mile and a half takes an hour 35 minutes.  Once in the dry sandy wash bottom, I walk until it’s dark, then lay down and go to sleep.  No tent to pitch, a drink of water from the bottle and a few dried figs; life is simple in the desert.

4/26 5:40 AM: The wash is easy to follow – can’t do anything else actually – so I start early by flashlight. The Wingate cliffs tower above; there is no entrance or exit possible the entire length of this canyon except how I climbed in and where it ends at the bottom.  11:30 AM Green River.  A large cold river, the color of pea soup; such a contrast.  I turn right up the Anderson Bottom Road.  This is a long march; there is not a single tree for the next 17 miles.  Jeep tracks indicate someone else was actually here maybe a week ago.  You gotta really like the desert to like this.  5:15 PM “The Drop”.  This is the crux of the whole route; after 24+ hours and 37 miles carrying all my water (didn’t want to filter the Green) and no shade, I’m ready to get off the White Rim and down into Horse Canyon.  The Cedar Mesa formation is continuously overhung and utterly impossible for dozens of miles, except for this one spot a ranger showed me on a map years ago.  There is literally one exact spot in the entire north rim of this canyon where it is possible to get in or out.  “The Drop” goes at 5.4; I lower my pack to be safe on it.  After more scrambling I’m in Horse Canyon.  Cottonwood trees, water seeps; aaah, feels great.  8:15 PM Long day.  Unroll the sleeping bag in the soft sand.

4/27 6:00 AM Get water.  I made a mistake not filling up in the last seep when I walked past it last evening; it’s 16 miles to the next spring, so I backtrack a mile to start the day.  Then one of those wonderful Canyonlands exits: an impossible-looking route snakes its way up onto the rim; no trail but a route thankfully cairned by some really hard-core cattleman 50 years ago and allowed to continue by the Park Service.  8:30 AM Chimney Rock TH.  A commercial mt bike tour is breaking camp; first people I’ve seen since before starting a day and half ago.   9:45 AM Doll House.  I start across Ernies Country on the Fins Trail, which is marked on my 1987 map; the maps since then don’t show this trail, which of course, makes it ideal: it exists enough to follow, but barely.  2:20 PM Lou’s Spring.  One drop of water per second out of a metal pipe hammered into the sand below an alcove, dripping into a wooden trough lined with roofing metal.  That’s all it takes, and I very gratefully fill my bottles, noting that we are complete couch potatoes.  I mean, we do all these amazing (to us) routes, while 50-100 years ago ranchers and miners did the same routes, a 100 times more routes, with basically the clothes on their backs plus a knife, a horse, and bag of salt and flour.  What we do is nothing by comparison.  7:15 PM Flint Trail.  I finish cranking 2,000′ up this legendary jeep road without seeing anyone, and am about to make the drop into Happy Canyon for the final third of the route, when I notice a lone 4WD Westfalia camper is parked there.  I walk over to check it out – never knew Volkswagon even made a 4WD camper – and out steps one man, enjoying the heck out of himself in his totally tricked out camper (PV on the roof; etc) parked in the middle of nowhere.  Naturally we have all kinds of mutual friends, he pours me a cold beer, opens a bottle of white burgandy and pours it into Riedel stemware, puts out a plate of appetizers and starts cooking some fish, and insists I stay for dinner.  I probably shouldn’t be telling this, as it ruins the image of my hard-core trip, but sometimes this is how trips go.

4/28 6:20 AM.  After a later start than the previous two days, I make the drop into Happy Canyon on an old abandoned uranium road not marked on even my map, so time lost is time made up, and soon I’m scurrying along the creek bed.  This canyon deserves its name; it has some water and trees while Millard had neither.  I turn right up French Fork after only two navigation errors, surmont a tricky pouroff, and rejoice at the marvel of being in a place that I had only known as squiggly lines on a map; a route of possibility rather than reality; a place not mentioned in any accounts I’ve ever seen.  Until now. 1:10 PM Exit Canyon. The omniscient Wingate walls tower above and all sides, with no break or weakness, confining me to happiness but no food or civilization, so seeing this side canyon might go out I try it.  It’s interesting how I love being here but hate not being able to leave.  This particular exit is great; it cranks straight up the drainage, less convoluted than usual, which is good since there are no cairns and no certainty that it actually goes.  It’s always unnerving to think I could spend hours working on this, using up precious water, food, and time, making tricky upward climbing moves, only to be stopped higher up and have to reverse the whole thing back down and look for another way out.  I’m virtually at the top when an overhanging pouroff with a manky pool below it totally halts passage.  This can’t be happening.  Indeed it can’t: there’s a hidden cleft in the cliff to the left and I scramble over to check it out.  A juniper log has been leaned against the steep part, and someone has screwed in a couple of eyebolts for footholds in the log.  Weird but effective, and I’m actually relieved to know others have been here before.  Solitude is good, but being stranding in an unknown canyon is less good.  2:45 Hans Flat Road, hoofing it back to the car.  4:24 – closed the loop.  71 hrs 24 mins; basically 3 days.

The trip went extremely well.  Conditions were excellent.  This is a big route, a clever route, and a good route … providing one really likes the desert.  View photo gallery here, including a downloadable full-res map.

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6 Responses to “Maze Super Loop”

  1. JD Schaefer Says:

    Thanks for the trip report and photos. Inspirational and ache-inducing. Now I can dig up my Monkey-Wrench Gang t-shirts and sally forth. Hope to see more of your journeys.

  2. George Z Says:

    HAYDUKE LIVES!

  3. Sara Says:

    Glad you enjoyed your “getting really gone” (Complete with beer break, right on! Are you sure that wasn’t a mirage?). Thanks for sharing the details and pics, it sounds like something you’ve been plotting for a long time. Good idea hanging onto that 1987 map!

  4. Derrick Says:

    Great report and photos. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Loved the….
    “and rejoice at the marvel of being in a place that I had only known as squiggly lines on a map; a route of possibility rather than reality; a place not mentioned in any accounts I’ve ever seen. Until now. ”

    ……..How true!

  5. Bryon Says:

    Buzz,
    Thanks for sharing this adventure with the rest of us. It’s an inspiration. I dream of checking out or a week and exploring the Canyonlands, circuiting the Uintas, fastpacking the Rockies. Keep the inspiration coming!
    Bryon

  6. Happy Maze Loop | Adventure Running Says:

    […] I’d been here many times, but always alone; this time I met my frequent partner-extrodinaire, Peter Bakwin, for a route that combined the Maze Loop with another loop through the even more remote Robbers Roost country, hiking the length of Happy Canyon (thus the name of this route), and exiting up through Sams Mesa Box Canyon to close the loop. […]

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