“There’s a place
That’s far beyond this time and space
When each of us comes face to face with something more…”
~Siren Song, Alan Parsons Project
For many years I have been photographing Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah. On many of those occasions I visited The Needles District of the park, The Island in the Sky District, and even the Horseshoe Canyon detached unit, home of the Great Gallery pictograph panel. From some of those locations, I was able to see, but not approach, The Maze District. Often described as one of the most remote and inhospitable locations in the lower 48 states, the main obstacle to visiting The Maze is the challenging, technical, high-clearance four-wheel-drive road that descends 1500 feet down two steep benches for a total of 36 miles. The road is punishingly difficult in places, and takes six hours to traverse.
Despite these obstacles, The Maze has been softly, hauntingly calling my name, like the Sirens of Greek mythology. It was mysterious, wild, remote, adventurous, and challenging.
• Driving from Ada, Oklahoma to Gallup, New Mexico
Crazy wind in west Texas and New Mexico trashed my fuel economy, which at one point was only 20.6 mpg (the average for the entire trip ended up being 24.4.) I only shot a couple photos. Dust storms combined with smoke to make eastern New Mexico hazy, and my eyes burning.
• Driving to Page, Arizona through the Hopi nation, and touring the Glen Canyon Dam
My first stop was Window Rock, which I hadn’t seen since 2000. The Navajo Nation has made some significant improvements to the park around Window Rock itself, including an impressive bronze statue of a World War II Navajo “Code Talker.”
The scenery of the Hopi Nation is identical in character to the Navajo Nation; poverty and bleak emptiness fill the eye from horizon to horizon.
The Glen Canyon Dam tour was not as good as our Hoover Dam tour in October. Somehow the dam itself is too modern and tidy to be all that interesting. It was a bit like touring an office building. I hiked around the beach north of the dam for several hours and made a few fun high points. Shot well. At one point I ran into a young woman who was nude sunbathing, who seemed to have staked out a private alcove on the rocky beach. Who has the right-of-way, me walking the beach minding my own business, or some naked chick who thinks she found a private alcove?
I planned to be at Horseshoe Bend, a tight gooseneck of the Colorado River just five miles south of Page, at sunset. Some of the best places to photograph the bend were already staked out when I arrived, but from my position, I had a decent view with nice symmetry in the arc of the Colorado River. As I waited for the sunset, two 20-somethings arrived and pulled two beers out of their packs to celebrate the moment. The gnats, though not biting, were thick and insanely annoying.
• Boat ride to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, then Hiking at Waterholes Canyon
I signed in at the opulent Lake Powell Resort to board a large yatch with upper deck, where I sat for first half of trip. We were given headsets and receivers that played a Lake Powell tour narration in five languages, English, Japanese, Italian, German, and French, which I thought odd since there was no Spanish. The ride was smooth and beautiful, and I shot lots. At Rainbow Bridge, there was a short walk to the bridge. A Nation Park Service ranger thanked us for our “voluntary” compliance with Navajo request not to walk under bridge, then led us on trail under it at someone’s request (not mine).
The ride back was pleasant. I sat downstairs and didn’t shoot much.
We were back at the dock by early afternoon, so I drove to Lechee, Arizona to buy a $5 permit from the Navajo Nation to hike Waterholes Canyon. I had the canyon completely to myself, which featured a very nice, classic slot canyon look. After that I hiked the rim above the canyon to a formation called “The Great Wall,” which also made decent images.
• Photo tour of Antelope Canyon and short hike at Paria Toadstools
I asked at the Antelope Canyon tour place about cancellations from the previous day and they had two, so I upgraded to the pro photo tour. Met Mary from my boat tour yesterday, who is from Minnesota, and we kinda made friends. Nice lady.
The tour of the canyon starts in town and goes out to a wash, where it becomes a rough, fast ride in a tiny 4×4 across deep sand. The canyon was already packed with tourists. Our guide was kind of a pushy jerk with little useful info about things like the geology of the canyon, but he did advise about where to stand for decent shots.
Everyone in our group of photographers was nice, both to each other and to groups of tourists passing us in both directions. One of our bunch, however, seemed oblivious to the fact that he was staying too long in one spot and not sharing good places to place a camera. Another in our bunch put away her camera during the second half of the tour, which returns back the way we came, because she said, “This isn’t relaxing.”
One true thing about photographing something like this is that while you might never have done it, literally millions of other people have made the exact same images you are making, so any urgency or sense of self-importance is misplaced.
Despite the crowds and the cliche’d images, I felt I wanted to check Antelope Canyon off my list, and the images I did make were successful.
I drove to Paria Toadstools northwest of Page, which I had to myself. Despite unyielding heat, the landscape inspired me, and I had fun. The area is quite small, and the number of “toadstools” is probably not more than 15. I explored a bit from the end of the trail and found some nice erosions and repeating patterns.
• Driving from Page, Arizona to Hanksville, Utah
I had breakfast in Page, then headed northwest. Stopped at Old Paria, a site of an old movie set. According to the internet, the set was burned down a few years ago, and the reports were right. I shot a couple of images of the Paria Cemetery, then moved on through southwestern Utah.
I swung out of my way about 20 miles to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. Few visitors. I walked the short nature trail and made a couple of nice images, which completely filled my shoes with sand.
In Carmel Junction, I tried to look up Tanya, a friend who had lent me a room there four years ago, but she was not around. I bought some nice steel figures and a spirit stone for Abby while I was there, and grabbed a sub sandwich.
With the main park at Bryce Canyon likely packed with summer tourists, I made my way down to Mossy Cave, which I skipped in 2008. It proved very fruitful, with a waterfall and a cluster of natural arches. The trail was short and unchallenging.
The big surprise of the day was the drive northeast of Escalante, which passes across a high ridge, then summits just below 10,000 feet. Not too many images, but a visually stunning experience.
Poked around Capital Reef for a few, just passing through. Couple of passable images.
• Driving from Hanksville into The Maze
Dennis Udink drove the rest of the way down from his camp site in the San Rafael Swell and we all had breakfast at a small restaurant in Hanksville.
The road to Hans Flat Ranger Station was surprisingly sandy in places from recent wind, at times requiring a bit of push from the all-wheel drive in my Rogue.
The ranger at Hans Flat re-emphasized what the Park Service web site says, that The Maze is isolated, and we need to be self-sufficient and capable of self-rescue.
We left my car at the ranger station in a small parking area, and I put my gear in the bed of Dennis’ longbed diesel Ford pickup. Despite the longish wheelbase, Dennis drove well. The length of his truck required several three-point turns, with me on the radio spotting for him. The road becomes most difficult in the Teapot Rock section, requiring high clearance and full four-wheel drive, sometimes resulting in scraping and dragging the undercarriage. I concluded that a stock Jeep or a vehicle like Abby’s Nissan Frontier would be the minimum vehicle that could made the trip, and a lifted vehicle with bigger tires would certainly make things easier.
We arrived at Standing Rock camp site by about 5:30. After the drive, we all pulled out our camp chairs and sat for a spell, but the area beckoned, so we explored for a bit to the north, until we arrived at the rim of some of the canyons from which The Maze derives its name. By dinner time it was still hot out, so none of us cook our dinners.
Insanely silent. Bright moon.
• The Chocolate Drops
Up at first light to coffee and a fruit bar.
We walked 1.2 miles to the Chocolate drops trail head, then hiked well and fast. The four mile trail stays high on a ridge between canyons.
It stayed sunny on the way out, with swirling virga to the west. Just as we started back, the wind picked up, the sky turned grey and we were treated to a spitting of rain and some cool wind.
We sat in silence under the shade of the impressively tall Standing Rock during the hottest part of the day.
Hatch Point, The Needles, Sixshooter Peak, Junction Butte, and other points I am beginning to know well were all visible from our camp site.
Dennis and I wandered north for another view of the labyrinth below. Nice light. We saw only one other vehicle, a Navtech Jeep delivering a guided tour to the Dollhouse camp site.
Surprisingly, Dennis had phone service, so I was able to call Abby.
• The Harvest Scene, The Doll House, and Surprise Valley
Up again at dawn. We left the mesa and descended into the very heart of The Maze, a canyon that led us to the storied Harvest Scene pictograph panel. On the way we encountered a surprisingly marshy area, and were set upon by biting flies.
The pictograph panel was much more detailed and interesting than I imagined it would be. Like the route into the canyon, the route out, following the loop trail clockwise, was steep and unforgiving, requiring multiple rest stops for water and shade.
In the afternoon we broke camp and drove to The Doll House camp site number three and made camp.
By 5:30 in the afternoon, I hiked the Surprise Valley Overlook trail, which passed through a section of caves and slots inside The Doll House formation. The first valley we reached was not, in fact, Surprise Valley, a fact noted on several trip reports we read before coming to this place. When we finally reached the real thing, the views of Surprise Valley were excellent.
• Colorado River Overlook Trail
At about 4.5 miles and traversing varied landscapes, the Colorado River Overlook trail is quite similar to its mirror, the Confluence Overlook trail I hiked in 2008. Views toward the end of the trail were stunning, particularly of the Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, which is only obliquely visible.
The heat was punishing at times, but we all dealt well with it. We were back at camp by 2 p. m.
At some point ravens got into our trash and ate Dennis’ leftover instant bacon and eggs.
The overlook trail was nothing short of excellent, as were all the trails we hiked in The Maze.
• Driving Out of The Maze, then Hanksville to Grants, New Mexico, then Home
It was a slightly nervous ascent out of The Maze after Dennis discovered an odd noise coming from the front end of his truck, which he diagnosed as a missing u-joint lubrication boot and bearing. He oiled the joint a bunch, and devised a plan to jerry-rig it if it failed.
Dennis used the four-wheel-drive quite sparingly. There were, of course, places where 4WD was necessary, and at one point both Dennis and I got out and rebuilt a cheater-rock ramp three times before he could crawl his truck up a 24-inch step. The drives both in and out of The Maze were stressful and exhilarating at the same time. At one point on the way in, Dennis said, “I’m actually having fun,” and at one point on the way out he said, “I’m never doing this again.”
“You’ve been all over, and it’s been all over you.” ~U2, Beautiful Day
- From Third Mesa in the Hopi Nation you can see both Humphrey’s Peak and Navajo Mountain at the same time.
- How is the road through the Hopi Nation “scenic” as my maps depict, but the road to Moab, Utah not scenic?
- A confused bluejay flew into my outside rear view mirror and was killed.
- The sound of high-pitched zippers is a campground specific sound.
- In the deep silence of the desert, my hiking shoes make a squeaking sound that is very lyrical.
- Our shirts are stained with streaks of salt after long hikes.
- For my longer hikes in The Maze, I carried Abby’s Tamron 18-250mm on my Nikon D80, which yielded decent results, particularly at wider focal lengths, and allowed me to carry just one lens.
- You can read Dennis Udink’s report from this trip here.