Fall 2016 Backpacking – 11 Days in the Maze

Canyonlands Needles

We enjoyed another wonderful excursion in the canyon country this October. Our two week itinerary included a fantastic eleven day back packing loop thru the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park.

Needles District - big springs
Big Springs Loop

We headed out on Friday 9/30 for the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. First thing Saturday morning we scored a camp site in the park at the Squaw Flats Campground, checked in with the ranger station and got our backcountry permit. The rest of the day was spent hiking along the Big Springs Loop from Squaw Flats. Sweet hike.

The next day we launched on an eleven day back packing loop. Our plan was to hike down the Red Lake Trail to the Colorado River, get across the river to Spanish Bottom and proceed on a nine day loop thru the Maze District. We would end up back at Spanish Bottom, re-cross the river and hike back up Red Lake Canyon, thru the Grabens and back to the starting point at Elephant Hill in the Needles District.

Tex's Riverways

This worked out for us but requires some extra effort. An easier alternative would be to get a ride down to Spanish Bottom from an outfitter in Moab and skip the hike down the Red Lake Trail.

Red Lake Graben

We started by hiking from the Needles District Elephant Hill Trail Head, down the Red Lake Trail, nine miles to the Colorado River. There is no water at all along the Red Lake Trail. Park service regulations do not allow back packers to camp within one mile of the river. Who knows why? The ranger told us there was nowhere good to camp within three miles of the river. So we carried eleven days of food and enough water for a dry camp and went six miles down. The Red Lake Trail cuts across across several narrow grassy valleys that are called the Grabens. Beautiful but bone dry. We camped in the Red Lake Graben and got started early the next morning.

Once across the river we were now in the Maze District.  We spent the rest of a pretty full day hiking up to the Doll House and beyond. We camped at a beautiful spring in a canyon.

Water Canyon

Now we were “in the zone” and well stocked. We spent the next day hiking with fanny packs and did a fairly comprehensive recon of the upper canyon and several of it’s side canyons. 5 star hiking. We returned to our camp of the night before.

Shot Canyon

In the morning we picked up our backpacks and hiked for an hour or so over the low pass to another canyon. Beautiful and incredible canyon country. We went down canyon a short distance and dropped our packs at another lovely spring/camp site. We spent the rest of the day on another really tremendous day hike. Previous experience in the area allowed us to visit a bunch of cool arches and find a new way to “rim out”. We were able to loop back via a different route and end up back at our packs/camp at the end of the day. The hiking in this area is complex but indescribably cool.

Shot Canyon
Historic Cowboy Trail

Day 5 of our back packing loop. We headed up the and rimmed out via an old cowboy trail at the canyon head. From there we headed across the slickrock to Chimney Rock. We walked a mile or two down the 4×4 road past Chimney rock and then dropped into the Maze proper via the Petroglyph Fork. The Maze proper is a specific section of canyons within the larger Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. There was plenty of water in the Maze and we camped at a nice spring a few miles down the canyon.

Petroglyph Fork
Petroglyph Fork

The next day was spent hiking down the Petroglyph Fork. We checked out several cool side canyons and had lunch at the famous “Harvest Scene” pictograph panel. More side canyon exploration, arches and stellar canyon hiking brought us to the confluence with the South Fork. This is below another access point called the”Maze Overlook”. We turned up the South Fork and camped by some nice water a mile or two up canyon from the overlook.

Ernie's Country
Ernie’s Country

We rimmed out at the head of the South Fork late the next morning. This put us back on the same 4×4 road, part of the Flint Trail, that heads to Chimney Rock and the Doll House beyond. We had one more area to visit, the “Ernie’s Country” section of the Maze District which includes “The Fins”.

The Fins

We hiked to a historic cowboy spring, Wow, super nice. An afternoon hike without back packs to a cool anasazi ruin and then back to the spring for camp. In the morning we moved East a few miles and stopped at another historic spring. Wow x 2! We dropped packs and went on a full day visit to “The Fins”. Wow.

After a fine nights camp we continued across Ernie’s Country and back to the Doll House.

Red Lake Canyon
Red Lake Canyon with Doll House beyond

It turned out that we were able to get across the river with a private group right away so we got a bit of a jump on our hike back up Red Lake Canyon. We camped in upper Red Lake and then got back to the van at Elephant Hill in the early afternoon on Day 11. Killer Loop!

We spent a day cleaning up and restoring our cactus juice, beer and almond milk (depending on preference) balance. The weather was great and we had time for two more days of hiking. So, we drove up the Cottonwood/Beef Basin Road to the upper Salt Creek area of the Needles District.

Cathedral Butte
Cathedral Butte

Our first day was spent in the West Fork of Salt Creek. We dropped into the head of the West Fork from a pretty remote and obscure location. It’s a beautiful canyon but seems to be completely dry and so no sign of Anasazi ruins or other artifacts. We drove back to Cathedral Butte in the late afternoon.

Salt Creek
Salt Creek

Our final day was a real pleasure. We got an early start down the park service trail at Cathedral Butte into upper Salt Creek. A beautiful day and a lot of cool stuff to check out. Arches, ruins, historic Mormon pioneer homestead, swimming pool and fall colors. A great end to a great two weeks adventure!

I have posted a slideshow of the trip that follows our daily progression. Check it out here – 2016 Fall Slideshow.

2 thoughts on “Fall 2016 Backpacking – 11 Days in the Maze”

  1. I can’t remember the exact place, but I think we were headed towards one of the few springs. There was a fork in the trail, sitting under a bush in the fork was a cairn with a large bone sticking out of it. Has anyone seen this cairn as well? Pretty creepy.

    1. Hi Gabe,

      Thanks for commenting on my blog. Kind of difficult to have an idea of where you may have been. The maze district is a big area and there are a number of springs in various locations. Some marked on maps and others not. Some always with water others more seasonal. We did not see any cairns with bones, in fact the route we traveled did not have many cairns at all.

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