Destinations: Terra Incognita

Destinations: Terra Incognita

Very few places elicit such dangerous and simultaneously romantic prose. Even fewer places are carved in a fashion only a genius sculpture of bad character could imagine. And only one spot on Earth could contain a Garden of Eden, searing heat, torrential downpours, axle-busting roads, philistine rock formations, exotic skies, and a topography drunk on its own absurdity.

Yes, I am speaking of The Maze.

Those few who have stepped off the asphalt and onto the backroads and backcountry of Canyonlands know how curiously all of those places can exist in one place at one time. Yet, even with the moniker of National Park hailing its own beauty, very few travel to this remote destination. For me, The Maze was an introduction to a love affair I still cannot break free of. In fact,this simple 1/3 of Canyonlands has informed my car purchase, pushed off multiple other exploratory opportunities, solidified friendships, and damaged my father’s truck…

At this point let me take an opportunity to introduce you to my lover in the desert.

Divided by the confluence of the Green and Colorado River, Canyonlands is divided into three distinct districts.
Divided by the confluence of the Green and Colorado River, Canyonlands is divided into three distinct districts.

Canyonlands is broken into three, very distinct districts. To the north, high on a grand mesa overlooking the mess of broken stone and naked sandstone is Island in the Sky. To the southeast lies the Needles, with grotesque rock formations and natural ‘parks’. Finally, to the west lies The Maze. While it’s not terribly far for the raven, the two entrances into this heat-box take their toll and can make what looks like 40 miles of desert driving into a full day adventure.

Coming in from Hite Marina (or what used to be… ha!) you can head north through a relatively easy section of road before hitting Teapot Canyon–a deceptively nice name, by the way–which then bypasses the Golden Stairs and heads along the bench towards Standing Rocks and the Doll’s House. Coming in from the west takes you over the mesa tops to the edge of a cliff where a little jeep trail lies–the Flint Trail–waiting for someone to make the wrong move. After those ass-puckering switch backs, it’s onto slickrock and benches towards the overlook and some panoramic campsites.

We could've used a little more clearance on this vehicle...
We could’ve used a little more clearance on this vehicle…

Once in, take a moment to get your thoughts in order after becoming a human milkshake over the previous 4.5hrs of laborious driving and take in the views. There are multiple campsites all with their own beauty and faults, like Chimney Rock where you have easy access to one of the best trails and 360 degrees of stunning desert at your disposal, or the Doll’s House, which is nicely protected most the day from sun and wind, but is further in and lacks a dramatic sunrise/sunset scene. Shit though, if those are your only options…

Whichever your campsite destination may be, knowing that you are in the heart of Canyonlands and typically alone is enough to satisfy any desert rat’s wet dusty dream.

Exposed and higher up than the others, Chimney rock might not be the #1 destination in a thunderstorm

Although trails exist, they typically aren’t kept like those you find at Arches or the other regions of Canyonlands. Instead, one must be comfortable with desert exploration and familiar with route finding. Even though there are some known springs within the labyrinth of canyons, they aren’t reliable and may be very difficult to find. Head protection (from the sun) is a must and in the summer months travel must be kept before noon and after 4:00PM. It’s not only extremely dry and hot, but it’s tremendously difficult to accurately judge your travel distances within the boundaries of hundred-foot cliffs. All the while the sun is draining you like the ledges drained your truck’s oil pan, while Mr. Raven and Herr Vulture are awaiting overhead…

The hikes have their rewards, though. One such destination, the Harvest Scene, is a very old and dramatic pictograph panel that very few venture far enough to see. Another is a set of petroglyphs, strange rock formations, and a hidden spring. Down in the sometimes lush canyons are treasures awaiting discovery. They are earned, though.

One of many anthropomorphic figures along the panel.
One of many anthropomorphic figures along the panel.

Ultimately, one could spend most of their life exploring this small but vast area of the Colorado Plateau. I’m doing my damn well hardest to do so myself. Where there is risk, there is reward… and where there is solitude in the desert, there you will find Kim and I. I could write and dream about this place for many a day and night, but alas, some things must be explored on their own. 

Please enjoy the gallery. I’m out of brandy, thus this must end here.