Vail Daily travel: Rambling through Utah’s terrestrial ‘Maze’ |

Vail Daily travel: Rambling through Utah’s terrestrial ‘Maze’

Benjamin Pope
Travel Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Benjamin Pope

A simple ankle sprain would leave us helpless.

The thought of where this trip was taking us hit home when we stopped to leave Utah’s highway 24. Vail was already five highway hours behind us and the moment became more than just some turn onto a dirt road. It was the buildup of anticipation and, with each passing mile, I checked off another item The Maze would seize from our control: water, weather, whereabouts … We rode this feeling into the western heart of Canyonlands National Park for another three-and-a-half hours.

The Golden Stairs, an exposed rock staircase falling 700 feet down a crumbling sandstone shelf named China Neck, welcomed us to canyon country. Another mile along a jeep road brought us to one of the area’s distinct formations, called Mother and Child. The red rock sculpture led us into the slickrock and sandy wash bottoms of Ernie’s Country. If we didn’t end up lost in a canyon or a cougar snack, we’d return to Golden Stairs in a few days, completing our trip. For now we wondered: “Mother and Child? So, what happened to dad?”

We moved east toward The Fins and its nearby canyons, where we would spend the next two warm, cloud-free days marveling at our surroundings. But first, the tickle in our throats and in our collective conscience reminded us that skipping one watering hole had left our bottles nearly empty. We finally made it to the second, Clell’s Spring, a trickle coming from the end of a small side canyon. We filled up on water and the white round stone momentarily shaded us from the blaring desert sun. Five miles later we stopped near the mouth of the three parallel canyons of The Fins. We set up camp for the next two nights. The sun dropped and darkness and cold set in, and with it, a clear night sky shining with constellations, shooting stars and satellites.

Utah’s Jurassic landscape

We woke at 8 a.m., to tents soaked with morning dew. Sunlight stretched over the long horizon to the east. Day packs in tow, we spent most of the hot desert daylight hours exploring Range and Sand Tank Canyons. Great views of the area’s namesake structures emerged as big slabs of red and white sandstone. One hundred and eight five million years ago Utah’s Jurassic landscape was filled with sand dunes and large lakes teeming with life. Once seen in full, The Fins began to resemble spines on the back of an ancient leviathan whose giant body is slowly being excavated by erosion from wind, water, and time.

Climbing the ever-narrowing chute of a small side canyon, potholes filled with murky runoff water taxed our water filter and left a strange aftertaste on the tongue as we scavenged for life’s barest essential. My foot slipped on a canyon sidewall and my leg brushed against a small hidden cactus. After removing several little spiky darlings we scrambled to the top of the canyon. It was a sandy, rocky, brush-filled nook of a place and exuded an uncomfortable monster-lurking-in-the-shadows vibe. And there it was, a large round puma paw print under a pinyon pine tree. The mark was imprinted on a small patch of the park’s famously living cryptobiotic soil. Watermarks left by rain dated the print at least a week old, but the big cat could return at any time. We immediately got the hell out of there.

Sucked into The Maze

We packed camp up early the next day and hiked towards Sweet Alice, the final wide 2.5 mile long canyon of The Fins area. Hiking briskly, we passed Tibet Arch, detoured down a damp side canyon strewn with boulders, sharp prickly plants and ending in a large pool until Standing Rock pinnacle showed itself to the north. A half-mile northwest of the canyon exit is its red sandstone neighbors, The Plug and Lizard Rock. With its vast intertwining canyons, its no wonder this section of the park is called The Maze.

Wandering over the jeep road, a large canyon of The Maze seduced us onto the traverse along its western wall. We climbed a small saddle and followed the cairned path on its opposite side. Losing the track of stone markers for about 20 minutes, we plodded along in a sun-baked, labyrinth-induced trance. We came to when we crossed a particularly narrow point and the weight of my pack nearly sent me sliding down the cliff. Breaking the desert spell with nervous laughter, we sucked deeply at the dry air, backtracked and reached the canyon floor. We made camp on a small wash bottom.

We ate a big dinner and frightened ourselves with a moonlit walk through the canyon. Indeed, headlamps, a large canyon facade and a drink that may or may not have been whiskey are good ingredients for oversized and entertaining shadow puppetry, if not merely a cheap attempt to briefly distract ourselves from one thought: We certainly were not at the top of the food chain.

We hiked a long searing seven miles of jeep road back towards Golden Stairs. Jet-black ravens flew above us and thick silence filled the air. A death has never been recorded in Canyonlands National Park. Perhaps that is because many visitors never step away from their car nor even enter the more remote and primitive areas of the park? Maybe it is also because those that do ramble into its terrestrial maze do so with respect and a healthy dose of fear – both necessary tools to temper the awe and slow surrender of command that this unique desert inevitably brings about.

Benjamin Pope is an avid backpacker who has lived in Vail for five years. Send comments about this story to

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