maze packraft trip

Spanish Bottom

Ernie’s Country and the Fins Trail

As the first snow falls here in Moab on this November evening in 2014 I am relieved Sonja and I made it out of the Maze yesterday after exploring Ernie’s country and the Fins Trail.
The three days we were gone also marks the first time our teenage son was alone at home, managing school, his sustenance and the well being of our dog. Quite possibly a far more dramatic story, better spared this audience.
As readers of previous Maze trip reports from here might have guessed, this latest excursion followed the typical time tested recipe: drive as short as possible, on the best roads in the neighborhood, followed by a hand picked hiking route down to the east bank of one of our two local rivers. Here, for a brief calm water episode, packrafts were deployed before venturing into some portion of that alluring territory. Later a reverse order of events finished things off.
After placing our vehicle at the end of the pavement at Big Spring Canyon in the Needles we hiked out the Confluence Overlook trail and, after some 4 miles, proceeded down the Cyclone route to the river directly at the banks of the above mentioned confluence.
At lunch time we were done paddling and rolled up the boats and stashed them from a cottonwood branch at Spanish Bottom, then realized that time constraints and the far too silty river didn’t allow us to apply alum and wait for settling before filtering drinking water. We left with just what we had remaining from the car. The rest of the all too brief November day was spent trudging through the expanses of Wide Valley towards the Fins.
The sun set behind the high mesas at 4:45, leaving us with gathering dusk and a brisk cold north wind, still 4 miles from Kjell’s spring, on a faint seldom traveled route. Although constantly on the outlook for moisture we had seen only dry sand and empty potholes all day. As we descended a small tributary and merged with Sweet Alice canyon a creek bed of sculpted slickrock led down to a final plunge pool, deep shadowy dark and steep rimmed. In the moonless evening a few stars twinkled back from  down there. Water! Camp!
To extricate the tea colored month old water we had to tie a string to a bottle and drop it down, hoping that no drowned carcasses were hiding under the autumn leaf riddled surface.
Next morning we day hiked to the west end of the Fins Trail and back, exploring along the way. Wonderful times were had, unburdened by packs in fabulous country. Mid-afternoon, upon returning to the pothole, we filled bottles and bladders, gathered our stuff and started back. Mom was getting concerned about the teenager at home, as moms separated from their children are bound to be, and badly wanted a head start. As it turned out we so much enjoyed the play of long shadows and vast panoramic views of Ernie’s country, that when it all too quickly became night we had energy reserves remaining to keep hiking. Under headlamps we descended the Doll’s House trail to a flat limestone bench halfway down to the river and dropped our loads. This mid-altitude camp spared us the frigid cold air drainage of the bottom, besides having morning sun earlier.
All that was left for day three was a chilly morning paddle across to Lower Red Lake canyon, followed by the now entirely too familiar slog back to the front country.
All images w GoPro:
An obscure trail down from the Needles District to the Confluence
Closing in on Spanish Bottom and the doll’s house.
Sunset scouting for both water and a suitable camp in the Fins.
Nunatak Mid at the mouth Sweet Alice canyon
Lowering a waterbottle into the only pothole with water near camp.
Cjell’s spring
Lou’s spring
Leaving the Fins towards the Doll’s House
Camp above Spanish Bottom

Mojave desert, Clark mountain

Sonja setting out on the little step that blocks access to the summit ridge


Clark Mountain – a remote desert peak.

December 2014: Clark Mountain, at nearly 8000′, is the high point in Mojave National Preserve. It’s a lofty bastion of limestone with a complex topography involving numerous radiating ridges and precipitous basins. The mountain is covered in single leaf pinyon and juniper, plus the typical assortment of prickly desert species on the lower flanks. Several shady canyons on the north side hold huge stands of white fir, a rather uncommon phenomenon in these parts.
While relatively close to Interstate 15 between the Nevada border and Baker, access to Clark’s south side trailhead is a complex affair. An ever evolving mining operation near the freeway exit changes the public right-away on a regular basis, depositing visitors back onto public lands in unexpected places. Add to this the rugged state of the deteriorating network of roads and quite a few hikers have given up even setting foot on the mountain. At the end of the drive is a forgotten relic of a picnic area, amazingly well equipped with unused luxuries, slowly falling into decay. In itself worth a visit.
The occasional steep wall or pinnacles of grey rock rear up along most prospective summit routes, meaning succesful summiteers better come prepared. From the picnic area we picked a well defined, pleasant looking ridge that seemed to rise unbroken to the main divide. The day before our climb on December 14 a furious winter storm had made it in from the Pacific and dropped several inches of snow above 6500′. The blasting winds had formed bizarre ice sculptures along exposed edges and covered the trees in beautiful rime frost.
Once on the summit ridge at 7600′ it became obvious that although almost all the elevation gain had been dispensed with, the more serious portion of the route still remained. Towers of jagged limestone lead to overhanging drops along the complicated arete between us and high point of Clark. We first tried a direct route along the ridge, but iced over holds and wind blown snow put a halt to that. Forgot to mention we also had a dog along!
After circumventing several hard section via ups and downs of only slightly milder terrain, we came to a series of walls that very clearly had no bypassing options. The first step, about 40′ tall, needed ropes to get the dog safely up and facilitating later return. After this crux more slow scrambling on snowy ledges with some considerable exposure, still belaying the dog, took us to the final push to the elusive summit.
The register had 4 other parties summiting in 2014, and since 1995 only about 25 pages had been filled out.
We were nearing the end of a road trip and had no juice left in any of our cameras. As we were leaving the van for the hike we remembered our iPad can take pics too! So here you go:


Starting up the lower slopes.


In the distance the mine at the exit off I-15, and the roads leading to the base.


The summit area from the main divide at 7600′.


Discussing route choices after trying one impasse.


Sonja setting out on the crux passage…


Negotiating towers and pinnacles later on.


The straight line in the background is the interstate.


In the distance is Mt Charleston west of Las Vegas.


I can’t really not include a pic of our dog on the summit!

lockhart basin bikepacking

Exploring little known aspects of Lockhart Basin via bike

The bike, fully loaded for 2 nights. Somewhere around here the descent to the Hermit area starts.


In late January 2015 I had a few days off and a recent big rain promised full potholes and trickles in canyons where otherwise water is scarce. There was a a full moon, too. Time to go to the desert!
Kelsey’s books have a few spots I wanted to further research along the 55 mile Lockhart Basin jeep route.  From Moab one gets to it over Hurrah Pass, with the far end terminating near the Needles. The middle section is pretty rough compared to the White Rim road right across the river. One part especially is said to be very difficult for stock vehicles.
My choice of transportation is a mountain bike, which poses the challenges I need to make a trip like this interesting. On this occasion I did an out and back from Moab going as far as Indian Creek, or about 110 miles on the bike. The two areas I explored on foot were Hermit Canyon with the bench hike to Tangren’s camp, and, much further south, Kelsey’s route to lower Indian Creek via Rustler.
To make all this happen in 2 days, plus one evening in the beginning, I had to do a fair bit of night riding. This was okay as I have been on the Lockhart road at least half a dozen times, and nights are too long this time of the year anyway to just sit around camp.
Near Tangren’s camp on the Hermit trail is a spring. One of my goals was to verify this rarity. Kelsey doesn’t mention any personal experience with the spring, but in an interview with an old-timer it is talked about. Alas, I didn’t find it.
It is about 5 miles from the remote center portion of the Lockhart road to the cowboy camp, depending of one’s success with routefinding in these complex Cutler formation canyons. The latter part of the hike is along a narrow limestone bench 50′ above the river.
In the vicinity of the camp are signs of seeps that may have provided drips in the past. However, there’s no dead water loving vegetation or other signs of dried up springs.
I wasn’t 100% relying on Tangren’s water for survival, but it would have been awfully nice to have. Instead, after the customary tamarisk battle, I filled my containers with silty river water and slogged my way back up to the bike and moved on to camp.
The next day’s objective was to see if Kelsey’s ‘little step possibly requiring a rope’ in lower Rustler really is no big deal as he says. And, more importantly, check if one can climb up this obstacle from the river without a pre-hung rope (think future packrafting trip).
The route start from a 3 mile spur off the Lockhart road about 12 miles from the southern end. Down one canyon to another to Rustler. Pretty straight forward as off trail hiking goes. After an hour and a half I got to the big pour-off in Rustler. Suddenly one’s mindset has to adjust from the comfortable horizontal aspect of hiking wide sandy washes, to edges, drops, loose rock and potential violent death.
There was only one option for the downclimb and at first it was a No Way! But after probing and studying and mentally adjusting it started looking a little better. I  reluctantly did the first step off the rim with significant exposure but relatively non technical, then traversed on a skinny ledge to the last step. Here I hung the rope from a chockstone and went down.
Below I quickly ran down to the confluence with Indian Creek to fill my jugs with water. There was no time to go all the way to the river as I needed to be back in Moab that evening. At the pour-off I managed to reverse the moves without the rope. A pile of cheater-stones greatly facilitated the first step.
This was a fun trip with some interesting things to solve, but all in all somewhat esoteric. Definitely not what a first-comer to the area would choose. After many years of exploring from my front door, these days I need to look carefully at the maps to come up with something new. Hence an outing like this.
The first night I simply rode up to Hurrah Pass from home and camped to get a head start. Here the morning scenery.


A nice ephemeral trickle, unfortunately surrounded by cow patties.

For Hermit canyon this little side drainage provided a relatively smooth entry.


In an otherwise pristine and untracked canyon suddenly appeared the evidence of someone, POOF, blown out of their shoes.


Once at the river the Hermit trail follow a limestone bench downstream.


The bench.


The camp.


The goodies.


This mineral coated alcove was the only signs of past water that I found.


After returning to the bike from the Hermit diversion I still had 20 miles of rugged jeep trail to camp. Darkness fell quick and I finished up in the dark at 8pm.


Time to pack up and find the route down Rustler on the morning of day 3.


At the end of the spur off of Lockhart one gets to a NPS Needles boundary. Best to leave the wheels here!


And here’s a view of another indistinct, generic defile, this time the chosen route to connect with Rustler and eventually lower Indian Creek.


Several turns later, in Rustler, one arrives at a sizeable pour-off. The way down starts right at rim in front of me.


The clothesline rigged and ready to ensure a return, if needed.


While off course it looks like a walk when photographed, the reality hitting a tired, lonely hiker staring off the edge is another story.


Ready to return to Moab, six hours away.

maze backpack -little pete’s mesa

Circling Pete’s Mesa, among other things.

The bikes and packs with everything for 5 days
For the 2015 spring break outing with Sonja and Bjorn we again went to the Maze. The plan was an attempt to retrace a complicated and remote route Sonja first did solo 24 years ago. Over the years she has been reminiscing about the experience she had back then, weaving in and out of canyons, gambling for water sources she didn’t know for sure existed, watching bighorn rutting from her sleeping back, and working out how to negotiate drop-offs and dead ends.
First we had to get to the Maze Overlook. Our van was obviously not up to the task, but with a light load of skimpy bivy gear and 5 days worth of food we rode our bikes the 28 miles of mostly downhill in a few hours. A late start from Moab saw us finishing in the dark.
The backpacking part of the route descended Horse Canyon all the way to the impassable limestone pour-off near the Green. After spending the night by the reliable water down there, we worked on finding the elusive southward exit onto high benches and threading around the head of several unnamed canyons in the literally untrodden territory around what we call Little Pete’s Mesa. Following this came a hard to find down-climb into Jasper, right above this canyons terminal limestone pour-off, and another night by pools of clear water.
The third morning started with an immediate exit from lower Jasper, as this canyon is a well known out-of-bounds/no travel zone. Having actually spent the night down there was already a potential breach of park regulations, but we needed the water. An exhilarating traverse and subsequent climb to the top of Pete’s Mesa followed. Alas, shortly after summiting, we had to descend again to catch the cairned route into the Maze proper and a last camp near the Harvest Scene.
The final day featured a re-climb to the Maze Overlook and our bikes, then the ride back up to Hans Flat.
About 56 miles of biking, 40 miles of hiking over 5 days. Only people we saw was within one mile of the Harvest Scene.
The inspiration for Sonja to first do this route in 1986, and us to repeat it this year, was her friend and ranger colleague back then. Several decades later this tireless ranger is still at Hans Flat and out of respect for his tremendous dedication to the Maze no maps or GPS files will accompany this report.
A fantastic trip to what I will go out on a limb and call the most remote part of the Maze District.
Down the Flint Trail at dinner time!
Bagpipe Butte and Big Water Canyon.
Some are still snoozing.
Waking up near on the edge of Horse Canyon
One of many memorable scrambles on the classic Maze Overlook trail.
Horse Canyon is more than 10 miles on my GPS to the bottom…
..thankfully there are many intermittent streams and springs…
..even by our second camp..
..a few minutes from the big drop-off near the river. Here we are heading down to it.
..and getting closer.. a narrow section in the limestone…
..until suddenly you can’t get any further..
..unless you jump 60′ into this adequately deep pool.
DSC01870 by kullaberg631, on Flickr
Looking down at camp after finding our way to the rim of lower Horse Canyon.
Negotiating the last of the climb out, reminiscent of the Maze Overlook trail. Yup, that’s Island in the Sky’s Junction Butte in distance…
..and above our intrepid explorers is the ultimate sky island: Little Pete’s Mesa.
During about 20 hours total of off-trail hiking this pile of stepping stones under a just a little too tall drop was the only sign of anybody passing through here before us.
Little Pete’s, from the east. Seemingly overhanging on all sides, the white rim cap rock guards this place well.
Continually we were confronted with little interesting scrambles to break up the hiking.
At the end of day three, a rather hot one in fact, we finally reached the canyon floor of lower Jasper, and the first pools of shady water.
Saved again!
The narrow canyon in which I was sitting filtering on the previous pic, had these mountain lion tracks leaving it! Better than in the other direction…
Another limestone shelf, this time in Jasper. The Green visible behind.
Very deep, this one. Kelsey claims an old, now destroyed route up from the river. Hard to imagine where that might have been.
Third night’s camp, lower Jasper. All our camps were balmy and buggy, like June. Very strange.
Sunrise, day four.
Guess these?!?
One of the trick passages leading back out of Jasper towards Pete’s Mesa.
And more fun. When we were not in canyon bottoms, much of the hiking was on sculpted slickrock.
The route up on Pete’s, approximately. Actually it might not be completely correct.
Near the top.
Looking east from near the previous shot. Jasper and tributaries behind.
Rim of Pete’s.
Further south along the rim is the old route up from the ridge hike west of Jasper. Here beginning the descent.
Sometimes a small detour is worth it!
Our last camp in Pictograph Fork. A small spring was below the pour-off.
What’s this one called again?
And back on the iconic maze Overlook trail.
Following all the trudging around, getting back on the bikes felt pretty good.
We went as light as possible, given the biking leg and all the climbing and rugged terrain. Sonja’s pack is a 38 liter daypack, Bjorn’s a ULA Epic with a cuben bag and I had a 50 liter Khamsin that I couldn’t quite fill up. We used a homemade mid, two homemade alcohol stoves, TI cookware, 40 degree bags, and barely enough calories. Average pack weight estimated around 25 pounds with food and water. Nice not having packrafts for a change!

bikepacking/packraft loop in the canyons

Circling Horseshoe/Millard via bike and packraft

3 day solo trip from mid March, 2015. 175 miles of mostly dirt roads; some well known to my readers, others nearly extinct. I also encountered a section of difficult moto track at the north end. The packraft portions were merely river crossings from one road head to another. As is usual with these off-the-chart river activities the tamarisks posed the greatest challenge.
Upon arrival at Hans Flat ranger station I learned the Flint trail was closed due to snow. They did not, however, have a problem with me pushing my bike down. On previous occasions involving Elephant Hill and the Schafer Trail rangers have turned me back from biking on closed roads. Overall I find the long time Maze rangers a chill and laid back bunch compared to the rest of CANY.
Water on this loop worked out pretty good. I was equipped to deal with silty river water, but didn’t have to. Recent snow followed by warmer conditions had filled potholes; that plus a few small springs provided what I needed. In drier times the only reliable sources would be the river, the springs near the Great Gallery (4 mile round trip hike) and the springs below the Maze Overlook (3 mile round trip hike).
Met a group of internet friends on the last tiring miles. One offered me an ice cold Odwalla smoothie from their leftover White Rim supplies. Won’t forget the taste of that one!
Lonely roads
Interesting riding
Going with the flow. My wife’s Alpacka Yukon Yak, technically a little too small for me but ounces lighter than my Llama.
On the west rim of Horseshoe Canyon. My old Integral Designs solo shelter held up with parts of a paddle.
Getting the last minute beta from our friends at Hans Flat.
Laying down first wheel tracks on the Flint Trail.
Stocking up on solid water before dropping below snow level. Bagpipe and Elaterite Butte in the background.
Maze Overlook.
Not much going on between Ekker and Millard Bottom. A favorite place of mine to bike. Buttes of the Cross behind.

wind river high route

Off trail traveling in the Wind River Mountains

Summer 2015.
I’m sure many of you have seen AdventureAlan’s site ( ) profiling a rugged route from Green River Lakes to Big Sandy. Or maybe some of our members have done the trip? Maybe Alan is a poster here?
Either way, we had hardly any experience with the Winds before going to Wyoming for work this summer. Sonja backpacked somewhere in the range 20 years ago. This July we packrafted the upper Green and bagged a peak not far in. What those trips did do was getting us ready for more.
Flawless granite rivaling the Sierra’s, but somehow more sinister and foreboding than the walls found in the Range of Light. Rugged post glaciated basins seemingly straight from the Cascades. And all that goodness mixed with the typical unstable weather patterns of the northern Rockies. A good recipe for attracting our attention.
Fully immersed in work for the month of July, we only had a few hours on the drive to Pinedale to come up with a trip. An Internet search for something else led us to the site mentioned above, and since Alan gives the option to download some reasonably detailed maps to our phone we decided that it probably would serve us well as an introduction to the inner range.
Furious weather was forecasted for day 2 and 3 so we decided to reverse the route and take the hits on the lower middle section instead of the climax of Knife Point Glacier. This worked out as well as 40 mph winds and driving hail and rain can in the backcountry.
Besides that we stuck to Alan’s itinerary. The descriptions and maps from the site are spot on. It took us six days and we camped in the following locations: Shadow Lake, Middle Fork Lake, ‘Crap Camp’ lake, upper Alpine Lake and below the Stroud glacier. The amount of large talus and the efforts to deal with it should not be dismissed. A few of those remote lake traverses are very time consuming and laborious, bordering on expeditions in themselves.
The ice and snow portions obviously vary with the seasons, but currently should go without spikes. We did carry two axes and a set of crampons between the three of us and felt it allowed more freedom in local route choices. The dog had no issues with any of the challenges thrown at him, even with a pack on, but this young hound is spectacularly agile. I would think twice before flat out recommending this route safe for dogs. Again the car sized talus is the issue.
All together a fantastic route. Undoubtedly there’s more remote areas and bigger glaciers elsewhere, especially north and east of Knapsack col, but as a first dig into these attractive mountains we surely were in awe.
Pics in no particular order.
Readying to climb the Knife Point Glacier to Indian Pass, day 5.
Camp under the Stroud Glacier, official source of the Green River.
Dinner at the outlet to Upper Alpine Lake. About as remote and hard to get to mountain location as I’ve been to in many years. Alpine Col, the first goal of the the following morning, in the background.
Stormy and rainy times under Pronghorn Peak, day 3
Camp Lake, from where the complex 6 hour climb to Alpine Col started. Douglas Peak above us.
Day 2, on the way to the first pass after Pyramid Lake. Pre-rain gloom.
image by jan nikolajsen, on Flickr
Not all of the route was high alpine glory. Here bushwhacking rain-soaked willows for seemingly ever along massive Middle Fork Lake.
Featured image for home page:
In the middle third of the route relatively low terrain, 10500-11000′, and few prominent features challenged us a bit with route finding.
Dwarfed below Pronghorn Peak, after crossing a pass with name we never were aware of.
Searching for the 4th class downclimb Alan calls the ‘Exit Crack’. When the correct route was located it turned out to be no big deal.
Siphoning fresh rain water.
After the sun sets at a cold alpine camp, what else do you do but pace impatiently?
Testing my weak arms against super inflated chips bags. Obviously early in the trip while supplies were still plentiful.
At remote Camp Lake, among trees denser than anything on the West side at that elevation.
On day 3 the rain and wind was so cold and miserable that lunch developed into a warming nap session.
Descending the north side of Alpine Col, with the next crossing, Indian pass, visible between Knife Point and Jackson.
Sonja on one of many little steps leading around the more tricky lake traverses. Many times we thought if the extra weight of packrafts would actually be saving us in the long run.
Titcomb Basin
The final climb up to Knapsack Col. The east side is completely without trail but comparatively small talus makes it less of a toil. Which was good, as this was the third 12000’+ pass of day 5.
Bjorn playing with the camera. Dinner sludge.
Trying our luck at hitchhiking after the long trudge out along the Green River. It was late and very few cars were leaving. Eventually a family already cramped in a compact SUV happily squeezed us in.


Upper Bowdie Bushwhack

I have a very short list of hikes I might never repeat. This one got added!
Too bad, because I love wild and remote places like this where nobody hardly ever goes.
It ended up being a 10 hour day: 15 mile bike ride to and fro the TH, the last half on a nearly decommissioned track, plus the loop hike of about 13 miles.

Horsethief to Horseshoe

Horsethief to Horseshoe – a November packraft trip

The river canyon is a frigid inhospitable defile this time of the year. Cold still air, heavy and shadowy and unwanted elsewhere, silently settle in, wrapping the occasional stir in a promise of death. Glaring rays of low winter sun, finding their way down through a rare dip in the canyon walls, feel feeble in their brief sparkle. Sluggish tan water moves slowly, thickly. Testing the surface one is painfully reminded how dangerous 40 degree water is.

Paddling the river in a single chamber packraft, we stay close together, cautiously viewing the other boat as a life raft should unseen spiky things catch the thin rubberized material. A low, flat paddle stroke keeps the icy drips from bare fingers and important layers. To keep our naked, damp feet from going completely numb they rest muddily on a small square of Ensolite pad.
The transitions are the magic moments in our packrafting adventures, the distilled essence of this activity. From float to foot and back again, with simple means. An unseen burden in the pack transform effortlessly into little boats, capable looking and surprisingly roomy, ready to set off around the next bend. An equal lack of flaunt quickly hides them and again we’re explorers of ridges and mesas.
On this trip of 2 days we started and ended with 6-8 miles of paddling to create a loop taking in two great canyons of the northern Orange Cliffs area. To make it possible we had to find a cpouple of historic cattle routes, the Horsethief Trail out of its namesake canyon and the Angel Trail leading into lower Horseshoe. Connecting them is the wide expanse of the Spur.
Notes: The north facing, shadowy Angel Trail has a couple of spots where even a light veneer of snow would make progress quite risky.
Never been in lower Horseshoe before, but the amount of quicksand present this November was downright scary. One is walking directly in the stream bed for the last mile and a half before the river.
On the river, once the sun drops for good in the late afternoon, be prepared for very frigid pack rafting conditions.
We have done three historic cattle trails in this region: these two, plus the Devil’s Slide trail out of lower Millard. The Angel trail is the one in best repair with up to date cairning. Devil’s Slide is almost gone, as is most of the lower two thirds of the Horsethief. But at least it is straight forward to locate the general area of the latter.
All images with my old GoPro.
Staying out of the shadows, after an early morning launch a Mineral Bottom.
Readying for the hike up Horsethief.
Horsethief. Mostly a scenic, easy stroll with intermittent water.
The upper part becomes entrenched and dark. More water too.
Near the top of Horsethief trail.
Morning at camp on the High Spur.
Campfires, and the legality there off with land managers, dictate our route choices in the colder seasons.
Hiking on the Spur.
An upturned juniper. No roads, cowboy camps around. Wind?
Given Kelsey’s in-depth descriptions (!) and excellent cartography (!) we found the top of the Angel trail no problem.
Skirting sure quicksand in lower Horseshoe.
Arriving a the huge flood plain at the mouth of Horseshoe.
Multi use of Thermarest.
Getting ready.