the maze from millard bottom

The boat and bike.

Solo Maze trip, with a twist.

During a spring 2014 outing to that certain remote part of Canyonlands I combined three non-motorized ways of travel, namely mountain biking, packrafting and hiking. While it sounds complicated at first it turned out remarkably simple both in planning and execution. This was important as I, as usual, conceived the idea to this trip some 36 hours before setting out.

 

On the river side of the Maze, there’s only one spot where a road leads all the way down to the water: the mouth of Millard Canyon on the Green. It’s directly across from the White Rim road in the Island in the Sky district, near a spot where this road also dips down close to the river.

 

Seeing a potential back door to the Maze not needing 4×4 wheels, jet boats or a long commute to Hans Flat I packed up the bike with some light bivy gear, 3 days of food and a 5 pound Alpacka raft and pedaled out the White Rim. Nearly 10 miles upstream of Millard I launched the boat with the bike and everything and leisurely drifted with the current.

 

At around noon on day one I pulled up on the beach at Millard and began the 25 mile ride to the Maze Overlook. The huge terrain out here, this early in the year, had a very remote feel to it. It was obvious no vehicles had ventured this far out yet for the 2014 season.

 

Storm cells, headwind and crusty sand made for a taxing ride. At sundown amidst sprinkles I got to camp and quickly dipped below the rim to a secure rock shelter, out of the wind. Had a beautiful evening and excellent sleep.

 

A bright clear morning on day 2 was ideal for a loop hike into the Maze involving the super fun descent down from the Overlook, the ridge near Pete’s Mesa, Chimney Rock and Pictograph Canyon. 13 miles later, with fresh water from the abundant springs in the canyons I was back at camp for a modest lunch and nap, then relocated my camp to the top of the Golden Stairs, with its far ranging views of the Fins, Ernie’s Country and the benches ultimately leading to Hite.

 

The third and last day started with mare’s tails, strong gusts and shortly followed by building darkness to the west. Ahead of me I had a long cruise back to the boat, but hoping for at least partial tailwinds I decided to spend a few hours first descending the Golden Stairs trail and visiting Lou’s spring on the outskirts of the complex Fins area. Unable to completely relax, with an eye constantly to the sky, I rushed this amazing hike leading to an area worthy of many days.

 

Back up I cleared out before 11 and pedaled non stop for 3.5 hours to arrive at the Green in complete overcast, ominous conditions. Relieved to find the raft not absolutely destroyed by pack rats (a worry that stressed me out most of the ride back!!) I recrossed the river and rode the White Rim back to the car. That evening it rained hard over the entire region. Over the span of three days I saw just two jolly backpackers at the Harvest Scene.

 

For full disclosure I should remark that although I secured a permit for this trip, I was later contacted by the NPS and told that it is illegal to move a bike on the river. Whether this obscure rule is in fact in the regulation book or merely a misinterpretation by an office bound ranger remain to be discovered

 

All photos with a GoPro Hero 2.

 

 

A minor defile below the Buttes of the Cross

 

Rock shelter bivy

 

Water in the desert!!!

 

If there’s a cairn there’s probably a way.

 

Moki steps

 

More fun Maze mazing.

 

This catwalk would have freaked me out with a heavy pack along.

 

The incredible Lou’s spring, unfortunately marred by the bizarre tragedy of last year. Thankfully I had forgot about it until returning.

 

Golden Stairs tarp camp.

 

The bike, a Surly Krampus. Socalled mid fat technology.

 

Golden Stairs trail, a hard to follow jumble of broken rock and debris zig zagging down thru layers of sandstone. On the map marked as 1.3 miles but gps’ed at 2.2

 

China Neck

 

Yes that little thing of a mere 5 lbs can haul a full size mtb and do class 4 (with an optional spray deck)
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biking horse canyon, needles

Horse Canyon, Needles.

This tributary to the famous Salt Creek is not as impressively vast, has no springs or running water but instead presents you with miles of deep sandy wash bottom, and, as used to be the case with Salt, permits vehicle travel in it’s entirety.
From a backpacking viewpoint at least the water aspect makes it unattractive. But the bottomless sand in Horse takes the joy out of the 20+ mile day hike otherwise needed to view just a few of the sights.
In other words a capable 4×4 is considered the best method of travel. But also here there’s issues. Often the NPS closes off this option, sometimes even for years!
Right now Horse is indeed closed and judging from how things look in there it’s been like that a while. The helpful ranger said the problem stems from quicksand in the very wet Salt Creek approach miles.
I wasn’t interested in the jeeping anyway, as I don’t own such an apparatus. I also share most hikers sentiments about spending 8-10 hours slogging in sand: no thanks. On the other hand these many complications regarding access would surely guarantee some solitude if one actually ventured in there.
After a week or so of growing fascination with this elusive defile I felt a bike would be the ticket. Not any bike, off course. It’s been tried; just read Kelsey’s experiences! But lately a new breed of all terrain bikes, commonly known as the fatbike, have taken hold of the all too willing consumer. The absolutely massive tires on such a beast will eat up sandy miles effortlessly and cruise on most wintery surfaces, but otherwise doesn’t provide many benefits over a traditional mountain bike. Too much of a specialized rig for me, so I’ve mostly ignored the concept.
That is until a few seasons ago when Surly introduced the ‘mid fat’ moniker and attached it to a unique 29er bike with voluminous tires. They weren’t ridiculously big tires (3″ as opposed to 4.8″), but quite a bit larger than anything seen yet on this wheel size platform. It turned out to be everything I’ve ever wanted in a versatile, no nonsense expedition bike.
While I have used mine on many backcountry multiday trips, I’ve never ventured onto true fatbike terrain for miles and miles with it. The endless sandy washes of an out and back in Horse Canyon would be the test.

 

It started out well, although somewhat unusual: a couple of miles riding upstream in several inches of water. This was the Salt Creek part. It had no resemblance to a jeep trail, and I had an overwhelming feeling of breaking numerous Park Service rules by riding a bike through apparent untouched wilderness.
After a while things got confusing with braided stream flow, 3 foot tall recently cut sand banks and willow thickets. Still no sign of this terrain being navigated by vehicles. A promising looking wash off to the left did indeed turn into Horse Canyon. It was off course completely dry and featured wall to wall sand for the next 8 miles.

 

First recognizable feature was Paul Bunyan’s Potty.

 

More arches ensued. Two trails to these always striking features were marked on the map in the way upper parts of the canyon, and while they eventually led to respectively Fortress and Castle arches, none of of them seemed to have been used or maintained for a long time.

This little sign hidden in the shade of a prolific shrub was the only signage in upper Horse. In the background the overgrown trail.

 

Here Fortress arch from as close as one can get from the southeast side without negotiating the wall in the foreground. It looked doable at one spot, maybe low fifth class, but downclimbing it later would have been scary.

 

View down towards the main drainage from the same spot as the above pic. One of the Sixshooters, likely The North one, barely visible on the horizon.

 

The start to the Castle arch trail was completely unmarked and not obvious at all (one had to pay really good attention to routefinding to find anything in here). Once on this obscure path it surprised me with this seemingly recent ladder installation.

 

Castle arch from the closest vantage point. I tried climbing the holdless slabby slope on the left for further progress up the canyon, but it was just that degree or so too step to support  my feet.

 

I came across many other arches too, but got nowhere near to see all the ones scattered in this complex canyon system reminiscent of the Maze proper. Anasazi ruins and structures appeared literally around every corner. Many of them would have required major climbing efforts to reach, not to mention build.

 

In the center of this pic near some gaping holes in horizontal seams is a big ruin with at least part of the steep climb up there aided by a leaning log.

 

All together a worthwhile day exploring in complete solitude, with the bike actually being pedaled the whole time, as opposed to pushed. Although no doubt a true fatty would have been considerable less effort.

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.

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.