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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes - The Maze, UT

Lost in the labyrinth

by: Kelly Bastone

(Photo by James Kay)
(Photo by James Kay)

The Hike You'd better be a map savant if you want to wander into–and back out of–this redrock jungle, which is full of dead-end canyons. "This is not the place for inexperienced hikers," declares park ranger Paul Henderson, who says it could take rescuers three days to reach you in this remote unit of Canyonlands. "You have to be self-sufficient, and ready to deal with your own emergencies," he adds. The difficulties include routefinding among sandstone fins and interconnecting canyons that all seem to look the same. Hiking along dry washes beneath high cliffs, you're often denied a vantage point from which to scout landmarks. Water is scarce–carry all you need–and even when you can see it, impassable topography often denies you a drink. Once you're lost and out of fluid in this shadeless, 110°F funhouse, "You have a pretty short half-life," says Henderson.

Exhibit A The Maze ranks as the riskiest hike on this list–yet it's claimed no lives so far. Why? Because its challenges intimidate all but the most canyon-savvy trekkers. Virtually trailless, The Maze sees just 2,000 people per year compared to more than 264,000 in the park's Island in the Sky unit. And most Maze visitors travel by jeep, which ups the safety margin.

Survival Plan Even canyon-hardened rangers take no chances here: Park employees must follow strict communication protocols and leave a detailed itinerary with someone who monitors their travel. And even though satellite phone service is unreliable, backcountry rangers have to dial in at predetermined times. Plan trips for spring, when temps are lower and a few potholes may hold water. Practice off-trail canyon travel elsewhere. And chart your route with GPS, but carry maps. Says Henderson, "I've encountered visitors who knew their coordinates–but were still lost."

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Dec 13, 2013

I rode the Flint Trail into the Maze in 1988 with Todd Campbell / Rim Tours, in the days before GPS. Guides fought over who rode and who drove the support truck that day. We camped at the Nuts and Bolts, and did some day rides and hikes from there. We drove south and got picked up by BeGo Gerhart at the end.

If you have an experienced guide to show you the way, it's a bit safer. There are water holes in there, but very mineralized. Drink it sparingly if you can, and have kidney stone problems like me.

A safer, unguided ride would be out to the Green / Colorado confluence and back, starting from Elephant Butte. Consult Todd Campbell's book "Above and Beyond Slickrock" first (or something newer if available).

Star Star Star Star Star
Sep 02, 2013

Maze Overlook to Harvest scene. Best hike I have ever done. Only 3 miles or so but full up with pants tearing down climbs and slot squeezes. Smacked my head on an overhang. That'll wake you up or put you to sleep. Get your head on a swivel, 360 awareness on this hike/climb. Then there is the pictographs with that Shaman with rice grass in hand...and more growing near by.

Star Star Star Star Star
Denial Bob
Mar 06, 2013

<a>Cannondale Bikes</a> and Orbea Bikes are also better for cycling riding. And these are my favorite bikes

Smilin WildCat Epic Adventures
May 23, 2012

Bears Yes!

May 19, 2012

People who say the hike is easy or not dangerous didn't run into any trouble, and it sounds like that was mostly due to luck! Having hiked in from Spanish Bottom, as well as mountain biking in from Hans Flat, we had to plan for trouble--getting lost, running out of water, a mechanical problem with the bikes, scorpions and snakes, even the car not starting back at the ranger station. The bottom line with The Maze is that it's remote, so if you do run into trouble, help is not close by or soon in arriving.

The Maze attracts hardy, mostly sensible and experienced people. Places like Zion attract drive-by tourists. Of course inexperienced and out-of-shape people are going to run into trouble, even die, there. Perhaps it is the person and not the hike that determines the danger.

Oct 18, 2011

The Maze is the best. It is bigger and badder than me, which is why I keep going back. There's a lot of unmarked routes out there. Not a beginner area.

The easiest access is from a Green River canoe trip.

Biking down from Hans Flat is also good; about twice as fast as a vehicle on the way down.

Normally I run down from the top, cruise one or two of the canyons, then hike back out the same day via a different route. One has to be fit for that.

May 23, 2011

Hiking in the bottoms of The Maze canyons is easy and a delight. It's level and the curved Cedar Mesa sandstone formations surround you everywhere, domes and spires and curved walls, banded in shades of red and off-white. Remember, it's easy to find your way downcanyon. You watch the canyon branches and the dried flow patterns. Going upcanyon is what's tricky. There are so many branches of main canyons and side canyons that it can be easy to get confused as to which side canyon you're in or want to be in. I never go in without a good topo map. The main hiking trails are well marked with cairns, so really there are only a few places where it's easy to miss your way if you stick to the marked trails.
Getting in and out of the canyons is much more difficult. All of the "ins and outs" (entries and exits) are steep hiking. Some of the trails are not that bad: some involve varying degrees of scrambling. Of the main trails, the Maze Overlook trail is the hardest, with several short sections involving some rudimentary climbing. On this trail we usually use a short rope to get packs up or down one section. Most people think this trail is a lot of fun'
It seems to me that there's a certain amount of misinformation in the comments that I've read, but maybe it's good that there's some mystery about the maze.
The Flint Trail refers only to the jeep trail that comes down the big Wingate cliffs about 10 miles south of the Hans Flat ranger station. It's usually kept in good condition for a 4 WD jeep trail. The "road" from there to the maze overlook is quite long and has some pretty rough sections. not too bad if you have high clearance, low range 4 WD and drive slowly. The road up from the south, the Hite road, is fine, not even 4 WD up to Waterhole Flat. The notorious rough part is the 4 or 5 miles that starts at teapot rock and takes about an hour. This part has some really big ledges to go over, and keeps a lot of people out. This is the only way to drive to the south part of the maze, the Land of Standing Rocks, and the Doll House. Of course you can also get there by doing an extended backpacking trip, mountain biking, or hiking up from the river. You can canoe down the Green River, a fantastic trip, and hike up Water Canyon into the east part of the maze, or hike up from Spanish Bottom into the Doll House and also into the east maze.
The Maze Overlook is probably the most dramatic entry to the maze, but there's just the one trail there. The south part od the maze has several different primitive vehicle campsites, and many different trails, all good and easier than the maze overlook trail. There are 2 trails that start near The Wall, one near Standing Rock, And 3 from Chimney Rock. From here you can hike into the southeast fork of Pictograph Canyon and go north to the Harvest scene, or hike north along the ridge to Pete's Mesa. These 2 trails connect in a big loop that you can combine with a hike up and down the maze overlook trail: a wonderful hike that's about 12 miles. You can also hike from Chimney Rock into Shot Canyon, cross over into Water, head east over to the Colorado overlook, and south to the Doll House, another fantastic hike. There are also some other short hikes from the Doll House. There are also other generally unmarked routes for when you're "beyond cairn", up onto Pete's Mesa, to Tibett's Arch, along the ridge between Shot and Jasper Canyons, and others. There are routes in and out o of upper Water Canyon. I took one once and thought it was kind of hairy, but I'm not much of a climber.
I noticed one person said they went without a map. Take a good topo map! I usually have my old plastic Trails Illustrated map plus some copies of portions of the more detailed 7.5 minute USGS maps. Happy Trails! Marc / Albuquerque

Chris R.
Mar 30, 2011

I might not be as experienced as some of you, but I have grown up in southern Utah and am experienced in the backcountry areas. When I went on a scout campout years back, we came across 7 rattlers. About 2 years ago I hiked in a more remote area of Zion and came across 2 rattlers with one coiled and rattling. I have lived in a few places where mountain lions were continuously spotted and there was even a warning put out to watch for one for a while. It is a stated fact that about 90% plus of the snakebite victims got bit because of playing around with them. It all depends on the time of day, the locations, and whether they feel threatened that they are a risk. Coyotes are out there as well, and they are similar to snakes, except that they come out at night. They will defen themselves if they feel threatened and I have been surrounded by howling coyotes while sleeping on the ground before. Obviously there are other wild animals in southern Utah, but these are the most common. All those that comment about the best times to go, it all depends on the person. I have a high body temperature so I go during the colder times. I have traveled down the Subway in February. People travel through 114 degree weather in August in southern Utah backcountry and they survive just fine, while others get dehydrated and pass out and have to spend the night in the cool desert. But I have spent many nights sleeping under the stars and no sleeping bag in southern Utah during the Summer as well with no problems (in fact I probably had to climb outta my sleeping bag because of the heat still discomforting my high body heat.) Many of you are already probably aware with everything I have said, but we all have different experiences and we all react differently to different areas, and our bodies deal with different environments, physically and mentally, so reflect on your previous expierences and do your research before just taking anybodies personal experiences. Of course they are definitely things to consider since they have had the experience, but then again we are all unique. Don't take great risks when going into places in the backcountry cause you could possibly end up paying the price.

Feb 25, 2011

Harvest Scene Petroglyphs, worth the danger. Be prepared in this brutal environment.

Geezer Runner
Dec 30, 2010

I did a 30 mile run/hike solo in the Maze several years ago. I used Kelsey's guide to plot a trip that visited rock art, geologic formations, and most importantly, the several springs for water. Great trip using only a map(only got bewildered (aka lost) once....), but I would not recommend doing this way. I was stupid, ignorant, and lucky. If I had broken an ankle in some of the trailess canyons I visited, they would not have ever found what was left of me after the animals were finished. Like I said, very dumb on my part..... But, the Maze is probably one of the most beautiful, unique, and awesome areas I have ever been in.

Oct 15, 2010

And for some relevant light reading, you can bring along Edward Abbey's "The Monkey Wrench Gang," that classic 70s southwestern adventure/action-comedy novel - one of the most memorable action/chase scenes takes place in the Maze. It'd be cool to read it beside a campfire in the very place, and the book is good trail reading anyhow- the kind of bold, brash yarn that quickly takes your mind off all the things that go BUMP in the night when you're camping. It was one of several I often brought along when I camped solo as a teenager and still got occasional jitters alone in the woods at night, and required a reliable distraction.
As to the Maze itself, I've never been - but if the novel's description is anything like reality (judging by the comments it seems like it is, which would make sense - the author worked as a park ranger in the southwest), I wouldn't want to hike it alone, though I'm a pretty consistent solo-er. I suspect the reason the comments are showing such different pictures of the place and its proper 'danger rating' is that the area is vast, and people are treating different parts of it. The article itself is likely dealing with the Maze en masse, including its remote, winding interior (a country "stood mostly on edge," to borrow a phrase from one of Abbey's characters.) Visitors on casual trips are likely only seeing its outer fringes, which could well be much gentler and more navigable.
But I mean, really - common sense here. ANY remote southwest desert landscape isn't the kind of country you want to be out alone in without map and compass (if you rely solely only GPS, you're asking for it), extra water and food, layers to hold you for the cold desert night if you get stuck out, and other emergency supplies. These are the kinds of places where something as simple as a fall and a broken ankle or leg can result in a solo-hiker getting stranded away from water and dying from dehydration. And beyond that, we're talking about a place that is so notoriously twisting and difficult to navigate that it's called "the Maze." Apparently the Colorado River runs right through it but is basically inaccessible because it runs through canyons hundreds of feet deep which cannot be climbed without technical aids. And there's almost no surface water in the interior, little enough that you could potentially wander around lost for days and not find any. It just doesn't sound like the kind of country that forgives careless mistakes. I'm guessing Backpacker's assessment of its dangers is pretty accurate.

Todd Hadden
May 17, 2010

3 died in Zion last month, I think that the danger is where the bodies are.

Roze Petal
Dec 31, 2009

Hiking the Maze is an a..mazing experience. It is a beautiful and great hike. As for wild animals etc...they live there and everywhere. They are more afraid of you than you are of them 99% of the time. Enjoy Mother Nature's creations and snap some pictures. As for getting is certainly possible even for the experienced hiker. When we were hiking there we camped at one of the Maze car campsites and hiked down into the Maze for our hikes. In the campsite next to us were two park rangers on an off duty hike. They hiked down into the Maze for a day hike and didn't return that evening. They made it out the next morning about 11:00 but had to spend a chilly evening out with only day-hiking equipment. They had made a wrong turn and ended up at the top of a canyon that opened up to the Colorado River a long way from their campsite. They used their skills and brains to survive but were a bit embarrassed. In April there was plenty of water around...a few springs and potholes. And the temps IN the Maze were fine but on top at the campsite it was VERY windy and cold. I would not classify this hike as the most dangerous least not in April.

Jan 25, 2009

Though some of you may have had a safe and generally awesome experience, even the guy without a map, compass, or GPS. But Craig H's comments on the dangers that exist, in any wilderness area, should not be ignored. Inexperienced outdoors men might might be let to believe that it's really not that easy to get lost. Getting lost is easier than most realize. Getting out of it is also easier than most realize; if you know how.

Good luck to everyone.

Craig H.
Dec 26, 2008

As a professional guide and outdoor skills instructor, I have at least 150 days of extended treks in the maze to date, both in groups and solo (NOT Recommended!!!).

The Canyonlands Maze area is incredibly beautiful and inspiring, but also extremely challenging...

It is very apparent to me that some who have already commented here have far less experience than confidence with the area. Many people think they are experienced with the Maze, when in fact they have only dabbled on the edges.

It is VERY dangerous to assume you can easily navigate the Maze, and the portions referred to by others are only a tiny piece of the Very Easiest parts. The vast majority of the area is hard rock, and totally trackless.

At the wrong time of the year, water can be virtually impossible to locate, and what is available is little and VERY far between. A very tiny misstep in navigation could well mean that you miss your only chance for water for several days - in an environment that requires 1.5 to 2 gallons daily for survival during much of the year.

On one occasion I have encountered a cougar in Canyonlands, while on three others I have found fresh signs. I have encountered at least twenty to twenty-five rattlesnakes over the years. They are Very common in the western desert backcountry, and if you haven't seen many it only means you have either been sticking to major trails (and been lucky at that), or you are too unobservant to notice them. (A very dangerous state in itself!)

The potential for serious injury (or death) through falls is also extremely real and quite prevalent. It is impossible to navigate the major heart of the Maze without spending a Great deal of time on sand covered slick-rock, either in steep ascents, descents, or traversing ridges and ledges.

In the course of my life I have spent prolonged periods in nearly every possible type of environment to be found in North America, from southern Mexico to Alaska. I approach the Maze every bit as seriously as I do any major mountain ascent or solo in Grizzly country, and I strongly encourage others to do the same!

Have fun, but be safe out there everyone!

Kevin McCollough
Nov 14, 2008

I hiked the maze in April and had no issues with water; two springs were actually active and I easily collected enough to keep my bottles full. Recommend stashing a bottle at the base of your climb; the climb out can be tough if you run out of water. Flints trail was a blast, but agree on high clearance 4wd!

Nov 14, 2008

This review doesn't even talk about one of the more difficult aspects of The Maze -- just GETTING there using the infamous Flint Trail. Be sure you have beefed-up suspension and good skid plates before attempting this trip. Or better yet, hire a guide! But if you love desert hiking you won't want to miss The Maze.

Mike Johnson
Nov 14, 2008

I've hiked the Maze. It was a hike to see the Harvest Scene. The hike down in to the Maze was an adventure. You can't be frightened of heights. You're down climbing steep sandstone walls. In a few spots you only holds are holes in the rock. They are there and they are not too far spaced to not easily reach.

I disagree with the writer here. In my opinion, October is the best time to be in Canyonlands and the deserts of the South West. The days are warm and the night cool. The weather is perfect.

In years of hiking in the West. I have seen two rattlesnakes. They minded their own business. Leave them alone. I've seen two tarantulas: one in the Mojave and one east of Sacramento in the foothills. They're ugly but not poisonous. I've never thought to worry about a mountain lion.

There's a secret. Cool nights are snakeless nights. When, the temperature drop, reptiles aren't moving. I guess this is also why I like fall.

Too me, this isn't hat scary. Driving Flint Trail was over rated by the park service. In the Maze you walk mostly in sandy washes. You should have the sense to know how to back track your own trail. I didn't have a compass, map or GPS.

It's a Maze but it has a distinct drainage pastern the grade heads east toward the Colorado River.

The trial drops to the Main drainage. You count, I think it was three canyons to you right. You also have the dark buttes of the Chocolate Drops for reference. They are South, south east. You right right and walk up the wash.

It's common sense, people.

Nov 05, 2008

There may not be any bears in the Maze, but scorpions, tarantulas, rattlesnakes and even mountain lions rate more than a 3 on the danger scale.

Nov 05, 2008

NPS rangers are awesome!!


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