Canyonlands National Park: Golden Stairs-Sweet Alice Loop

Outrageous spires and hidden springs highlight this 3-day loop through the Maze District.
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Outrageous spires and hidden springs highlight this 3-day loop through the Maze District.

Every spring, thousands of hikers and 4WD campers head into the Maze, drawn by Ed Abbey’s paeans to its remoteness and beauty. But most ignore the spectacular Fins country in the district’s southern end, with its imposing towers of banded sandstone. This 30.7-mile tour connects three lightly visited slickrock canyons in that area via sketchy trail, easy scrambles, and a fast return trek on a dirt road. Several reliable water sources make extended stays feasible, and you can tailor your challenge level by wandering to the many isolated ledges and spur canyons. The only hitch? You’ll need a 4WD vehicle to reach the Golden Stairs trailhead.
Your hike starts spectacularly as you cross the narrow stone ramp of China Neck, with dizzying views off either elbow, then wind 2 miles down the rugged Golden Stairs Trail to the Standing Rock jeep road. A short road mile leads to an unmarked parking area beneath twin redrock pinnacles known as Mother and Child. From here, a faint trail threads down into Range Canyon past a hidden Anasazi ruin and a historic cowboy water source called Lou’s Spring; then an established trail takes you through the tight hallway of the Chute before arrowing across open basins toward the distant Doll House.
The big attraction, however, is a side trip into the forks of Sand Tank Canyon, both walled in by corkscrewing sandstone pinnacles banded in pink, orange, and white. Don’t hurry through this country; surprises and secluded nooks are everywhere. You can follow established trail east all the way to the Doll House, but a more interesting exit climbs from the upper reaches of Sweet Alice Canyon to deposit you on Standing Rock Road near its namesake formation. From there, it’s a fast 9-mile road walk back to the foot of the Golden Stairs Trail. You can complete this last section with a 4WD or mountain-bike shuttle, but Standing Rock Road is long and tortuous, even for the toughest vehicles.
Mapped by Steve Howe

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 49.4

Waypoints

FNT001

Location: 38.143867, -110.08313

Golden Stairs Trailhead: Hike east up the China Neck

FNT002

Location: 38.143799, -110.077187

Plateau rim

FNT003

Location: 38.135715, -110.078903

Road; turn left

FNT004

Location: 38.139568, -110.070686

Range Canyon Trailhead: This trailhead is unsigned. Small rectangle of rock sits just beneath twin pinnacles The Mother and Child. Start counter-clockwise loop.

FNT005

Location: 38.134418, -110.062614

Range Canyon. Turn left for short out-and-back to spring

FNT006

Location: 38.1357, -110.061134

Lou's Spring, a developed cowboy spring with reliable water and catchment tank

FNT007

Location: 38.132717, -110.060349

Trail leaves wash

FNT008

Location: 38.133049, -110.047333

Continue east

FNT009

Location: 38.132732, -110.040016

Small potholes sometimes hold water

FNT010

Location: 38.13335, -110.019981

Turn L into Sand Tank Canyon

FNT011

Location: 38.136333, -110.02108

Turn L into sidecanyon of Sand Tank Creek

FNT012

Location: 38.139668, -110.02552

Dryfall blocks passage up canyon fork

FNT013

Location: 38.13905, -110.024918

Slab climb detours around impassable dry fall

FNT014

Location: 38.138351, -110.025764

Excellent campsite

FNT015

Location: 38.142834, -110.033134

Small arch and porhole at upper reach of canyon fork, possible water source in wetter seasons; return to Waypoint FNT011 and hike north up main canyon

FNT016

Location: 38.144966, -110.017067

Possible water during wetter seasons in miniature slot canyon, center of wash

FNT017

Location: 38.146198, -110.017464

Superb views of fins, good campsites

FNT018

Location: 38.15456, -110.010246

Continue north

FNT019

Location: 38.161865, -110.007263

Possible water from spring and pool hidden inside small rock arch

FNT020

Location: 38.165066, -110.012184

End Canyon: No exit. Backtrack to FNT010 and turn left.

FNT021

Location: 38.131966, -110.017136

Well-cairned trail leaves Sand Tank Canyon to east.

FNT022

Location: 38.138882, -110.007484

Very subtle trail leaves wash, following scant cairns to east-northeast

FNT023

Location: 38.151066, -109.993431

Potholes, possible water in wetter seasons

FNT024

Location: 38.154316, -109.9907

Standing Rock pinnacle becomes visible ahead. You'll meet the Standing Rock road just east of it.

FNT025

Location: 38.169483, -109.988747

Follow canyon all the way until it dead ends in cliffs and three distinct forks. Follow right hand/east fork. Several slickrock potholes at junction may hold water.

FNT026

Location: 38.168335, -109.987297

Canyon Rim. Find faint trails across slickrock to east

FNT027

Location: 38.168098, -109.986351

Scramble up 20-foot cliff to next level of rim. Turn north and avoid cryptogamic soils by hugging rim

FNT028

Location: 38.175968, -109.988297

Standing Rock Road--Standing Rock pinnacle sits some 300 yds to east. From here, pickup second car, mountain bike, or hike road 9 miles back to FNT004.