Canyonlands National Park: Golden Stairs-Sweet Alice Loop
Outrageous spires and hidden springs highlight this 3-day loop through the Maze District.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
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
- Distance: 49.4
Location: 38.143867, -110.08313
Golden Stairs Trailhead: Hike east up the China Neck
Location: 38.143799, -110.077187
Location: 38.135715, -110.078903
Road; turn left
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.
Location: 38.134418, -110.062614
Range Canyon. Turn left for short out-and-back to spring
Location: 38.1357, -110.061134
Lou’s Spring, a developed cowboy spring with reliable water and catchment tank
Location: 38.132717, -110.060349
Trail leaves wash
Location: 38.133049, -110.047333
Location: 38.132732, -110.040016
Small potholes sometimes hold water
Location: 38.13335, -110.019981
Turn L into Sand Tank Canyon
Location: 38.136333, -110.02108
Turn L into sidecanyon of Sand Tank Creek
Location: 38.139668, -110.02552
Dryfall blocks passage up canyon fork
Location: 38.13905, -110.024918
Slab climb detours around impassable dry fall
Location: 38.138351, -110.025764
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
Location: 38.144966, -110.017067
Possible water during wetter seasons in miniature slot canyon, center of wash
Location: 38.146198, -110.017464
Superb views of fins, good campsites
Location: 38.15456, -110.010246
Location: 38.161865, -110.007263
Possible water from spring and pool hidden inside small rock arch
Location: 38.165066, -110.012184
End Canyon: No exit. Backtrack to FNT010 and turn left.
Location: 38.131966, -110.017136
Well-cairned trail leaves Sand Tank Canyon to east.
Location: 38.138882, -110.007484
Very subtle trail leaves wash, following scant cairns to east-northeast
Location: 38.151066, -109.993431
Potholes, possible water in wetter seasons
Location: 38.154316, -109.9907
Standing Rock pinnacle becomes visible ahead. You’ll meet the Standing Rock road just east of it.
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.
Location: 38.168335, -109.987297
Canyon Rim. Find faint trails across slickrock to east
Location: 38.168098, -109.986351
Scramble up 20-foot cliff to next level of rim. Turn north and avoid cryptogamic soils by hugging rim
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.