By Susan Munroe

Mountain Biking the Maze DistrictTrips in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park tackle some of Utah’s most rugged and hard-to-access terrain. Deep, steep canyons twist and wind beneath a rugged stair step of geologic rock layers. The name is apt: it would be easy to stay here forever, deliberately losing oneself in the spectacular and endless winding canyons. Explore the Maze on a human-powered adventure: join Holiday for a four-day, fully supported bike trip. Riding a bicycle through the Maze gives you the ability to cover ground while still savoring the peace and quiet of this desert wonderland.

Perfect for: cycling enthusiasts, people who’ve biked the White Rim and want to go deeper, rock hounds, stargazers, groups (charter trips available for groups of 7).

Maze District Highlights

Traveling east from the San Rafael Swell, across the Green River Desert, the land rises and falls in gentle dunes and shaley flats until it quite literally ends, dropping away in a breathtaking succession of red buttes, mesas, and canyons, until it finally disappears into the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. The ranchers and miners who first traveled this landscape referred to it as simply “under the ledge”; today it is The Maze, the westernmost district of Canyonlands National Park. There are countless layers to explore. Stay high along the Orange Cliffs, or pick your way down the Flint Trail and cruise the bench above the Golden Stairs. Drop down one more level and the topography becomes trickier, incised by thousands of small and medium drainages slanting towards the rivers. Finally, leave your bike and continue on foot, scrambling down smooth rock faces until your feet touch the soft sand of the innermost Maze. There’s a special sensation of vertigo that builds the deeper you go. You’re truly in the Maze now, suspended halfway between the river and the rim in a labyrinth of sandstone walls and cottonwood trees.

Itineraries vary depending on our assigned campsites and the size of our group, but the Maze is one of those places where you could spend a lifetime wandering and still find new terrain to explore. The sky is enormous. Sunrises and sunsets take on epic proportions, as does the stillness of the landscape. Bighorn sheep and coyotes roam here, along with lizards and hundreds of other specks of life, but they roam quietly. After dark, you can almost hear the distant twinkling of the Milky Way. The riding is rugged, but not technical; we follow double-track, 4×4 dirt roads, and our four-wheel-drive (non-passenger) support van carries all the gear, keeping your load light. Fully supported means that you get to savor the endorphins of a day of fresh air and exercise while our professional guides take care of camp set up, dinner, and dishes.

Hiking in the Maze DistrictOnly in the Maze:

  • Travel the western edge of the Green River basin.
  • See the least-visited part of Canyonlands National Park.
  • Descend the Flint Trail, a steep and rugged remnant of the 1940s uranium mining boom.
  • Camp overlooking rock formations such as the Chocolate Drops, Lizard Rock, The Wall, and The Plug.
  • Travel around the head of the canyon that feeds the biggest rapids in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River.
  • Small group sizes, which allows for an intimate experience with the landscape.

Best known for:

Remote, rugged beauty and a smooth sandstone labyrinth.

The Holiday Way: Leave No Trace

The Maze District is a beautiful place, one that still retains much of its original character from before the arrival of industrialized humans. Other than a handful of dirt roads from the days before it was a park, there is no development, no infrastructure. Wild, dramatic, but delicate, the Maze (and most of the other areas where Holiday bikes and rafts) owes much of the integrity of its landscape to the careful forethought and continued stewardship of the Park Service as well as outfitters like Holiday, who often travel through the region more than the park rangers do.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early days of guided tours in Canyonlands National Park and other natural areas, people thought differently about the land. Dee Holladay was among the first to recognize the impact that recreation was having on the landscape, and to understand that the problem was only going to grow as these attractions became more popular. He began to run his trips with an eye to preserving the wilderness experience for future visitors. He started using an elevated fire pan to prevent the proliferation of blackened fire rings and scorched rocks and earth. He carried trash out instead of burning or burying it. He started packing out human waste. Dee helped to develop many of the Leave No Trace principles that continue to guide the Park Service and present-day outfitters today.

Our goal at Holiday is to provide high quality wilderness experiences for our guests. We want each person whom we take into the Maze to feel the same sense of awe and wonder that the first visitors did, without seeing evidence of the thousands of other visitors who’ve passed through since then. But more than that, it is our mission to preserve our nation’s wild lands. We work to preserve them from development, but even more, every day, we work to preserve them from ourselves. And so on every trip, we work to leave no trace of our visit, to leave the Maze and other wonders as we found it, or better.

Hike to the Harvest Scene in the Maze DistrictHiking/Side Ride Options

The Maze is a challenging landscape to navigate on foot. It’s why biking is such a satisfying way to explore it; it makes the distances more manageable. Although there are a few hikes that we try to offer on most of our Maze bike trips, people looking to do more than the day’s mileage will likely find themselves on side rides more than side hikes.

  • Ride out the North Point Road to Panorama Point or Cleopatra’s Chair
  • Explore the collapsing French Cabin near the French Spring. (Parlez-vous francais?)
  • Ride past the top of the Flint Trail out to The Neck for great views in two directions.
  • Hike along and down the Golden Stairs. Mother and Child rock is a strenuous 4-mile round trip hike, but a much shorter walk will earn you a front row seat to sunset.
  • The Maze Overlook hike is a highlight for small trips: spend the afternoon climbing down into the Maze itself and along the bottom of a sandy wash to the Harvest Scene, a 4,000-year-old pictograph panel.
  • Ride up Sunset Pass to admire an impressive concentration of petrified logs and a great view of the southern Maze.
  • Bowdie Canyon Overlook is an easy side ride on the last day to an overlook of the Colorado River in lower Cataract Canyon.

Starting and Ending Points

Start at Holiday’s warehouse in Green River, Utah. We’ll drive south and a little bit west on UT-24 before turning east toward the Hans Flat Ranger Station. It’s a remarkable drive, through shifting dune fields with views of the Henry and Abajo mountains. We’ll start our bike ride at or near to Hans Flat. Our assigned camps will dictate where we ride within the Maze, but we’ll end almost directly south of Hans Flat, at the Hite Narrows Bridge near Hite, Utah. A passenger van will meet us there and drive us the last two hours back to Green River.

The Stats

Distance:

  • Our most common route includes approximately 83 miles of riding, although there are several different routes we could ride, depending on our assigned campsites.

Permit:

  • Required, managed by the National Park Service.

Facilities:

  • The Maze is intentionally undeveloped, which means that we carry everything that we need with us (and carry out everything when we leave). Holiday provides a portable toilet system and handwashing station that can be set up as needed during the day, and remains set up at each campsite. Water is precious in the desert, but we carry more than a gallon per person for each day of the trip just for drinking, as well as all the extra we need for cooking and washing. We also provide solar showers for a quick, refreshing rinse at the end of the day’s riding.

Maze District Weather

 

Expansive views biking the Maze District of CanyonlandsThings to Know for Maximum Enjoyment of Your Bike Trip

The Maze is a rewarding wilderness adventure that bikers of most ability levels will enjoy; however, we recommend that you review these pro tips in order to get the most out of your bike trip.

  • Maze bike trips are the ultimate human-powered vacations. This means that you must come ready to ride. Our support van cannot carry passengers except in emergencies. There are many sections of the Maze that are fairly gentle, but there are also some steep, loose, up and down sections that you may choose to walk instead of ride. Feel free to hop off your bike at any time and take it for a little hike until you feel okay about riding again. If you are an experienced mountain biker, you will most likely find the Maze bike trip to be a great, fun challenge. You’ll be tired at the end of the day, but it’ll be a good tired.
  • Make sure you spend some time riding a mountain bike before your trip. Riding a road bike to work every day is not the same as riding 15 to 30 miles a day on rough, dirt trails on a mountain bike. The more time you spend mountain biking before your trip, the happier you will be on the trip. Maybe you’re interested in booking a trip, but you’ve never been mountain biking. That’s just fine. But don’t let the trip be the first time you try it: get some practice in before your trip.
  • If you’re putting together a Maze trip with a group of friends, try to assemble a group of people who have similar ability levels. You’ll all have more fun if everyone is able to ride at approximately the same level. During the day, you can ride a little bit spread out from each other if you like, but our guides’ job is to try to keep the group within a reasonable distance. We don’t want the front-runners to have to stop and wait, and we don’t want less-experienced riders to feel pushed or left behind.

Recommended Bikes

Holiday recommends using full-suspension bikes with 27.5- or 29-inch mountain bike–specific tires. Although the riding isn’t technical, we will travel along rough, rocky, two-track dirt roads for four consecutive days. Letting a bike’s shocks take some of the vibrating can go a long way toward a more enjoyable multi-day ride. Wide, knobby tires help provide traction on the rougher stretches of road. We do not recommend road bikes or touring bikes with narrow tires. If you plan to bring your own bicycle, we strongly recommend getting it serviced by a professional shop before your trip.

 

Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of  Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com, and photos of the river life here:  www.susanmunroe.zenfolio.com.