Goblins beat the Maze (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 15 Sep 2004

Goblins beat the Maze

On quite a few trips to Canyonlands national park, we've visited two of the park's three districts: Island in the Sky (several times) and Needles (once); but we'd never been to the third district, the Maze. The Maze is extremely remote, with no paved roads going anywhere nearby. None of the park brochures are clear about what's in the Maze, even; there are few photos, and no guides or descriptions for the dirt roads and trails. Naturally, we've been curious about it.

There are basically two ways in: via a dirt road coming off highway Utah 24 from Green River, or via a dirt road coming from from near Hite marina at the northern end of Lake Powell. The Green River end looks a bit more accessible, so we chose that option.

One advantage of the U-24 option is that it passes right by Goblin Valley state park, said by everyone to be worth seeing. And indeed it is. "Goblins", also known as hoodoos or "stone babies", are vertical pillars with a harder capstone on top, which protects the softer stone of the pillar from erosion. In the case of Goblin Valley, the two components are made from two different members of the Entrada formation, the same sandstone which comprises the arches and walls of Arches national park. So both parts of the goblins are deep, dark red, and the capstones erode into rounded shapes which do look like heads. (They might also evoke other shapes to some eyes, but we won't discuss that too much on a family-rated blog.)

Attitudes are relaxed at Goblin Valley. We paid the entry fee ($5) and the ranger apologized for not having maps -- they're printing a new set -- but told us to go to the end of the road, park, and "just walk anywhere. There aren't any trails, go anywhere you want." And so we did, spending a happy hour or so wandering among the goblins and enjoying the nearby scenery (including the spectacular San Rafael Reef, a many mile long spine of uptilted sandstone -- Navajo? -- at the edge of the peculiar San Rafael Swell).

But eventually we had to leave, and continue our Maze quest. We turned onto the dirt road a mile or so down highway 24 and proceeded on our way.

This was the RAV4's first long dirt outing (though we've had it on nontechnical dirt roads before) and it did fine on the dirt road, which wasn't bad as such roads go. There are signs at all important intersections, not too much washboard, and only a few rocky or sandy sections. It took maybe an hour and a half to get to Hans Flat, which was the least flat place we'd seen since leaving Goblin Valley. Was Hans a joker, or did he get a flat once when driving there?

The ranger at Hans Flat was very friendly and helpful, but unfortunately discouraging about the roads. We'd already been warned by the ranger at Island in the Sky that the roads are very technical and aren't suitable for many street SUVs; we had hoped to be able to get to Panorama Point for a view of the Maze, but the Hans Flat ranger told us that yesterday someone in a Grand Cherokee had tried for several hours to get up that trail, and had finally given up. The issue is mostly ground clearance, though the rangers at both locations stressed the importance of having a low-range gearbox. (We remain somewhat skeptical about that, based on our admittedly scant off-roading experience in the 4Runner, which did have a 4-low; the RAV4 has quite a low first gear, and we both suspect that any road which requires lower gearing than that would stop us for other reasons, like ground clearance or traction, before gearing became an issue.)

The ranger did make her point, though, asking whether we'd been to Needles (yes) and seen the road called Elephant Hill (yes, and hadn't been willing to try it in the 4Runner). "All our roads have sections worse than that. We recommend that people drive around Needles a bit first, then come here if you decide that isn't challenging enough." Point made.

So she suggested we try driving out to the first switchback of the Flint Trail and check out the view from there, and get an idea what the Flint (a steep descent down a mesa wall, rather like the Shafer Trail which descends from Island in the Sky to the White Rim, or the Horsethief Trail we'd taken to get down to the bottom of Upheaval Dome) was like. Her opinion was that our RAV4 could probably drive down the Flint, though our brakes would be fairly hot by the bottom, but that we wouldn't be able to drive back up it and would have to go out via Hite.

The road out to the Flint was fun driving -- rocky and occasionally sandy, mildly technical, but nothing the RAV had any trouble handling. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints, but found them disappointing: really all we could see was the Nevada-like scrubland below the Orange Cliffs, and the scrubland of the Elaterite Basin below that, plus a few buttes. Nothing nearly as interesting as the view from paved highway 24 before we turned onto the dirt, let alone the panoramic vistas of Island or Needles.

The Flint Trail itself was interesting to see, though. We could immediately see why she'd said it was more difficult than the Shafer or Horsethief: it's a bit narrower (only one car width through a lot of its descent), a lot steeper at least in some places, more technical (rocks and ruts), and the traction was quite poor. We hiked from the first switchback halfway down to the second, and our hiking shoes kept slipping in the dust when we tried to stop and take pictures. The dropoff isn't quite as scary in itself as the other two trails (most turns have sizeable berms on the outsides) but sliding down a steep slope over rocks and deep dust could change the scariness in a hurry.

And the view? Well, alas, it isn't really any better from there. We still couldn't see much of the Maze, or much else besides scrubland and a few buttes.

We're left wondering: what does the Maze look like if you can actually get inside? Is its attraction simply its inaccessibility (we saw only one other couple the whole time we were there -- you're not going to get overwhelmed with crowds here) or is there stuff hidden in the Maze that compares with Island and Needles? Do we care enough to find a way to set up a multi-day biking or backpacking trip?

A disappointment. But at least we saw the Goblins.

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[ 20:04 Sep 15, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]