On this section we were mostly on an alternate to the Hayduke Trail to take in an area of very remote and intricate canyons called “The Maze” which we hadn’t seen before. In 2014 we took another alternate and what both have in common is that from Needles in Canyonlands National Park, we end up at the Colorado River at a place called Spanish Bottom. From the north bank of the river we climb up again over remote plateau and end up in the well named Happy Canyon and then cross the even more appropriately named Dirty Devil river (a very muddy tributary of the Colorado). Credits for the route go to Jamal Green who describes it on his excellent Across Utah website.
The map below has an overview of the routes; Red=Hayduke, Purple=2022 Alternate via The Maze, Black=2014 Alternate via Ernies Country and South Fork Happy
The Needles area of Canyonlands is mostly known for spiky stripy rock formations but it also has a sunken valley known as a graben called Cyclone Canyon which was a cool place to hike. This is not made by water erosion like most canyons but by a collapse of underground salt deposits.
We camped near the south bank of the Colorado River on the first night. Brian had arranged for a ferry operator to pick us up at 10:00 and take us across. They were taking hikers from Moab to the opposite northern shore and that all worked out very smoothly.
From there we climbed a steep trail up 1000 ft to a place of rock spires called the Dolls House. The trail was made in the 19th century by sheepherders to allow their flocks access to the river. We followed some jeep tracks north across open plateau to reach the edge of ‘The Maze’ at a place called Chimney Rock and the descent down a cairned route into The Maze was tremendous.
Inside The Maze we saw green cottonwood trees for the first time and the character of the landscape was less severe, more gentle. There was water! Not flowing but emerging in small clear dips in the sand.
We were not the only people to find The Maze hospitable as seen in pictographs at the Harvest Scene panels lefts by people variously referred to as Fremont or Basketmaker people.
From the Maze we had a few miles on jeep trails over a plateau called Hans Flat, named after rancher Hans Andersen who ran cattle here. We were able to pick up some water here at remote park visitor centre.
Then we descended North French Spring Fork of Happy Canyon. Finding the top of the descent down the steep canyon walls was quite exciting as it involved a fair bit of route finding (no trail here). Along the way we came across three black donkeys who live happily down there in a green(ish) valley…… they took one look at us and ran.
After the donkeys we got onto another 100 year old stock trail down, down, down a weakness in the cliffs until we hit the floor of the fork into Happy Canyon.
Happy Canyon had water! Yes, in the pic below this is a delicious clear (once the tadpoles and mosquito larvae have been shoo-ed out of the way) first rate drinking water. Ignore the white rime. That’s just minerals deposited as the water evaporates…
The second best thing about Happy Canyon, after the water, is that it turns into a slot Canyon for the last mile and a bit. So, so beautiful!
Happy Canyon narrows end very suddenly when meeting the Dirty Devil. This is a long river that goes through layers of rock that produce a lot of very fine silt (it also has lots of agricultural run off higher up)…so it is muddy and its bottom is very silty. Not much fun to cross and even worse to drink.
We decided against drinking it though as we pushed on to Poison Spring Canyon which, despite the name, had a wonderful clear spring.
Now we have come over 180 miles and there are some signs of wear! Brian has taken to wearing his socks upside down because the sand has eroded the soles! There are also some blisters and we are now in the tiny town of Hanksville, resting up and preparing for the next section over the Henry mountains to the town of Escalante…..
A few more photos…
More pics on our pbase site here
Route We took a northerly alternate from the Hayduke over the Colorado River at Spanish Bottom, through the Maze, Hans Flat and Happy Canyons to join the Hayduke at Poison Springs. See here for overview map.
Needles visitor centre to Colorado River – We saw no water on the trail from Big Springs down Cyclone Canyon then Lower Red Lake. We took water from the Colorado.
Maze – Standard descent from west of Chimney rock to Pictograph canyon – small pothole on scramble descent and small potholes at canyon bottom about where marked by Kelsey as a spring.
Maze- Wash north of the Harvest Scene, on the west side of the canyon junction -small seep flow
Maze – Foot of the Maze Overlook trail – Good water in pools with a small flow.
North Trail Canyon – Small pothole just before steep zig zag exit. We didn’t notice any water between Maze Overlook and here.
Hans Flat Ranger Station- Sells gallon jugs and open between 8 and 4.30.
North French Springs Fork – Medium pothole of water in wash above steep constructed trail descent. Well used by feral donkeys though and we didn’t take.
North French Springs Fork- Constructed trail descends steep section round a nose to the boulder filled wash at bottom and then continues criss crossing wash to easier ground after boulder section. Makes for a relatively easy passage.
North French Springs Fork- Slickrock pothole area down wash mentioned by Jamal Green was dry.
Happy Canyon- Small seep 1 mile below French Springs Fork junction. Good pools and seeps 3 miles below. We also saw these in April 2014. Happy Canyon narrows had some small potholes which may be better than the muddy water in the Dirty Devil…
Poison Spring Canyon- Good flow about 1 mile below and 2 miles above the spring.