Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Sand and Snow

June can be tough. The desert is a furnace, while the mountains are still snowed in. Backcountry trips are possible, but perhaps a little uncomfortable. 

Notwithstanding, I took a delightful pair of June backpacking trips. In brief!

The Maze

I mentioned off-hand earlier this year that I'd never been to the Maze district of Canyonlands, even though I'd lived in Utah for more than a decade. My buddy Paul lives in the area, and has taken many a Maze trip before. He offered to put together a route and coordinate our permits.

Ordinarily, the Maze is a total pain to get to - and the primary reason I'd never been there before. It involves multiple hours of bumping and clunking your way down 4WD roads, miles from anything even remotely resembling civilization. You definitely don't want car trouble out there!

We took a different approach. Rather than spending our time in the car, we opted to make the shorter drive to the Needles district, on the opposite bank of the Colorado, and packraft our way into the Maze. We ended up floating the river for several miles, including through the Confluence of the Green and Grand (e.g. upper Colorado). The Confluence is, in my mind, the beating heart of the American West. The two rivers join as equals. Their collective might carved Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon, and of course the Grand Canyon. Everyone from Denver to Los Angeles depends on this thin ribbon of silty water to sustain civilization in this arid climate. The only sound audible as we cruised through the confluence was the occasional splish-splash of our paddles.

Before the river enters the truly wild rapids of Cataract Canyon, it forms a nice beach at Spanish Bottom. There, we packed up our boats, and climbed into the Maze itself.

I'd of course heard great things about the Maze, but those words apparently never sunk in, because I was blown away by the scenery. Arches, rock art, fun scrambles, and a few truly magical water sources made for an excellent couple days of wandering. The afternoons were blazing hot, but nothing that a few shady lunch spots couldn't handle. All too quickly, we completed our Maze loop, and crossed back over the Colorado to the Needles. Clouds helpfully lingered overhead as we made the long climb up from the river back to my car.

Overall - a great trip. It won't be my last Maze experience. There is so much more to see!


The San Juans

Then it was time to visit the source of the river. I spied some relatively clear, south-facing terrain along the Colorado Trail that looked appealing. Much of it was still a patchy snow slog, but there was still plenty of bare ground. I crossed an unnamed pass at 12,500' in perfect snow conditions. Many of the lakes still held ice. I found a tiny patch of bare ground to camp on, at about 12,000'. I slept surprisingly well despite the altitude, and woke up to a delightful sunrise the next morning.

As I descended, the snow thinned out to a decorative, patchy sparkle. Wildflowers appeared. Pure bliss. This will definitely not be my last San Juans experience!