Biking Canyonlands National Park

A treacherous rock labyrinth in Utah brings cyclists face-to-face with the majesty of the American West.

I stood straddling my mountain bike at the top of the Flint Trail, a washed-out, nearly vertical series of rock-strewn switchbacks that drop 600 feet down an orange cliff face. Below me lay the Maze, 119 square miles of impossibly tangled canyons and rock outcroppings that form one of the most unforgiving and least accessible portions of Utah’s remote Canyonlands National Park, 244 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Just one hour into a five-day backcountry mountain-bike tour and I was already paralyzed with fear.

Up from behind me came Jacques Hadler. One of our two guides, Hadler cruised past me and negotiated the tight switchbacks, baby-head-sized rocks and slurry of sand and pebbles as if he were dancing several inches above it all. My mountain-biking skills are competent at best. When I see people expertly biking—or “cleaning”—a section of trail like Hadler does, I’m in awe.

I swallowed hard, pushed off, clipped into my pedals, slid my butt so far back that my stomach was resting on the seat and let gravity do its evil best. Every bone in my body rattled apart from every other, and I think I lost a portion of a molar on my way down. I certainly did not “clean” the Flint Trail, but I believe I gave it a thorough dusting—and I could not stop grinning.

Inland seas, wind and the Green and Colorado rivers carved the Maze deep into the area’s deposits of sandstone and shale over millions of years. The region had been occupied for at least 10,000 years, first by hundreds of generations of Native Americans, who used it for shelter and hunting, and more recently by cattle ranchers, who named the area Under the Ledge and used it for grazing their stock. In modern times, miners carved an extensive road network (which we were riding) so their machinery could access the veins of uranium ore that they believe riddled the canyons. The ancients, cattle, ranchers and trucks are all gone now, and the Maze remains.

It is a jumble of red, orange, gray and white cliffs and anthropomorphic rock spires, arches and buttes—all held down in deafening silence by an enormous cerulean sky. Even the wind doesn’t make a sound here, except when it finds a pinyon pine, cottonwood tree or sagebrush to whistle through. The combined effect of the quiet, otherworldly beauty and remoteness has the power to clear your head like no cocktail, therapist, meditation retreat or drug ever could.

Fewer than 4,000 people a year ever see the Maze—and even fewer venture into it. It takes at least two and a half hours by highway followed by five hours on a rough four-wheel-drive-only dirt road to get to the access trail. Once in, there is no food or water, no electricity, no Porta-Potties. The National Park Service fiercely protects the environmental integrity of this region and gives permits only to touring outfits that follow ironclad environmental protocols while in the park. Our company, Escape Adventures, takes this requirement seriously. Our chase vehicle, a modified Ford F-250, ran on vegetable oil so no diesel fumes would disturb the air quality. It smelled like a giant French fry, but it got where it needed to go. Visitors are expected to pack in everything, then pack out everything when they leave—and by everything, I mean everything.

Our first day proceeded on playful, less-technical trails along a plateau above the Maze, affording us tasty glimpses of the rock labyrinth below. We arrived at our first campsite, the Maze Overlook, and were rendered speechless by the view. The canyons twisted into a vast yet delicate latticework of rock. Above them, at our level, solitary rock formations guarded the Maze’s depths. The Chocolate Drops, enormous narrow fins of dark brown, stood sentinel, and in the distance other towers like Lizard Rock, the Plug, Standing Rock and the Abajo mountain range completed the grandeur.

Here we were surrounded by scenic beauty, yet peril was never far away. Although Hadler and our other guide, Marc Landblom, were proficient in first aid, anyone suffering a serious injury was pretty much screwed—medical help was never closer than six hours away during the entire trip. Protocols for rescue were in place, but the preferred protocol was don’t get hurt. Then there was the Groover—a two-foot-square metal box with a hole cut in the top, over which sat a temporary toilet seat. After it served its purpose each morning, Hadler or Landblom removed the seat and clamped a very serious-looking gasket lid onto the hole. The Groover was then placed on the back of the truck for transport to the next rest stop.

The Groover came with instructions, delivered with theatrical flair by Landblom: Liquid waste, he said, must land on rock; solids went into the Groover; toilet paper went in the trash. No liquids were allowed in the Groover; when mixed, he explained, liquid and solid fermented in the contraption while it bounced around in the back of the truck in the hot desert sun all day. This created dangerous gas buildup that could lead to an apocalyptic Groover explosion. (He swore it had happened.) Tense glances darted among the female cyclists. For most women, it is anatomically impossible to comply with the Groover directive. The rest of the trip, each woman harbored fear that she’d be the one responsible for the inevitable disaster. Landblom made the Groover less intimidating by giving it the best view of each campsite.

Once our appetites returned, Hadler transformed the F-250 into an Escoffier-quality kitchen and prepared planked salmon, pasta salad and pineapple upside-down cake. He set a level of culinary excellence that was maintained for every meal on the trip. The only refrigeration was from a bunch of coolers. No open campfires were allowed. I’m still not entirely sure how he pulled off three gourmet meals daily.

The next day dawned clear. We walked from the campground to the Maze Overlook Trail, an arduous scramble, often involving ropes, that dropped us down into the south fork of the Horse Canyon. An hour in, we rounded a final bend and were confronted with the Harvest Scene, a series of surreal human-like figures painted large on the red rock wall of the cliffs by the canyon’s prehistoric occupants. The pictographs are dated back to the early first millennium by some experts and are among the oldest and most well-preserved examples of Barrier Canyon art. We hiked out the other side, and our bikes and camping gear were waiting for us at Chimney Rock, a giant stone tower dominating the surroundings. After another feast, we retired early in our wind-driven tents.

The following three days, we covered another 67 miles through every type of terrain and surrounding the Maze could throw at us. A one-and-a-half-mile, 1,300-foot hike down the face of a cliff wall led us to the Colorado River. It was hot and dry when we emerged at Brown Betty Rapids, with its pristine beach. The water was chilled to freezing by mountain snowmelt and was too cold and fast for most of us to do more than dip a toe in.

Later, my bike skid in deep sand, and I tumbled butt-first directly into a prickly pear cactus. Fun fact: Cacti actually have two kinds of needles—the big obvious ones that you can pull out easily and the tiny filament-sized ones that are nearly impossible to locate but make their presence known whenever touched. Removal requires the assistance of a very close friend with keen eyesight and a pair of tweezers.

The final 30-mile stretch had the feel of a John Ford movie set: flat, wide-open lands bounded by distant, solitary rock plateaus. An unrelenting headwind made the pedaling difficult, but the vistas gave the sense of territories not visited since cowboys wrangled here. We ended at the Hite Marina, a nearly deserted port upstream of Lake Powell. Our lift back to Escape Adventures’ base in Moab was two single-engine Cessnas parked on a narrow strip of what looked like a crumbling, abandoned road. Physically spent and caked in red dirt after five grueling but exhilarating days, we ambled up to the planes. We flew high above the Maze, gazing down into its immense puzzle. It’s not often in your life that you’re hung so far over the edge with nothing to save you but what you brought. We had our guides and the truck, of course, but biking the Maze had shown that we need very little to survive in even the most challenging conditions—and only slightly more to thrive.

Tackling Canyonlands National Park: The Nuts and Bolts

Escape Adventures’ five-day biking tour through the Maze covers 120 miles of some of the most inaccessible and least-traveled areas of Canyonlands National Park, in southeastern Utah. I am by no means an avid mountain biker, but anyone attempting this trip should spend some time in a bike saddle, preferably riding a mountain bike over rough terrain. At the very least, you should build up stamina (and the often overlooked-but absolutely critical “butt toughness”). The next tour is September 22 to 26 and costs $1,370 a person (800-596-2953;