Terra Galleria Photography

A quick trip into the Maze district, Canyonlands


Canyonlands National Park is divided into three districts of distinct character by the Green and Colorado rivers: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze. Even at the most developed district, Island in the Sky, no water is available outside of the visitor center. The most primitive district is the Maze. Since I had not visited it before, one of the main goals of this trip was to remedy this situation, as I endeavor to visit each distinct area of each National Park.

Driving into the Maze requires a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. Not any vehicle: most SUVs won’t make it without damage. Local favorites seem to be older Toyota Land Cruisers (with lift and special tires) and Jeep Rubicon/Wranglers. The most remote road-side location in the Maze, the Doll House, requires 9 hours of driving from Moab – only 2 hours less than from Los Angeles to Moab – although it is only 35 miles as the crow flies. There are no roads within the park, nor bridges that directly link the three districts, so you have to go around the park. Once you are inside the park, you have to contend with some extremely difficult four-wheel drive roads, where driving over rocks is barely faster than walking. It’s not a good place for an inexperienced four-wheel drive driver to travel solo. A tow-truck rescue costs thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, there is a shortcut. Instead of riding a bumpy road all day, you can access the Doll House by the river. Floating down the Colorado River down to its confluence with the Green River is fairly popular, however most paddlers prefer to get a ride upstream. Two companies which provide such a service are: Tag (which I used. Cost: $250) and Tex. The boats which pick up padders can also drop off and pick up backpackers.

I did not want to drive to the Canyonlands Visitor visitor center (one hour away) just to get a wilderness permit, but although the rangers at Arches were not aware of that, the owner of Tag told me that I could get one at the headquarters on the outskirts of Moab (2282 Resource Boulevard). After photographing at sunrise in Arches National Park, I got there at opening time (8am), paid the helfty $30 fee, and was on my way. For people with a vehicle, there are only three campsite sites at the Doll House, which are often claimed, but as a backpacker there were little restrictions over where I could sleep.

The ride on the Colorado River from Potash to the Confluence takes only about two hours and half. Besides the interesting river-level views, it is quite a thrill. The specialty boat, propelled by jet, speeds over 30 mph on calm waters. It needs to make sharp turns, not only to follow the meandering river, but also to avoid sand bars, during which it leans dramatically. All the talk on board was about an accident that occurred a week before my trip, when a jet boat struck a sand bar resulting in injuries to eight people, the first accident of that type in Canyonlands.

The boat dropped me off at Spanish Bottom, shortly after the Confluence. The well-established trail to the Doll House is only slightly more than a mile, but it gains a thousand feet of elevation from the river, and I was carrying a fair amount of gear (including two full-size tripods) and a gallon of water. Guides that I met at the Spanish Bottom thought that this not may be enough, and generously left a water jug for me. I eventually didn’t need it, probably because after the breeze from the jetboat speed, the September heat felt so oppressive that instead of hiking the trail to the Doll House in mid-day heat, I took a nap to wait for it to be in the shade.

I arrived at the Doll House in the afternoon. It was beautiful and I appreciated the feeling of isolation, especially at night where no artificial light was visible.

As it reminded me of Chessler Park in the Needles district, with its whimsical brightly colored spires encircling a meadow-like flat, I wished I had more time to explore the area further, in particular the area called the Maze, which gave its name to the whole district. However when I made the booking for my trip with Tag-a-long, there was some miscommunication, as only two people in the company would have been able to arrange my custom itinerary properly. I got to spent only one night there, since there were no pick-ups the next days. Besides wandering the Doll House, I had time only to check out the trail to Behive Arch, the Surprise Valley overlook (first image) and an ancient granary.

I plan to return – maybe even next year – with a proper vehicle.

More images of Canyonlands National Park
More images of Maze District


  1. Paul Beiser says:

    Hi QT,
    I am definitely interested.. have done quite a bit of Desert SW shooting but not in this area.. and I love to hike as well.

  2. I like your images of the Doll House.

  3. Pat Brennan says:

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful pictures. Love the ones with the stars!, so beautiful.

  4. Howdy QT,
    I was the guide who met you at Spanish Bottom. We really enjoy your photography, and would like to talk to you about a future photo tour.

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