A Maze, Poisoned Spring, and a Black Dragon

National Parks are generally marked by boring roads, bland views, closed roads, prepared campsites not allowing fires, signs telling you what not to do, and east coast tourists on an “adventure”. So in other words, places to be avoided at all costs. So when my good friend Joseph said that he was returning to Utah briefly from his exile in Florida to go to the Maze district of Canyonlands, I initially was non-committal leaning towards a firm no.

My Dad on the other hand, wanted to go. You see, the Maze district is probably the most remote area in the National Park system, you need a permit to stay there, and it is actually supposed to be a challenging drive to get to the bottom called The Dollhouse. My Dad had always wanted to drive this road, and with Joseph having the permit, here was his chance. But he wanted me to go, because, you know, who wouldn’t want me along?

While it’s remoteness appealed to me because that meant no east coast tourists (aside from Joseph), all the other detracting factors still existed. But, it’s my Dad, so I begrudgingly agreed to go along.

The plans for the main group was to head down on Wednesday night and camp outside of the park, then head in Thursday morning, camp along the supposedly challenging Flint Trail and then finally reach The Dollhouse Friday. My dad was going to join them Thursday morning, and because I’d used the last of my vacation time at work the weekend before in the Pavant Range, I was going to blast down Friday night and meet them at The Dollhouse.

The main groups plan went off without a hitch, and they moseyed on down to The Dollhouse at a leisurely pace. My Dad decided the week before that he’d rather accompany me down on Friday night. I had a very reliable person tell me, “Oh yeah, you can make it from Salt Lake to The Dollhouse in six hours. No problem!” So I figured I’d be able to leave work at 2:30pm and I’d be at The Dollhouse by 8:30-9:00pm no problem.

My Dad and I took off promptly at 2:30 Friday afternoon and cruised the familiar highways to Green River where we topped off out tanks and grabbed some Subway sandwiches for dinner. We left Green River about 5:00pm and found our way to the turn off for the Hans Flat road along UT 24. This is the 40 some odd mile road that takes us to the Hans Flat Ranger Station at the edge of the Maze District of Canyonlands. All reports said it was a well-maintained, high speed dirt road. Everyone was wrong.

Aside from Maybe the TL Bar Ranch Road north of Wendover, this was the most washboardy road I’ve ever encountered. Just miserable. In addition, frequent washouts and ruts from the recent storms slowed our pace considerably. But we still made decent time and arrived at the Ranger Station just after dusk around 7:15. As we aired down our tires, I concluded that reaching The Dollhouse by 8:30 or 9:00 was a bit optimistic at this point, but we’d probably still make it by 10:00.

We took off from the Ranger Station and found the notoriously challenging Flint Trail in much better condition than Hans Flat road. There was an occasional dip to worry about, but aside from that, easy 2-wheel drive cruising at 40 miles per hour. At this rate, we’d cover the 40 miles in no time!

We then hit the first “challenging” section. A series of tight, rocky, steep switchbacks. With only our headlights to guide us, we dropped into 4-low and slowly descended. Nothing seriously hard, but not knowing what was ahead of you, or off the edge of the trail, made it a bit interesting.

After a few miles of maybe moving at 10-15 MPH tops, the road straightened and flattened out enough again to take it out of 4WD and start cruising again. If that was the roughest we were to expect, we’d still make it to The Dollhouse in short order.

The next eight miles or so were uneventful. Marked by a few small rocky parts, but otherwise much like the road before the switchbacks, fast and smooth. We were rapidly approaching what the Park Service called the hardest section, a twelve-mile stretch of road between Teapot Rock and Standing Rock. We figured that if the road were like the switchbacks before, it wouldn’t be any bother.

And then we hit the first ledge. From Teapot rock to The Dollhouse took us nearly four hours. That’s how bad it was. Not that anything was terribly difficult, simply that it was rocky, technical driving made all the worse by being pitch black everywhere except in our headlights.

For twelve miles we lumbered, mostly in 4-low. At one point, I heard a tingling noise from my left rear. I hopped out, and there hanging down was my sway bar. A bolt didn’t break, the link didn’t snap. No, the sway bar itself had sheared off inside it’s bushing on the frame mount. This was ¾ inch steel that had just sheared. We quickly pulled the offending part of the sway bar off and continued, slowly, on our way.

At one point we saw headlights high up in the distance. We knew that was the rest of our group! But alas, due to the winding nature of the trail, it was still hours before we reached The Dollhouse.

When we did, it was 12:05am. Nine and a half hours after we left Salt Lake, in case you’re counting. It was, in 21 years of being involved with 4-wheeling, undoubtedly the most arduous trip I’ve had yet. But we had made it! The Dollhouse was ahead of us, and it was time to meet up with our friends… who were all asleep. We roared into campsites one and two to find all the lights out and all the available tent spots taken. So we turned around and made for the third campsite, which was a ways away and up a little rocky climb. Clearly a place where only Isuzu’s dare as there were no Jeeps or Toyota’s around.

Finally out of our vehicles, my Dad and I quickly pitched our tents and set up camp. We sat around our Coleman lantern (no fires allowed in National Parks) for a few minutes eating the remaining halves of our Subway sandwiches and sipping some cola to unwind for our long journey. Finally, though, sleep overpowered us and we turned in.

Saturday morning dawned at some point. Again, the thick canvas of my Skydome allowed me an extra hour or so.

Fortunately for me, my Dad is an early riser and his clomping around taking pictures awoke me. Or is that fortunate? I don’t know. Regardless, I finally struggled out of my sleeping bag and unzipped the Skydome to be greeted by this spectacular sight:

It’s these moments that remind me why I do this. Why I drive nine and a half hours, break stuff on my rig at 10pm and keep going. Why I love this state, and why I’m so happy that 24 years ago my Dad brought home a Suzuki Samurai and started me down this journey.

Despite the view, I was still groggy and stumbled about desperate to get the kettle on the boil so I could have some much-needed coffee. As I stood there watching the kettle, I could hear the sound of a motor coming closer and closer. Eventually, a KJ Liberty appeared from around the bend and struggled up the ledges to getting to our campsite. Once it arrived, Joseph hopped out of the passenger seat and proclaimed, “It’s a little sketch getting up here!”

“Only for Jeeps!” was my reply.

Joseph, the organizer of this grand adventure as well as the only east coast tourist of the bunch, and the KJ driver, Gary, chatted with us for a bit while my Dad and I ate breakfast. Joseph was surprised that we made it all the way in Friday night. He figured that we’d either head down on Saturday or camp somewhere along the way. Apparently another member of the party, Derek, corrected Joseph by saying something like, “No way, Stephen’s the fastest guy I’ve ever seen on a dirt road. He’s hardcore.” He was right, obviously.

Apparently the plan for the day was to hang out in camp, maybe do a little hiking, but that was about it. Joseph and Gary mounted the KJ again and scampered back to their camp. As my Dad and I finished up breaky, we discussed the day. Initially we had planned to drive more of the roads in the Maze district, but after last night’s harrowing experience, we figured that it might be more prudent to not to do that. Sitting in camp didn’t really sound all that exciting. And hiking is, on the whole, boring to us. We drive roads, that’s our form of entertainment. So we decided that we would hang out in camp with everyone for a bit and then head out via Poison Springs Road and camp somewhere along the way that night.

We finished breakfast, packed up and headed into Camp 1. We got there to find everyone gathered around also discussing the plans for the day. Derek and his co-pilot Brian were already planning on heading out as well. Everyone else was in a “whatever” kind of mood. So with a fancy sales pitch (Adventure! Excitement!), I managed to convince the whole crew to roll out with Derek, my Dad and I rather than sit around camp with the mice (apparently the mice were quite bad the night before).

Everyone quickly gathered their gear up and we headed out.

In the daylight, places that we only knew we were at because of mileage on the map or signs came into view.

We were able to make much better time along the Flint Trail in the day. Its amazing how when you don’t think you’re on the edge of a cliff and can see more than just a couple dozen yards ahead of you how much more confident you become.

We managed to traverse the section of the trail from the Dollhouse to the turn off to Poison Springs Road in two and a half hours as opposed to the nearly six hours of the night before!

We made the turn onto Poison Springs Road and quickly left Park Service land. The road was a fun, high-speed trail surrounded by beautiful vistas.

One of the more interesting things we came across was an old, abandoned trailer. Not the strangest thing to find out in the desert, but this one was definitely unique.

Apparently an enterprising individual had decided to turn the old family Hudson into what looks like a sheep trailer. Points for ingenuity! And apparently they had an early ARB fridge inside, as that was also abandoned nearby. Quite the luxurious setup!

After a poking around the old Hudson for a few minutes, we mounted up again. The clouds were looking ever more ominous and we wanted to make it to the fording point on the Dirty Devil before any rain might come.

From the river bed where the Hudson rested, the road climbed out of the canyon until we were finally hugging the walls high up and presented with spectacular views. I’ve been to New England, Chicago, Florida, all over the West. I traveled to the other side of the planet. I’ve seen beautiful works of art, exotic wildlife, amazing architecture, but this.

This is home. The grandeur. The vastness. I once had a man in New York City ask me if I agreed that it was the center of the known Universe. I laughed and said, “Go west, young man.”

Eventually the road, and its expansive views dropped back down to the Dirty Devil River where we were faced with fording its muddy waters. We piled out of the vehicles and started inspecting the banks.

Even though the water looked low and relatively slow, we still wanted to be cautious and make sure there were no surprises waiting for us. So Derek “volunteered” (he was the only one in shorts and sandals) to check the riverbed for us.

After confirming that it was solid, I eased the front wheels of my Trooper into the brown water and powered myself across. One by one the rest of our little band followed to the far shore.

Our goal for the day had been to get across the Dirty Devil so that we wouldn’t have to face it in the rain that was threatening for Sunday. And now that we had succeeded in that goal, our task was now to find a suitable campsite before sunset. This proved to be more of an imposing task that we had initially thought. All around us was beautiful redrock cliffs, sloping, rocky escarpment, and creek beds. There was nary a flat spot that wasn’t associated with some sort of drainage, and with rain possible that wasn’t terribly appealing.

Finally, as the last gasps of sunlight filtered down the canyon walls, we found a high part of the riverbed that likely only ever saw water during the most torrent parts of spring runoff.

After pitching tents and gathering some firewood, we congregated around the crackling fire pit to swap barbs and stories. I sincerely believe that sitting around a fire pit out in the desert could solve all the worlds’ ills.

The next morning I was again awoken not by the sun, but rather the sounds of others rustling about. I had fully expected it to rain the night before and to be greeted with a wet, gloomy Sunday morning. Rather, it was dry and warm with blue skies.

We prepared breakfast and packed our lovely campsite before heading out on the road again.

In our quest to find a suitable spot the night before; we had made it much further along Poison Springs Road than we had initially anticipated. So it was a fairly quick 10 mile jaunt to Highway 95 and pavement.

At this point, we bid adieu Mark in his JK who was returning home to New Mexico via Hite. The rest of us turned north and made for Hanksville for gas and to determine what the rest of our day was going to shape up like.

After topping off our tanks in Hanksville, Derek, Brian, my Dad, and I decided that we were going to head home via Black Dragon Canyon and the northern part of the San Rafael Swell. Mike and Joseph, unfortunately, decided that Hanksville was the end of their off road adventures. We said our good byes, wished Joseph luck in the flat, boring, humid land of Florida and the took off along Highway 24.

A little ways before reaching the I-70 onramp we turned onto old Utah Highway 24. Abandoned decades ago, this road leads to a pheasant farm, a dead end gate and eventually, the road to Black Dragon Canyon. But not long off the new road, was an old bridge crossing the San Rafael River.

The bridge, a mostly wooden structure that had been topped long ago with asphalt and a few steel plates, was in reasonable shape if you discounted the fire damage on the eastern approach.

Next to this bridge, were the remains of its predecessor, the pylons from a cable-stay bridge.

We wandered the bridge and the river beneath for a bit before heading out along the road again. Taking a wrong turn and continuing down old Highway 24 past the large afore mentioned pheasant farm before finding ourselves at the locked gate. After consulting our maps for a minute, we found our way back to a turnoff shrouded by brush and made our way along a very dusty road skirted by an old landing strip before we finally swept north into The Squeeze.

Aptly named as the canyon walls slowly squeeze in to a narrow point with I-70 on the horizon ahead. We sprinted along this road and under I-70 until we made it to the entrance to Black Dragon Canyon. Here we found a gaggle of road cars and mini vans. People who had braved the “rough” road up to that point before deciding to hike the remaining quarter mile or so to the iconic pictograph panel. We, being of sound mind and in far more capable vehicles, drove straight to the panel. Much to the visible ire of many of the hikers.

We arrived at the panel to gaze upon the ancient markings and contemplate it’s meaning. Personally, I think it’s graffiti, nothing more.

I know that’s sacrilege to say for many people, but I think that while it’s interesting to wonder what the people who created it were thinking, I don’t think it has any greater meaning than saying, “Hey, bro! I killed a horned beast. Check it! Ungh!” It’s like trying to find deep meaning in someone’s tag of an overpass sign. It’s just not there. I find the markings made by Pioneers far more interesting, but I’m in the minority, I know. Regardless of how I feel, Derek was fascinated.

After undoubtedly annoying the tourist at the panel with my inane ramblings about ancient graffiti for a while, Derek led us into the dark maw of Black Dragon Canyon.

Along the riverbed we found the remains of travelers less fortunate than us.

Eventually along the soft sandy river we reached a formidable obstacle that had to be conquered. Derek, in his mighty Toyota, decided that he would mount it with ease. Now, apparently on Thursday on the way to The Dollhouse it was discovered that the Tacoma was not engaging 4-Wheel Drive. That can be a problem when one tries to surmount obstacles. Derek felt that this was an issue easily overcome with the liberal application the throttle. With a loud bang of the right front hitting on a rock, the Toyota stopped. The silty sand. Not allowing any further progress.

Fortunately, unbeknownst to Derek and Brian, there was a bypass just to the left. So they backed up and slinked around.

My Dad, perhaps with some encouragement from me, decided to take on this little climb. Unfortunately, because of the Troopers wheelbase, he became high centered. I quickly scampered around the bypass, threw a strap to him and yanked him over. There is no visually documentation of this, so we can easily deny that it happened and say that his Trooper was the only vehicle to actually make it over!

We mounted back up and continued winding our way through the canyon until we finally ascended and found ourselves along the Jackass Benches.

As I was enjoying the view and hanging back to stay our of Derek’s dust, I came around a corner to find:

Yeah… So remember that loud bang on the Tacoma’s right front? Well apparently that caused some serious damage. Like, sheering several bolts ouf of the lower ball joint.

So we found that two bolts had completely sheered off, one had sheered off about halfway into the bolt hole and one bolt was just missing. This was probably an issue before the damaged caused by the hit on the ledge, but that likely finished the issue off. Fortunately, Toyotas and Isuzu’s share many AISIN components and I just happen to have eight bolts from when I replaced my lower ball joints in my toolbox that were an exact match for the Tacoma.

So we got to work.

Derek was super excited to use his Bushwacker exhaust jack.

In fact, Derek was just super chill about the whole thing. If it where me, I would have hopped out of my rig, swore up a storm, and then been in a bad mood. Derek let loose some choice words, but generally was just upbeat. He’s kinda the embodiment of, ‘A day on the trail, no matter how bad, is better than a day in the office!’

Since we had the requisite bolts, the trail repair was actually pretty quick and painless.

Within an hour of the breakage, we were putting the tire back on and getting ready to roll.

Now, the repair was just a bandage as we could only get one bolt fully in and another about halfway. Regardless, Derek was super excited that he’d be able to drive out.

The stricken Tacoma put a damper on our plans to head home through the Swell. While we were making repairs, Brian was on the phone and got his brother to start heading down from Salt Lake to meet us at the next I-70 exit we could reach with a truck and trailer to get Derek’s vehicle all the way home. Also, because of the weakness of the repair, we limited our progress to ten or fifteen miles per hour along Jackass Flats. So rather than being able to make it to exit 131 in 30 minutes, it took around two hours.

No matter. We made it without any further damage and in high spirits. We pulled into the trailer parking area off the exit and Derek and Brian pulled out their camp chairs to wait in the warm sun for their rescuers to arrive. Meanwhile, my dad and I aired up our tires, said our good byes and took off for home.

As I accelerated up the onramp to the freeway, my Trooper was vibrating like crazy. Initially I thought that it was just mud stuck in the wheels and it would eventually even itself out. But, even as we reached 75mph, it persisted. We quickly pulled off at the next truck pullout and I dove underneath to find that my rear u-joint was shot. Not falling apart, but clearly in duress.

We made the decision to risk it and power on to Price and hopefully find a replacement there. I found that it was happiest at about 70mph, so we cruised along I-70 and US 6. Along the way I managed to get ahold of AutoZone and have them place a u-joint on hold. When we got into town about 7pm I hopped out again and took a look at the joint again. No change, which was encouraging. I still bought the replacement, but decided that doing a parking lot replacement in the failing light was not what I wanted to do. So we decided to risk it again for the drive home.

After a stopping in at Groggs for some dinner, we embarked again along US 6 through Spanish Fork Canyon. The whole while the Trooper would start vibrating heavily every time it dropped below 70mph, which was frequent. I had visions of the driveline coming apart and just destroying the underside of the vehicle. I wondered if perhaps I had made the wrong choice.

But it didn’t. It held all the way home. And when I checked after pulling up to my garage, the u-joint looked exactly the same as it did there on the side of I-70. Lucky me. And when I replaced it later in the week, I can tell you, I was sure glad I didn’t try and do it in the parking lot! Holy hell, was it a rusted POS!

The weekend on a whole was a fantastic trip. Arduous and frustrating at times, but without a doubt, one for the books! It was great to see Joseph and fantastic to finally get into The Maze, explore Poison Springs Canyon and wander through Black Dragon Canyon, all places I’ve been meaning to get to for years.