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Under the ledge

Park Service strives to keep the ‘wild’ in the tangled wilderness of Canyonlands’ remote Maze District

"Under the Ledge" is what old-time cowboys called the vast grass and slickrock range plunging toward the Colorado and Green rivers below southeastern Utah's Orange Cliffs.

"Crazy country," Edward Abbey wrote in his '70s eco-adventure, "The Monkey Wrench Gang." A desert territory as much vertical as it is flat, so gashed and shoved about by time, tectonics and weather that it's daunting and often inaccessible even to someone on foot.

Under the Ledge encompasses places like Waterhole Flat and the Land of Standing Rocks, the Doll House spires and the labyrinthine Maze.

"Whoever named it knew it," veteran tour guide Kent Frost remarked of the latter in a 1971 memoir. An ideal hideout, in other words, for Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith, the environmental rebels in Abbey's novel. A place more like home to them than home. Just as it was for Old West thieves like Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch.

"It was hard country for people," remembers Ned Chaffin, wild, desolate and as remote as remote can be. But people lived and worked there years ago, ranching mostly and prospecting some.

"It was a rough go for short dough," he says.

Chaffin is 86, retired in Bakersfield, Calif. But as a lad he was a cowboy who chased wild cattle and weaner calves Under the Ledge.

"It isn't so bad now," Chaffin says. "You can go down there in your jeep. But we must realize the isolation of that country at that time," far from both highways and the railroad.

"One hundred and ten miles from the Maze to Green River," Chaffin says. "And you'd ride that horseback or part of the way in a buckboard when I was a kid — three or four days to get out there and three or four days to get back. And while you were there you might just as well have been on Mars. You didn't see anybody, and it was before radio."

Frost, now 83 and based in Monticello, rambled through the country on foot as a teen and later developed his fascination and expertise into a pioneering guide business. "It was quite a challenge to get into places by hiking," he matter-of-factly recalls.

Today the region is the still-remote western Maze District of Canyonlands National Park.

And upon reflection, Chaffin isn't taken aback by the fact that it has gained a rough notoriety as well as park status.

"Quite frankly, my father used to say that if California had the Maze area and Under the Ledge, they'd make a national park of it. So I don't think anyone was too surprised," the old cowboy says.

"It's unique. It's isolated. It was just destined to be a national park, and I'm glad it is."

'Y' and wherefore

Two mighty rivers intersect in Canyonlands. The Green meanders south from Wyoming and the Uinta Mountains, cutting through high plateaus and geologic eons. The Colorado sweeps in from the Rockies and canyons to the east. When they meet, the streams form a gigantic "Y" that defines the national park's three major administrative districts. (The rivers are a fourth.) Because of the deep gorges and crumpled landscape, the sections are not immediately linked by roads.

Last year some 446,000 tourists and adventurers visited Canyonlands. More than half marveled at the high vistas of Island in the Sky, the district between the upper arms of the rivers' Y, accessible via paved and four-wheel-drive roads from Moab. The Needles District, between Moab and Monticello to the southeast, had the second-highest number of visits.

Only a little more than 2 percent of the park's visitors — 10,613 people in all of 1999 — made their way into the Maze District, on the southwest side of that cartographic Y. Most came in the mild weather of spring and fall.

New York's Grand Central Station sees 50 times that many travelers in a single day.

Salt Lake City's Delta Center welcomes twice as many for just one Jazz game.

Which is as the Park Service intends it to be, says Glenn Sherrill, the district's ranger — Canyonlands at its wildest. The agency isn't trying to attract more people here, and the policy isn't really to encourage them.

"Welcome to a truly unique unit of the national park system, the Maze District," hails a sign near Horseshoe Canyon, a detached section of the park. "It is the most remote and rugged area managed by the National Park Service outside of Alaska. The Maze is a challenging place, a lonely place, a place where one can really escape the rat race's synthetic environment.

"But the Maze demands self-reliance and preparation. There are no developments in the Maze. No gas stations. No toilets. No picnic tables. No tap water. No smooth roads."

When Canyonlands was established in 1964, the Maze, the Land of Standing Rocks and Horseshoe Canyon were not part of the park. These western wonderlands were added by Congress in 1971, along with strips on the north and southeast boundaries.

In 1995 the Park Service adopted a backcountry management plan intended to make the Maze experience both primitive, by modern standards, and efficient. The document also applies to the adjacent Orange Cliffs Unit of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

"It makes the whole thing smoother," says Sherrill, who is based at a small visitor center and solar-powered village at Hans Flat on the plateau above the Maze.

Camping is unfettered on nearby Bureau of Land Management territory, but in the park itself overnight permits are generally required, and reserved camping spots are few and far between.

Rules are strict.

"Fires had been (allowed) in a pan, but we stopped that," he said. "Firepits tend to be trash collectors," and some campers were hacking at live trees for firewood. Backpackers and campers must now use stoves they haul in.

And they must bring along portable toilets — there are no "facilities" in the district. This requirement is particularly disconcerting to some visitors.

"If you haven't encountered that, it's kind of off-putting," Sherrill says. But when people get used to the portables — and when they see how clean the remote camping sites are — they usually concede "it's a good thing," he says. Chemical toilets can be purchased and sometimes rented in communities like Green River and Moab; the ranger station sells a couple of basic models.

"But it can be a 5-gallon pickle bucket with a lid," Sherrill says, "big plastic pails, as long as they've got a good lid."

The permit and reservation system may not be anyone's ideal, "but what we're seeing is we can control use, and it gives us a chance to contact everyone and talk to them," the ranger says. He believes it's all for the better.

"I came here in '76 and worked here in '81 and '82," Sherrill says. "Back then we had far fewer visitors, but in some ways we had more impact" on the fragile wilderness.

Bulldozers and trailblazers

What are today challenging four-wheel-drive routes — up and down cliff-side scree, along narrow plateau ledges, across open range and into torturous canyons — were once stock and sheep trails, Sherrill says. "All those are uranium and oil and gas roads."

Phillips Petroleum, for one, came exploring in the 1920s. During the Four Corners uranium boom of the '50s and '60s, prospectors pushed roads into the canyon country, seeking the radioactive ore usually found in the grayish Chinle formation at the base of the region's dramatic Wingate cliffs.

"They went anyplace they wanted to with those bulldozers," guide Frost says.

But, he adds, legend has it that an alternate section of the old Spanish trail of the early 1800s also came through here. A curious trail, believed to predate the cowboys, comes up from the Colorado River at Spanish Bottoms. Traders arcing across the Colorado Plateau between Santa Fe and the California missions may have constructed the route.

"There are great big slabs of rock about 1,000 pounds each, making steps," Frost says. "A whole lot of manpower went into that."

By the late '50s, Frost himself was most familiar with the Needles, a beautiful area of graben valleys and sandstone spires just across the Colorado River from the Maze. "I was in the Jeep tour business at the time," he says. And he wanted to take folks over yonder, into the Doll House just above Spanish Bottoms.

The roads, as such, ended at Waterhole Flat, to the south. He decided to trailblaze a rough 4WD route, basically following a stock trail. "There was very little cutting. I trimmed up some trees and moved one tree out of the way." Today it's the rough but passable Teapot Canyon trail beyond Teapot Rock, leading into the Land of Standing Rocks, the Maze and the Doll House.

Besides backroaders and hikers, the undulating trail is popular with mountain bikers. Western Spirit Cycling is one of the Moab guide companies that offers fully supported multiday trips into the Maze area in the spring and autumn.

"We have a truck that carries all the camping gear, good water, guides that do all the guiding and also do all the food preparation," says Ann Clare Erickson, the touring firm's sales manager. A typical group, limited by the Park Service, includes seven clients and two guides.

The adventurous bikers come from all over the country and beyond. Often they've been to the White Rim, a hundred-mile trail below the Island in the Sky's mesa, and have heard about the even more isolated Maze and want to try it too.

"Most people are pretty amazed by the Maze," Erickson says, laughing at her unintended alliteration. "You definitely feel like you're way out in the desert. The views are spectacular because you can see three different mountain ranges from different places.

"They do have a chance to hike down into the canyons" of the tangled Maze itself. Like nearby Horseshoe Canyon, the gorges snake below magnificent cliffs, spires and fins, including Chimney Rock, where trails begin, and the Chocolate Drops. Near the Drops are the famed pictograph panels of the Harvest Scene. Stooped figures seem to be harvesting crops. Tiny birds and miniature animals perch on arms and shoulders of anthropomorphic figures. A remarkable tree — or is it a spring? — seems to sprout or spout from one figure's right hand.

The cairn-marked path down into the Maze "is really more of a route than a trail," Erickson says. The hiking bikers "have a pretty good sense of accomplishment" when they get out of there.

For the general good?

DNews graphicMap of the MazeRequires Adobe Acrobat.

A hiker and volunteer in the canyons for years before joining Western Spirit, Erickson says the restrictions placed upon those exploring the Canyonlands outback are generally for the good.

"I definitely saw, in the 10 years hiking there, an increase in impact," she says. "I think limiting group size and the number of places you can camp and requiring minimum impact are definitely important out there."

Even portable toilets shouldn't be a problem. "Most of us here in Moab have run rivers, and it's been required on rivers forever," she says.

Ned Chaffin isn't thrilled with the idea of large wilderness areas, but when he sees air pollution creeping into Canyonlands he understands where many environmentalists are coming from. "I set up on top of a long fence with a lone leg on either side" when it comes to issues like this, he says.

Development? Wildness?

"Someday they might fix up the roads so people can go in there with cars; or maybe they'll keep it as it is," he says.

Kent Frost is less charitable. He thinks the four-wheel-drive roads are in worse shape now than they used to be.

"I think the Park Service did a disservice to commercial operators and people who want to experience it firsthand," Frost says. "They've let the jeep trails deteriorate to the point only specialized vehicles can get in there. I think they're kind of one-sided on the people they are attracting to some of those out of the way places."

"I'm like a lot of other people," admits Glenn Sherrill: "I'd just as soon not have a permit system. But if you're preserving that experience. . . .

"Plan ahead; make a reservation. Then you know you're going to have a (camping) site. And if you get out and hike, you're going to meet a few people — but not a crowd of people."

That's how it was Under the Ledge long ago, and how it remains.

E-MAIL: rayb@desnews.com

For information about fees, reservations and other subjects, call Canyonlands National Park at 1-435-259-7164, the Maze District at 1-435-259-2652 or check the park's Web site, www.nps.gov/cany/