Sunday, October 13, 2013

Labyrinth Canyon

In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate structure constructed by the legendary craftsman and artisan Daedalus to imprison the half-human, half-bovine monster Minotaur. Commissioned by Minso, son of Zeus and the King of Crete (the earliest recorded civilization in Europe) the Labyrinth was so complex Deadalus barely escaped himself.

(artist unknown)

As sacrifice, innocent young men and women were regularly sent into the Labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur until the hero Theseus, disguised as one of the sacrificial men, slew the beast. The goddess Ariadne provided Theseus with a skein of thread so he could find his way back out. Today, the Greek legend of the Labyrinth and Ariadne's thread is a metaphor for applying logic to solve complex ethical or physical problems that posses many ostensible solutions.

video by Roman Dial

Along with photographers Jim Harris and Scott Schell, adventure writer Christopher Solomon and I planned an 8-day packrafting trip through Canyonlands National Park. Unfortunately, a dysfunctional United Sates Congress intervened and by refusing to vote on a Budget Bill caused a government shutdown and the closure of our National Parks.

Faced with an ethical (do we do the trip anyway?) and physical (where do we go instead?) problem we inadvertently followed Ariadne's thread through a labyrinth of potential solutions. Backtracking, we reviewed our motives: packrafting, canyoneering, and experiencing the unique slick rock wilderness of Southern Utah and the Colorado Plateau. Surely there was somewhere else we could go.

 hike  paddle

After numerous emails and much deliberation we settled on a 4-day and 50-mile "horseshoe" that would connect Keg Spring, Labyrinth and Horseshoe canyons. Located just north of Canyonlands National Park we would travel through a comparable landscape that is managed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and therefore still “open.”

Keg Spring Canyon

Approaching Keg Spring Canyon

The topography of Navajo Sandstone at the head of Keg Spring Canyon is relatively gentle with multiple unmarked entrances accessible with a two-wheel drive vehicle from Green River via the Lower San Rafael Road
. We chose to park at the start of a 4WD spur road 4 miles south of Lookout Point.

Scouting the entrance to Keg Spring Canyon

An easy two-mile walk led to an old stock trail built a century ago to access water and feed in the canyon's bottom. 

Christopher Solomon descends an old stock trail.

Jim Harris navigates one of many potholes.

In September heavy rain and flash floods left Utah’s canyons filled with numerous potholes, mud, and quicksand. Combined with thickets of Tamarisk, navigating down Keg Spring Canyon provided an adventurous yet enjoyable hike.

Descending Keg Spring Canyon to the Green River 

Large with five toes, this black bear (Ursus americanus) track is a rare find in the desert.

Nearing the confluence with the Green River

Reaching the Green River Jim Harris inflates his packraft.

After hiking nearly ten off-trail miles we welcomed the chance to sit in our packrafts and rest our feet. One of the joys of packrafting is alternating between modes of travel. Ideally when weary of walking it is time to paddle and when weary of paddling it is time to hike. This was one of those ideal trips.

Labyrinth Canyon

Packrafting Labyrinth Canyon

Considering our circumstances Labyrinth Canyon was a fitting objective. Fortunately, navigating Labyrinth proved far easier than selecting it as our destination. This Class 2 section of the Green River flows leisurely through massive walls of Chinle and Wingate Sandstone.

A homemade raft constructed of barrels and 2" x 4"s

Lacking whitewater, the placid river allows the use of a variety watercraft including open canoes, touring kayaks, and even homemade rafts. Chris and Scott used the 4-pound Alpacka Scout. I used an older model Alpacka Yak without a spray deck. To save weight I removed the seat and instead sat on a folded NeoAir Mattress (that doubled as my sleeping pad) for an extremely luxurious ride.

Chris paddles a 4-pound Alpacka Scout

Chris Solomon gears up for another day on the river.

The first descent of the Green River was made in 1869 during an expedition led by John Wesley Powell. Awed by the complexity and grandeur of the landscape, the intrepid one-armed explorer appropriately named it Labyrinth Canyon. Powell and his men continued on to the Colorado River and made the first descent of the Grand Canyon.

Paddling Labyrinth Canyon

"There is an exquisite charm in our ride today down this beautiful canyon. It gradually grows deeper with every mile of travel; the walls are symmetrically curved and grandly arched, of a beautiful color, and reflected in the quiet waters." Wrote John Wesley Powell in Explorationof the Colorado River of the West regarding his voyage through Labyrinth Canyon.

View of the Green River from Bowknot Bend

Bowknot Bend exemplifies the canyon's labyrinth character. The Green River makes a nearly complete loop 7.5 miles long, doubling back to within just 1,200 feet of itself.

Jim Harris paddles towards Horseshoe Canyon

"About six miles below noon camp we go around a great bend to the right, five miles in length, and come back to a point within a quarter of a mile of where we started. Then we sweep around another great bend to the left, making a circuit of nine miles, and come back to a point within 600 feet of the beginning of the bend. In the two circuits we describe almost the figure 8. The men call it a `bowknot' of a river; so we name it Bowknot Bend." - John Wesley Powell

Switching back into hiking mode 

Horseshoe Canyon

The start of our hike up Horseshoe Canyon

The mouth of Horseshoe Canyon is an ancient waterless oxbow in the shape of a horseshoe. We wonder if this is why the canyon received its name.

Crossing Barrier Creek

Scott Schell leads the way through treacherous quicksand.

Formally known as Barrier Canyon, the nearly impenetrable walls of vertical Wingate Sandstone hindered early exploration and acted as a barrier to early travelers. On USGS Maps the intermittent creek retains its original name.

Barrier Creek

Similar to Keg Spring Canyon, the lingering effects of heavy rain are evident in Horseshoe Canyon. For over 10 miles Barrier Creek is flowing.

Wet but pleasant hiking

In the late 1800s Butch Cassidy and other outlaws found refuge in the region’s confusing network of canyons, including Horseshoe. Later ranchers built several stock trails into Horseshoe to access grass and water. Searching for oil and uranium in the 1940s prospectors improved the trails to accommodate vehicles. Fortunately, no successful wells or mines were established.

Scott Schell, Horseshoe Canyon

In 1971, to protect important archeological sites, a five-mile section of Horseshoe Canyon was added to Canyonlands National Park. Non-contiguous with the rest of the Park, grazing and mineral exploration were discontinued.

Camp 3

According to a sign at the Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead this section of the Park was open to visitors but offered no services. Regardless, while on the river we followed Canyonlands' Pack Raft Trip Policy including; obtaining a river permit, using a fire pan, and carrying out human waste. To exit Horseshoe we traveled less than 3 miles through Canyonlands National Park.

Jim Harris, Horseshoe Canyon

Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is most famous for its Native American Rock Art, especially the Great Gallery. This unique Barrier Canyon style of painting dates from 2000 BC to AD 500 when nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers made Horseshoe Canyon their seasonal home. Later, the Fremont and Pueblo cultures left their own characteristic rock art in the canyon before abandoning the region in the 14th century. The abundant rock art includes both pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (etched).

video by Jay Shaffer

"These are sinister and supernatural figures, gods from the underworld perhaps who hover in space, or dance, or stand solidly planted on two feet carrying weapons - a club or sword. Most are faceless but some stare back at you with large, hollow disquieting eyes. Demonic shapes, they might have meant protection and benevolence to their creators and a threat to strangers: beware, traveler, you are approaching the land of the horned gods...." – wrote Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire regarding rock art in Horseshoe Canyon.

Having exited the canyon Jim Harris contemplates the complex landscape. 

An ambiguous note left by a Park Ranger

Both figuratively and literally we successfully navigated the Labyrinth of Canyonlands. If only Congress would also follow Ariadne's thread and escape the political labyrinth they themselves created.


  1. Nice report, 1869 was when Powell made his first trip down the river.

    1. Thanks Diana. Somehow I missed that typo when I first posted. I fixed it accordingly.