Canyonlands National Park, Maze District – East Southern Utah.
Vistas, Colorado River, rafters, slot canyons.
4.5 miles or so.
1.5 - 4 hrs
$10 per vehicle
None. Colorado river offers a good place to filter.
Spring or Fall.
Sandy to rocky. Vague in places.
None. Pack it out.
Hans Flat Ranger Station, open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
By Permit only.
Outdoor Research Halo Sombrero
Long sleeve polyester hiking shirt
Vented REI Hiking pants
Spanish Bottom is a good and steep hike down to the Colorado River in the Cataract Canyon Section. It has some interesting history and is the most common trail hiked in the Maze District of Canyonlands. Rafters take a break here and will hike up to the plateau to see the Dollhouse Granaries. This is the only place you are likely to run into people in the Maze (in our case a shoeless hippy with feathers in his hair and his attractive, and more plainly dressed girlfriend).
Check out our Maze overview trek, and the video of our trip. They will give you a good idea of what the Maze is like.
Parking Lot: 38° 9.444’N, 109° 56.890’W
Ridge: 38° 9.507’N, 109° 56.426’W
Colorado River: 38° 9.401’N, 109° 55.987’W
Warning: This area has been called one of the most dangerous and remote parts of the continental United States. Access this far into the Maze is only possible with a high clearance 4×4. You will be rock crawling and driving through soft sand. Bring extra water, extra gas, extra tires, and tools to fix whatever may break on your vehicle. This far in, no one will be coming to help you. Drive time is 8-12 hours.
How was this strange depression formed? Most of Canyonlands lies above an ancient salt bed called the Paradox Formation. Salt tends to flow like a very dense liquid when it is under pressure, and Spanish Bottom is one of many interesting formations in the area that were formed by movements in the Paradox Formation. At some time in the past 100 million years the salt was squeezed out of the strata beneath Spanish Bottom causing the layers of heavy rock it supported to collapse. Spanish Bottom is essentially what is left of an ancient sinkhole. The river has certainly contributed to its present appearance, but the bottom was actually created long before the birth of the Colorado River.
This area is one of the few places in Canyonlands where the Paradox Formation is actually visible on the surface. Look across from Spanish Bottom at the east side of the river and you will see a jumble of light tan-colored hills that are obviously different from the surrounding rock. These hills are composed of gypsum that has migrated upward from the subterranean Paradox strata. The hills are a sample of the material that undoubtedly underlies Spanish Bottom…
The soil is probably fertile but unlike many of the other river bottoms upstream on the Green River it was never settled. The land was frequently used as a pasture for sheep and cattle during the early 1900s, but as far as anyone today knows there has never been a cabin or even a corral on Spanish Bottom. The trail down to the bottom has been there at least since the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1890, 21 years after John Wesley Powell discovered it; there was an attempt to build a tourist hotel on Spanish Bottom. The idea was eventually shelved because of the difficulty floating boats up and down the Green River, but eleven years later another entrepreneur from Denver began raising money to build a sanatorium on the bottom. His project lasted about a year before his money ran out and his boat was destroyed in an accident near Moab.
Cross the field from the little parking area and head into the Dollhouse. The trail will keep you in a shallow valley that slowly descends to the canyon ridge: around 1/2 mile. The trail is faint in places, but overall easy to follow.
The rock formations are incredible and the view is great as you near the ridge.
The trail abruptly drops 900ft down 2/3 mile or so of rocky switchbacks. We slipped and slided and stumbled our way down quickly to the bottom.
The Bottoms has little to see. It is flat and treeless except for the handful of cottonwoods along the river. But it affords easy access to a cooling dip in the water!
At this point you can turn around and go back up. It is a quick (though strenuous) 2.5 mile hike this way and can be accomplished in 1-2 hours.
We chose to make the optional Surprise Valley loop, for a little more adventure.
We hiked down the river for a little less than a mile. Right after crossing the large sandbar where the rafters like to set up camp, you will see a large rock slide crack in the cliffs.
This rock slide is the first easy access you will see to get up the cliffs. Take it. It is of course very steep, and the rocks quite loose in places. It pops you out handily in the middle of Surprise Valley.
Surprise Valley is named because of its odd formation right on the edge of the ridge. It too was formed by the salt layer that created the Spanish Bottom. It is known as a Graben, a collapsed block of rock bordered by faults. Graben is German for Grave.
But this valley is aptly named for another reason: it is crisscrossed by cuts in the rock that form a maze of tight, short, and fun slot canyons. We explored a few of them, but could have easily spent hours climbing around.
Surprise Valley connects to the Spanish Bottom switchbacks about 2/3’s of the way up from the valley. Scramble across the faint trail and then head back up the Spanish Bottom Trail to the parking lot.
This is a fun but hard hike. It is hot and strenuous. I would not encourage doing it mid day in the summer. Spanish Bottom itself is not that great, and pales in comparison to the other hikes in the Maze, such as Pictograph Fork or the Granaries. But adding the Surprise Valley loop makes the hike worth it. Done together, the hike becomes a fun, adventurous half day trip.
Optional Side Trek:
Surprise Chute: 38° 8.728’N, 109° 55.748’W