Maze Makers: How Cornfield Labyrinths are Designed

By Rachel Swaby

Building a corn maze isn't as simple as cutting a trail through a cornfield with heavy machinery. Today's cornfield and hay mazes are intricately designed, with the literal seeds planted half a year ahead of time.

In Greek mythology, holding the secret of the labyrinth was considered an intense public security risk. Sure, there was a teensy issue of the man-eating beast prowling around inside, but imprisoning Daedalus--the maze's architect--in his own creation seemed a little extreme—especially since the confounding lanes were designed at the behest of the King. According to myth, Daedalus’s maze was such a stumper that he himself barely made it out.

Luckily, the keepers of today’s mazes aren’t quite as protective of their engineering secrets. Their creations, carved out of cornfields and erected from hay bales in the Fall, have their own set of unique design challenges (but none quite as terrifying as a minotaur). The most successful mazes by visitor standards require more than just mowing a circuitous pattern; they need to make the best of their underlying materials and playfully perplex their users without crossing the line into maddening frustration.

Photo credit: The Maize

Step 1: Planting the Seeds

For maze makers, that means planning far ahead of the Fall season. More than six months in advance of a maze’s opening, farmers need to decide how to plant their seeds. Brett Herbst, CEO largest corn maze design outfit in the country called the Maize, recommends that his clients lay out their corn in a different configuration than they would for harvesting. “Traditionally, you plant corn in one direction, say north and south,” says Herbst, “For a corn maze, you’d plant the corn in a grid pattern, planting it east and west, too.” The grid adds density to the field and closes up gaps that would appear if all the rows were parallel.

Gaps, as you might imagine, are a big concern in corn maze design. “If people can see through the corn to the next trail, they might go through,” warns Herbst, who ideally likes to budget in 15 to 20 feet between trails. The problem is bigger than just cutting corners. When lots of people push through the stalks, the hole can’t be naturally patched, so Herbst budgets in enough corn to dissuade pioneering.

Step 2: Blueprinting

Next, the labyrinth needs to be designed. Maize’s specialty is big graphic images that can been seen from the sky—a football team’s logo, the Death Star, or even a tribute picture of parents—within which he’ll design a maze. In an ideal world, Herbst will have 10 acres to work with, but after hundreds of fields under his belt, he’s well acquainted with fewer. Herbst begins by sketching out his plans in the drawing program CorelDraw. Within his creation, Herbst likes to divide the maze into three levels of difficulty, giving people several chances to opt out early as they progress.

Step 3: Connecting the Dots

Photo credit: The Maize

Once he’s satisfied with the plans he’s drawn up, his team will transfer the design to the field. (Which field? One on higher ground with easy access to a parking lot, ideally. Mud can plague low-lying mazes and 45 minutes of walking in circles might be a hard sell after a long trek to the entrance.) The Maize team plants a series of flags marking each corner and curve in the actual space they’re to appear. Then they join the flags together like a gigantic game of connect the dots, mapping out the route in string. Next, Herbst and team will clear the way using standard farming tools. This process is significantly easier when the stalks are small—preferably no taller than 6-inches. (For a while Herbst would map out the route with GPS, but because he works with different crews at different locations, he’s found it’s easier to get on the same page without the extra technology.)

“Everybody thinks they have to go over the bridge, but sometimes it's a decoy.”

The end goal, of course, is maximizing enjoyment. Sometimes building something appropriately challenging means taking the conventional wisdom of maze-completion and subverting it. One popular maze-solving method is the right hand rule, where you solve a maze by dragging your right hand along the right wall without taking it off. The idea is that if you cling to one wall the entire time, you’ll eventually find the exit. Herbst likes to practice a little misdirection by throwing a bridge into the mix. “Everybody thinks they have to go over the bridge,” says Herbst. “But sometimes it’s a decoy. A bridge can break up the cycle and loop people right back to the entrance.”

Photo credit: The Maize

Inspired by Daedalus

The shape of the maze itself can also throw maze-solvers off their game. Chris Gounalakis, the owner of Arata Farm in Half Moon Bay in California, creates an expansive labyrinth from hay bales inspired by the original in Greece. At his farm, Gounalakis divides the maze into sections, adding concentric circles or several rectangular rooms with identical dimensions to confuse visitors. He’s also been known to disguise spring-shut doors as walls, packing a metal frame with sturdy bales. Full disclosure: I visited Arata last year, and that last trick stumped me for ages. “Adults tend to over-think it,” laughs Gounalakis, who starts sketching out his designs for the next year on graph paper the minute the current year’s maze closes.

Photo credit: Rachel Swaby

(Sadly, there isn’t a hay maze at Arata year; the local government threw a last minute wrench in Gounalakis’s plans which halted construction. One of his designs can be seen at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.)

Gounalakis’s father is from Crete, where Daedalus’s labyrinth was constructed, so when Gounalakis started designing hay mazes on his farm 12 years ago, he drew inspiration from the original.

It takes some 8000 bales of hay to bring his ideas to fruition. Hay bales are denser and more transportable than corn, but not very tall on their own. A wall needs to be sturdy enough to take touching and bumping from hundreds of visitors, but also tall enough that visitors won’t be compelled to hop over. The maze's tallest walls, typically at the entrance and exit, can reach up to 14 feet. To add that kind of height safely, Gounalakis creates a base with bales lined up shoulder to shoulder instead of head to toe. From there he stacks them vertically like bricks, with each tier straddling the two bales below it. In this configuration, they’re unlikely to topple. “Bales are like Velcro,” explains Gounalakis. “It’s difficult for them to slide so you have to push them tightly together from the beginning.” If he adds a flourish like a window in the bales, Gounalakis will add add a plank on the top edge for support.

The cardinal rules, says Gounalakis: “Work from the inside out and finish what you start.” So workers pile the bales like bricks, finishing one section before moving on to the next.

A car in the parking lot at the end of the day meant someone was still lost in the maze.

The end result is typically quite challenging. For that reason, Arata, like Maize, also offers lots of opportunities opt out early. But it wasn’t always that way. Before Gounalakis added emergency exits to his exterior walls, he would make sure that everyone cleared the maze at the end of the day by checking the parking lot. If a car was parked there at the end of the day, it meant someone was still spinning around his concentric circles. One night, Gounalakis did his standard check but missed a car parked just out of view. A while later, while hunched over some graph paper and his newest maze design, an older woman wandered out. She’d been lost in there for several hours.

Although the woman might not have appreciated getting stuck, the design was one Daedalus surely would have approved of.