Salt Creek is one of those places that seems to be well off the radar for most. The name probably doesn’t help a lot. I suppose one could assume that it is an inhospitable place with salty water. I never even thought to visit Salt Creek until earlier this year when I saw a couple of videos made by Jamal Green from AcrossUtah.com. Jamal does a lot of huge solo backpacking trips, it’s really amazing stuff. He did one that was more than 700 miles all the way across Utah from Nevada to Colorado a while back, another from Escalante to Monticello and a couple others that you can see at his web site or on his YouTube channel.
EDIT: On July 18, 2011 I was contacted by The National Park Service about the content of this trip report. At their request I have removed a good deal of content including photos and maps. In the near future I hope to rewrite the report so that these holes aren’t noticeable but in the meantime I have placed markers indicating where content is missing. For my friends and family, I have maintained the full, unedited version of the trip report on a password-protected page. If you’re a friend and would like the password, contact me and I would be happy to provide it. Here is the link: The full uncensored TR: Salt Creek, Canyonlands, May 2011.
In his Across Canyonlands 2007 video, Jamal starts hiking at Horseshoe Canyon, a detached unit northwest of Canyonlands National Park, hikes all the way through The Maze, crosses the Colorado River, hikes through The Needles, up Salt Creek, over The 10,000+ foot Abajo Mountains and finishes at Highway 95 at Comb Ridge near Cedar Mesa. It’s a very impressive route on which he logged 176 miles over 16 days, SOLO, without ever crossing pavement! Very impressive! I’m going to embed the videos that he made for that trip below. I highly recommend watching them as well as the rest of his videos on his youtube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/jammer17. Jamal, if you’d rather me direct people to a different URL, let me know and I’ll change it!
After seeing that I decided to plan a trip. I was thinking of getting permits for September or October of this year but to my surprise there were still permits available for a couple of weekends in May, including Memorial Day weekend! Naturally I snatched those right up. I love going places that have limited entry on busy holiday weekends, it’s a great way to capitalize on that extra day off without having to be overwhelmed by crowds.
The first day of this trip started in Salt Lake City. Usually I like to get down there the night before but this time we opted to leave early which worked out great since we only had a short hike in to our first camp at SC1. After stopping by the Needles visitor center to pickup permits and a neat kevlar bear sack, we were on our way to Cave Spring to drop off my truck at the end trailhead. Salt Creek is a very long canyon and it only made sense to do it as a point-to-point so that we could cover the whole thing. From there we all loaded up into Cody’s truck and drove out to Cathedral Butte. It took about an hour to get between the two points. The Cathedral Butte trailhead is located 18 miles down the Beef Basin Road which is accessed about 15 miles outside of the park where we had just come from. The road is a good 2WD road but it is bumpy and windy in spots which took a while to get through.
The trailhead on Cathedral Butte is way up there. Close to 7,100 feet compared to roughly 4,900 feet at the Cave Spring trailhead. Another good reason to do the canyon as a one-way hike. The hill right below the trailhead is particularly nasty. It loses over 1000 feet in the first mile or so. Here’s Cody signing in at the trail register.
The first couple of miles are steep, hot and dry. I would hate to have to go up it, especially on a hot day like it was the day we went down. I packed light on water since it was all downhill and only 4.5 miles and I was out at least a mile before we reached the first spring. About a mile before Kirk’s Cabin the canyon starts to fill with lush vegetation. So much so that the trail completely disappears in this thick meadow. Walking through here was like walking on a giant dry sponge. There were also millions of tiny spiders that would scatter each time you took a step. I wouldn’t want to lay down in there!
We followed our guidebook’s instructions and headed towards the right side of that big meadow and eventually reconnected with the trail. Shortly after the meadow the trail passes by this small rock art panel.
And shortly after the rock art panel we arrived at a beautiful fast flowing spring. It starts somewhere in the thick vegetation so we still had to pump our water, unfortunately. It then cascades down a 300+ foot water slide and into a huge pool at the bottom.
We found these guys doing their thing in the waterfall near the big pool. They must not have liked the company because after a while they started hopping around (still on top of each other). The tubes filled with eggs are pretty cool too.
The trail passes by Kirk’s Cabin between the spring and our campsite, SC1. Kirk was a rancher who brought cattle out here about 100 years ago. This was his summer home and he spent winters in Moab. The cabin is in excellent condition considering the age.
The trail heading back to SC1 and SC2. We booked SC1 for the night and SC1 was empty. Can’t beat that on Memorial Weekend. In fact, we saw a few guys near the trailhead and then not a single soul or even a foot print for the first 3 days until arriving at Peekaboo Camp the last night.
The wind was awful that first night. It would be somewhat calm at times at others you could hear the gusts rolling through the canyons slowly getting louder and louder until finally ripping into camp in excess of 50 miles per hour. I was having a hard time sleeping that night. Not only because of the wind but I also had bears on my mind. The park service provides two large ammo boxes to store anything and everything ‘stinky’ to keep things away from the bears in Salt Creek. Food, toothpaste, they even told us to put the bug spray in there. To top that off, Cody spotted fresh bear tracks when he was out wandering around during sunset. Here’s a shot of the bear boxes.
Sometime well into the night, I would guess 1 or 2 in the morning, I was kind of half asleep. The wind kept jarring me awake. Then something else woke me up. It sounded like someone talking in their sleep at first but then I heard the word ‘bear’. My eyes popped wide open and my body froze. I listened for more. Seconds later I hear Cody start screaming at the top of his lungs, “GETAWAY BEAR! YAA!! GETAWAY BEAR!! YAA!!!”. Naturally I started doing the same thing. Now it’s Cody and I screaming at a bear in the middle of the night. Soon headlamps were on and everyone was up with adrenaline pumping. I asked Cody if he had heard which way the bear ran but he wasn’t sure. He had just heard what he thought was a sniffing sound outside his tent much like a dog. For the next couple of hours I laid in my tent, wide awake, trying to let my mind sink bank to sleep. The wind gusts kept coming and each snap, crackle and pop in the bushes put me on full alert. I don’t think any of us slept well that night. The next morning Cody told us that he was pretty sure he just heard someones sleeping bag swoosh across a pad or something. Who knows for sure, and they are just black bears up there but better safe than sorry. I read that they come down from The Abajos in such high numbers in the fall that you can barely walk 10 feet without stepping over a pile of cactus-filled bear scat. Their food of choice in Salt Creek; Prickly Pear cactus blossoms.
The next morning we were a little groggy but we packed up camp and set out on the trail. It was only about 4.5 miles to our next campsite but we knew there were many ruins, rock art panels and arches to be seen and explored along the way. The first stop was at a small ruin in an alcove not far off the main trail.
Kirk’s Arch comes into view about half mile beyond the cabin. There was a large arch visible from the cabin itself but apparently this is actually Kirk’s Arch. The one visible from the cabin can be easy to miss because there is rock directly behind it but it is just as big, if not bigger.
The next stop was at a site known as ‘Big Ruin’. It is the single largest archaeological site in all of Canyonlands National Park. I didn’t bother to count but the author of the book we were using said there are at least 20 large dwellings plus numerous smaller granaries. Most of them are on an inaccessible ledge but there are still plenty of things to see down below. Aside from a few dwelling walls built at the base, the ground below Big Ruin is literally covered in pot shards and various other artifacts. It was very difficult just to walk around without almost stepping on things.
Taylor compares his hand to a hand pictograph on the wall. I think these hand pictographs are some of the most intriguing. It seems like the people who lived in these structures liked to put them above the places they lived or something. In many of the sites we visited, granaries had no hand prints but dwellings almost always did.
We stopped at another small ruin a little further down the trail but it wasn’t very interesting. Just one structure and a couple of hand prints. After seeing Big Ruin everything else seemed not quite as incredible.
The trail passes right by Wedding Ring Arch but the view is not very dramatic since there is rock behind it. The author of the book says that there is a better view if you hike over to it but we didn’t bother.
The next stop was one that I had been looking forward to ever since I started researching Salt Creek. It’s an alcove site with three large granaries and some rock art. By itself, not all that unique. But what makes this ruin amazing is that there is still squash growing right out in front of the granaries. This squash has been reseeding itself for more than 800 years through draughts, floods, and weather conditions across the spectrum. It’s a very unique site, I’ve never heard of anything like it anywhere else.
As if we hadn’t seen enough cool ruins and rock art for one day, we headed back down the trail to the next attraction; a very famous pictograph known as The All American Man. About 100 yards before arriving there we noticed this small ruin up in a crack about 20 feet above the ground.
About a mile beyond All American man, the trail passes by the next ruin site and home to another interesting rock art panel called The Four Faces. There are several structures at The Four Faces including one that looks like it might have been a kiln or something but the most interesting part is definitely the rock art.This one was my favorite from the trip.
Just around the corner is Four Faces spring.
We were sitting under the camp tree having dinner that night and midway through a sentence I realized there was a dwelling just a few hundred feet from camp up on a ledge. After dinner we went and checked things out.
Cody and I kept hiking into the next canyon where we found endless ruins. It just kept going and going. Here’s a few shots. The light was low and I was shooting handheld so I had to bump up the ISO quite a bite so some of these might not look too hot.
There was a lot of debris from the former contents of this granary. I actually found a large piece of intact corn husk. You can see it by the rock in the lower left hand corner. Corn cobs seem to be common but this was my first corn husk. Lots of stalks in there too.
There was a nice sized cliff dwelling just beyond the granaries that had trees growing up through part of it. The trees had pushed the walls over out onto the ground. I didn’t get any great pictures of that dwelling but one interesting thing about it was that there was a wooden post about 2 feet long and 2-3″ in diameter that was pounded into the stone wall about 15 feet off the ground. Makes me wonder what they utilized with it to get in and out of the dwelling. Just beyond that cliff dwelling I found this granary in near perfect condition and another structure with some nice, thick walls.
Somewhere in all that bushwhacking I lost my lens cap. Not a great thing when there are still 2 days and 16+ miles to go on the trip. But on the bright side, the wind was finally dying down and we had a very calm, although unusually cold, night. The next day we packed up and headed back down the canyon. We knew we had a big day ahead of us. It’s 5 miles from SC3 to the junction to Angel Arch. 3-4 miles round trip if we hiked to the arch. Then another 7.5 miles to Peekaboo Camp. Our permit was for the At-large Zone 4 in the lower section of the canyon. We weren’t sure quite how far would we would hike so we tried to get some good miles underneath us early in the day. Shortly after leaving SC3 the canyon passes some rock art and then the Upper Jump, a 20 foot waterfall. From there the canyon really chokes up and the trail meanders through the tight bends and down into the lush vegetation. We were moving fast and I didn’t take a lot of photos but we stepped over numerous piles of bear scat on the trail. After about 3 miles the trail ascended onto a bench where a large amount of ruins were easily visible from the trail. Here are a few photos from that site.
We stopped a couple hundred yards up Angel Arch Canyon and had lunch. We still weren’t sure if we wanted to hike it or not. We had seen so many arches and adding 3-4 miles to the already long day didn’t seem that appealing. We talked about it over lunch. In the end, Cody decided to do it while Nate, Taylor and I opted to stay behind. We lounged around for a while while Cody was hiking and eventually started back down the canyon. It’s a little more open below Angel Arch Canyon with a lot of stream crossings along the old Angel Arch Road.
Scratches on the rock from years of 4WD use through the canyon. I’m usually supportive of keeping sensible roads open to 4WD vehicles (but not noisy ATV’s). Yes, I generally support SUWA and I’m a big advocate for wilderness, but I’m also a big fan of reasonable access, I don’t agree with everything they propose. The thing about this canyon is that it is a wet, lush, riparian area. Walking the old ‘road’ left me kind of speechless that anyone was even able to drive it in the first place. If it were a dry canyon I would probably be just fine with it. But this place is a beautiful place filled with so much delicate life. Jeeps and trucks just don’t belong anywhere near it. I’m really glad it isn’t ever going to be reopened. The 13 years its had to recover has done wonders. The road is pretty much gone in most of the canyon, the water is clear and the bears are coming all the way down into the lower canyon now. Oh and if you disagree with me, take it somewhere else, it’s my website :).
Evidence of the wind we’d had over the past couple of days. Aside from this, the trail was blown completely smooth. We never saw any other footprints, just tracks from lizards, deer, antelope and coyotes. There were several miles in the lower canyon where there was nothing on the trail at all but a solitary set of coyote prints.
Later in the day we decided that it might be cool to camp at Peekaboo. Sure, we didn’t have a permit for it but we figured it would probably be empty anyway. When we got there we found a couple camped down by the river bed, not in the actual campground. I went down and said hello and found out that they were in need of a water filter and welcomed some company so we decided to stick around and camp nearby. After dropping our bags at the campsite we went back through Peekaboo Arch to a small pool to filter water for the night.
Peekaboo camp is meant to be a car camp site when the road is open so it has not one but TWO picnic tables and a pit toilet. Holy backpacking luxuries! We spent the evening around the table getting to know our new friends, Glen and Heather. That’s Nate on the left side of the table with Glen and Heather, then on the right side it’s me, Taylor and Cody is out of view on the other side of Taylor.
Once it was dark we all hiked up to Peekaboo Arch and took some photos. This is Glen and Heather. Glen is from Colorado and Heather is from Illinois. They were vacationing around Moab for a few days. They had never backpacked before but had the gumption to get out here for a night. They didn’t have all the high-tech, light weight gear that I’m so used to so it’s pretty badass that they made it happen. Backpacking can be an intimidating activity if you haven’t done it a lot.
We were up bright and early in the morning and ready for the hike out. There’s something about the last day of a long trip. I just love to get out fast and get back to the luxuries of everyday life. It was 3.5 miles from Peekaboo Camp out to where my truck was parked. This is sometimes a road but the park service keeps it closed while its wet like this. So much mud and quicksand. If it were up to me, it would be closed permanently. Just another stretch of canyon that just doesn’t seem fitting to see a jeep on.
Group shot at the trailhead. Glen and Heather had originally planned to hike back the way they had come in but I offered to give them a lift over to the Squaw Flat trailhead and they took me up on it. Nothing better in my opinion than a hike on which every mile is unique. Sure beats a regular out and back type of trip.
So that’s the trip. Definitely one of my favorites of all time and absolutely the most fun-filled, diverse canyon as far as all the different things to see. Crazy amounts of ruins, rock art, **********, waterfalls, arches and hoodoos. To just have one or two of those things in such quantity would make for a great canyon but to have them all? Awesome.
Some notes on the trip planning and what I might do different next time. As I stated in the trip report, we did the trip in 4 days. Day 1, drive down with a mid-afternoon start and a quick hike into SC1, 4.5 miles. Day 2, tons of exploring the best ruins of the canyon and camp at SC3, 7 miles. Day 3, a few ruins but mostly a lot of easy hiking, 12.5 miles from SC3 to Peekaboo. Day 4, easy 3.5 miles from Peekaboo to the trailhead where the road is closed near Cave Spring. I think that arrangement worked out very well with one exception, most of us didn’t hike to Angel Arch. Next time around I would like to plan it so that we can camp closer to the junction up to Angel Arch, maybe at SC4 or in the at-large zone below the junction. There was a nice campsite not far down that I believe is known as Angel Arch Camp but it’s not one you can specifically reserve. It would be fantastic to go hike up to Angel Arch for sunrise, I hear the light hits it in an incredible way in the morning. The only other possible change I would make is to have more time to explore upper Salt Creek in between SC1 and SC3. There were several large side canyons that I was able to spot significant ruins in with my telephoto lens. And the last thing, it would be awesome to go in the fall to see the squash on the vine at squash ruins and to maybe see a black bear. I hear that they come down in huge numbers that time of year.
One last thing… I’m going to post my map with most of the locations of the ruins, rock art, etc. in Salt Creek. Typically I wouldn’t post locations to these types of places on the internet (although I’m usually happy to share privately). But in this case, these sites are so inaccessible to the public that I don’t think it’s a problem to disclose the locations. Some of them like All American Man are actually still listed on USGS topos and the rest are well documented in the various guidebooks on the area. So with that said, don’t get all bent about this my rock art and ruin loving friends. Here’s the map:
***EDIT: On July 18, 2011 I was contacted by The National Park Service about the content of this trip report. At their request I have removed a good deal of content including photos and maps. In the near future I hope to rewrite the report so that these holes aren’t noticeable but in the meantime I have placed markers indicating where content is missing. For my friends, family and members of the Backcountrypost Community, I have maintained the full, unedited version of the trip report on a password-protected page. If you’re a friend and would like the password, contact me and I would be happy to provide it. Here is the link: The full uncensored TR: Salt Creek, Canyonlands, May 2011.
View the full set of photos on Flickr.
See more of my trip reports to the Moab/Canyonlands area.
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