Mar 28, 2009 at 2:51 pm #1235150
The images most commonly associated with the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park are from areas such as Chesler Park and Elephant Canyon. In the southeast corner of the Needles, however, lies Salt Creek Canyon. According to the National Park Service, "Salt Creek is the most extensive perennial water source and riparian ecosystem in Canyonlands National Park, other than the Green and Colorado Rivers. It is also the heart of the Salt Creek Archeological District, the area with the highest recorded density of archeological sites in the park." In the last week of March 2009, my girlfriend and I hiked for two nights, three days, and 35 trail miles plus tons of scrambling and exploration in Salt Creek Canyon. Between the reliable water of Salt Creek, the archaeological diversity of the area, and the wonder that is Angel Arch, it was a special adventure.
We departed from Squaw Flat Campground at about 5200' and headed southeast towards Peekaboo Camp.
The weather was on the cool side, and a bit cloudy, but it was nonetheless a big improvement over the wind and sand storm that had taken over the Moab and Grand Junction areas the previous day. Much of the trail in this section is on slickrock, and it can get a little tricky when wet or icy. We planned to sleep under the stars in bivies, and brought along a small tarp in case of rain or snow that would have been quite cramped for two- more survival than comfort.
Not too long after leaving Squaw Flat, we started to see down into the canyon floors.
For anyone familiar with the area, the La Sals are on the horizon shrouded in snow. To the right is, I believe, one of the Six Shooter Peaks.
Peekaboo Camp is next to the road, center-left on the canyon floor. For those concerned about such things, there is a vault toilet at Peekaboo. Until a few years ago, vehicles were able to travel deep into the canyon, at least as far as Angel Arch. Now, vehicles are prohited south of Peekaboo. Since the policy change, I've read that many species such as bears are making a resurgence. As we were able to hike a day and a half without seeing another hiker, I have no complaints.
To the west of a window above Peekaboo are petroglyphs. Underneath the white Fremont shield figure drawings are faint, reddish, Barrier Canyon Style designs. Fremont drawings date to perhaps 1300 AD, Barrier Canyon Style at least 1,000 years earlier, perhaps much older.
From Peekaboo, the Salt Creek Trail winds south up the canyon. Perhaps it was my mood, or something about the day, but I would say that, compared to other canyons in the area, such as Dark Canyon or Grand Gulch, Salt Creek Canyon is about as beautiful as they come. Salt Creek was dry for a little ways below Peekaboo, but we were soon walking past pools and running flows of water. The ranger said that water would be scarce, but I know they have their reasons for being very conservative about such things.
Crescent Arch is about 7 miles south of Peekaboo.
We camped just north of the Angel Arch Trail junction.
We set up the tarp primarily as a windbreak, and extra rocks were necessary to secure the stakes in the loose soil. Temperatures were below freezing, but not by too much. After breakfast, our destination was Angel Arch, perched at about 6000' above a trail that extends southeast 1.5 miles from Salt Creek. Just north of the trail junction is a very pleasant looking camp site under some Cottonwoods.
When the arch came into view, we wondered how close the trail would take us. Well, it kept going up…the final section is a bit of a scramble.
Looking towards Chesler Park Area from the arch.
From Angel Arch, we returned to Salt Creek and continued south to the junction of Salt Creek and the West Fork. There we explored an extensive series of ruins along a ledge above the canyon floor, midway up the picture below.
From the ruins, we retraced our steps north, bound back to Squaw Flat, making camp north of Crescent Arch. Far from backtracking, the different lights and angles on our return made for pleasant walking, and we glimpsed a few more ruins high on the cliffs that we had missed on the way down.
Before leaving Utah, we car camped near the southern trailhead of the Salt Creak Trail, below Cathedral Butte at about 7500'. Here are some pictures of a Lunar Duo in snow (which held up very well, especially given the guyline options) and the canyons after snow.
What would a trip report be without gear talk? Well, homemade reflectix coozies worked miracles, a pair of Golite Sun Dragons provided me the most comfortable hiking I've had (where I actually felt stronger on my feet as the hike went on), REI mistral gaiters with a velcro patch on the heel and railriders pants over the gaiter tops worked great, another big vote for trekking poles, a little duct tape in the repair kit fixed a dual sunglass frame failure, and 30 lbs. (a long story) is doable but not optimal with the Golite Pinnacle. Oh, and I finally scanned and enlarged sections of my map for use on the trail- this worked wonders- no more fiddling with folding and refolding an expensive map to death, no worries about the copy getting a little beat up, and freedom to mark locations and water sources on the map as we went. Heavenly.
Though Salt Creek Canyon may be often overlooked in favor of its more needle-like neighbors, it is a wonderful spot worthy of a few days on foot. I hope to return someday to explore the southern end of Salt Creek Canyon, which holds many other features of natural and archaeological interest.Mar 28, 2009 at 3:27 pm #1489459
What a nice and timely report, James. Me and my 2 girls are headed to Salt Creek next week for 4 nights!
I look forward to the rest of your report!Mar 28, 2009 at 4:40 pm #1489466
Best wishes for a great trip! Let me know if I can be of any assistance in your preparations.
JamesMar 28, 2009 at 7:05 pm #1489488
@thomdarrahLocale: Southern Oregon
James, Again a very nice report and great pictures. Thanks.Mar 28, 2009 at 8:52 pm #1489500
Excellent report! I appreciate the time you took to explain the photos in your trip rather then just dump them on a thread.
Special request can you also include a map showing the trail you took.
RogerMar 28, 2009 at 9:47 pm #1489504
I'm assuming that with the freezing temps at night that the mosquitoes haven't gotten too bad yet. I'm considering leaving the tents at home in favor of tarps.
Any bugs on your visit?Mar 29, 2009 at 12:26 pm #1489579
Nope, no bugs to speak of anywhere along the trip. In fact, spring felt a little slow in coming- save for a few paintbrush in early bloom, the vegetation still had a winter feel to it. But there is plenty of water in long stretches of Salt Creek, and many sections have a very marshy feel to them. So the ingredients are there, and given a few warm days I'm sure spring will burst. Even so, the nights cool down, and with a little thought in site selection I doubt bugs would be much of an issue.
Here are some photos of the National Geographic Topo Map for the area.
Squaw Flat is top center, Peekaboo Camp to the right.
A closer view of the Peekaboo Trail. It is about 5 miles from Squaw Flat to Peekaboo.
Salt Creek Canyon between Peekaboo and Angel Arch. Our southernmost point in the canyon was those ruins at the junction of Salt Creek and the West Fork- marked by the funny divit in the trail below campsite SC4, just about even with the Angel Arch symbol.
Southern stretch of Salt Creek Canyon. Cathedral Butte is bottom right.
I'm not quite sure how to put the photos in their proper orientation- hope you can manage!
JamesMar 29, 2009 at 3:58 pm #1489623
Thanks… I like to reference the pictures you took on your trip with the topo map ( it’s one of the things I appreciate about Backpacking Magazine when they describe new destinations ).
PS: I'm planning on a visit to Salt Creek Canyon in the next couple weeks and picked up a copy of the Canyon lands National Geographic Topo Map today as well.
Thanks again can’t wait to do some exploring there myself.
RogerMar 30, 2009 at 12:02 pm #1489799
To Roger and Mark,
Please do consider sharing some images from your respective trips to Salt Creek Canyon! It would be interesting to get a sense of the seasonal changes that will occur over the next few weeks, and to compare water levels in Salt Creek.
JamesApr 10, 2009 at 1:46 pm #1492991
Did you consider returning via the Salt Creek Dirt Road?
You could of checked out 4 more Arch's
RogerApr 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm #1493031
We had planned to spend another evening on the trail in Chelser Park, and this determined our return route even though that third night was cut short. But I imagine that Salt Creek Road would certainly be worth a look- it is all beautiful out there! Would have to be prepared to run across some vehicle traffic, though.
JamesApr 18, 2009 at 6:49 pm #1495235
I believe I met you and your girlfriend briefly at the Salt Creek Canyon trailhead. Were you driving a green Subaru? I didn't catch your name, but I was just getting ready to hike in from the south end with my father and my girlfriend. I am glad to hear that you had a good trip. I wrote a report of my own (though rather scant compared to yours) in my new personal blog. Check it out if you want. The link is: http://awordforthewild.blogspot.com/
CaseyApr 18, 2009 at 7:03 pm #1495240
Yep, that was me! Glad to read that you enjoyed your trip, and that the weather cleaned up after that night of snow. And thanks for the link to your site. If you are new to BPL, I urge you to have a look around. Lots of good stuff here.
JamesApr 21, 2009 at 1:05 am #1495829
Any chance you'll share with us some photos and stories from your trip? Would be great to hear how it all went!
JamesApr 21, 2009 at 6:03 pm #1496000
Sorry for the delay in getting something written up. Busy time here.
Anyway, we left Omaha, Nebraska on the 5th of April, amidst blizzard warnings and closed interstates all of the way to Denver. We were lucky, and the worst of the weather was the first 5 miles, and the roads opened up before us as if we were actually meant to get away for the week. I was accompanied by my lovely daughters, Kate and Maddie, ages 15 and 11.
It was jeep week in Moab. If you ever get a chance to visit Moab between Palm Sunday and Easter for jeep week…don't. We couldn't get out of town fast enough. Jeeps with fat tires. Jeeps with tall tires. Jeeps with fat, tall tires. Jeeps with flames. You get the picture.
We made a premature right turn from the highway from Moab and ended up at the Needles District Outlook, which is a couple thousand feet about the actual Needles District. It did give a great panoramic view of the Colorado/Green River canyon system.
Anyway, the ranger in the visitor station assured us when getting us our backcountry pass that the creek wasn't flowing, but there were good pools of water up and down the canyon. This was the coolest day, with the temperature around 50 when we hit the trail in the afternoon.
We left from Squaw Creek campground and made the 5 mile trek over sand and slickrock to finally drop down a ladder into Salt Creek Canyon at Peekaboo Springs. The hike was beautiful, with incredible vistas of the Needles and the La Sal mountains to the northeast. The trail climbs into beautiful sandstone amphitheaters and winds from one to the next, each more impressive than the last. There is some minor scrambling and a couple of ladders, but an easy 5 mile hike. There is no water other than collection pools in the slickrock on this portion of the hike. Not wanting to scar the rock any more than has already been done, my daughter and I stowed our trekking poles for this part of the hike.
We found a nice spot for our tarp above the dry stream bed and against the west wall of the canyon and crashed for the night.
On Day 2, we woke to a beautiful morning. The temp at sunrise was 38 with a beautiful, cloudless sky. We quickly ate, broke camp, and climbed down into the dry creek bed. Our first priority was to find water, and did so within the first mile. In fact, we found the spot where the creek disappears into the sand. Upstream of this spot, uninterrupted water was running in the creek.
The Salt Creek disappears!
Although beautiful, the canyon and desert above is still pulling out of the grasp of winter. There still wasn't much color in the flora, but the occasional burst of color foreshadowed the coming of spring.
The walk from Peekaboo to the Angel Arch trailhead is 8.5 miles on the park service map, and winds endlessly through the canyon. This part of the district is called "the zone," and allows at-large camping. We had permits our first 2 nights in the zone, so our destination for the day was the southern border of the zone. Our next night was to be spent at campsite SC4, a couple of miles on up the canyon from the Angel Arch trailhead.
While resting for lunch, we were overtaken by a very nice woman who has spent a great deal of time exploring this canyon and had recommendations for destinations that we might find interesting in the upper end of the canyon, including the "All-American Man," an image in the upper end of the canyon. My thanks to her, as she pointed us in the direction of some beautiful and interesting destinations that would have missed otherwise.
For the most part, the trail follows the old jeep trail up the canyon. Where it becomes obscured by brush, it is regularly marked by cairns. It was great to see how the desert is slowly reclaiming the jeep trail, but saddening to see slickrock riverbed still scarred.
We reached the Angel Arch trailhead in the late afternoon, and after setting up camp, resting and eating a bit, decided to make the short 1.5 mile hike up to see Angel Arch.
This canyon, a dry side canyon running south and east of the Salt Creek canyon, revealed a most inspiring place. Angel Arch and the canyon below is remarkably beautiful. The arch sits high atop the west wall of the canyon. Looking across the canyon, to the east, what appeared to me to be two eyes stare from the rock up to the arch and beyond. For me, this was one of those spots…one of those moments with my daughters that will stay with me forever.
My girls…had to throw this in!
We reluctantly left this place and headed back to camp. While turning in for the night, we watched a full moon rise over a sandstone spire. An amazing day.
On day 3 we headed out of the zone and into the upper portions of the canyon. We quickly came to our campsite for the day, SC4, set up camp, packed lunches in my pack and headed on up the trail. While stopped for a break next to the creek, we spotted our first ruin…a granary high above the canyon floor.
In fact, all of the ruins we saw were above the Angel Arch trail junction and SC4. This day was spent finding and exploring ruins.
The canyon itself takes on a different personality. It opens up dramatically. We no longer feel as if we're walking through a maze, but exploring a much more open landscape. We quickly reach the Upper Jump, a lovely waterfall at a bend in the creek. We stop, eat, and relax before heading further up the canyon.
Beyond Upper Jump we passed campsite SC3, another lovely waterfall beyond, and then the trail climbs to an outcropping on the east side of the canyon. Exploring this area reveals yet more ruins, pottery shards, and the "All-American Man" image.
We spent our 3rd night back at campsite SC4. This site is very sheltered with late morning sun, and this was by far our coldest night, with temps dropping well below 30 degrees. We reluctantly crawled out of our bags to frozen socks and platys, ate a quick breakfast, and headed back down the canyon. Our last night was spent near Peekaboo Springs, making for a 5 mile hike back to the trailhead the following morning.
My only gear regret on this trip was trekking poles. I'm a confirmed user, and had some brand new BPL Stix to use for the first time. With all of the walking on slickrock, though, I think next time I'll consider leaving them at home.
Contrary to what we were told at the ranger station, water was plentiful in all but the first mile or so above Peekaboo Springs. With the frequent pools of water throughout the canyon, I can see how mosquitoes could be an issue at some point, but we spent the week bug-free.
I regret that we didn't have the time to explore the upper end of the canyon. That will be the plan for our next visit.Apr 22, 2009 at 6:17 am #1496108
@pivvayLocale: Rocky Mountains
Looks like an awesome hike and great trip report so far! Thanks for sharing.Apr 22, 2009 at 8:50 am #1496158
Thanks for sharing. Looks like spring is coming a bit late in the canyon this year? Glad you and your daughters had such a nice time. It will be surely be something they always remember.
JamesApr 22, 2009 at 9:03 am #1496163
@creachenLocale: East Bay
Simply Awesome pictures Mark & James!!!! We as a backpacking community are so lucky to have that many great places to go to and explore. Canyonlands NP is definitely on my to do list now….Thanks for the nice reports.
-JayApr 22, 2009 at 11:17 am #1496197
Thanks so much for sharing! My wife and I will be in Utah this summer going through the National Parks. After seeing these pics, I think we are adding Salt Creek to our trip itenerary. Very cool place!Apr 22, 2009 at 11:21 am #1496199
@valsharLocale: San Francisco Bay Area
Mark & James,
Thank you for the great variety of photos and the detailed commentary!
It really is a pleasure to be able to sit at my desk at work and take a short break to see what other adventures there are in other States with geography that is so different from the Sierras.
Thanks for the inspiration to get out on the trial.
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