Thursday, December 29, 2011

Salt Creek Canyon Backpacking--Canyonlands National Park, April 2011

Hiking Salt Creek Canyon, Canyonlands National Park
April 18-23, 2011

Day One: Travel from Salt Lake City and shuttle to Cathedral Butte Trailhead

We traveled from Salt Lake City to the Canyonlands Visitor’s Center in the Needles District on Monday. We arrived about ½ an hour after the Backcountry Desk had closed, but the main visitor’s center was still open.

I was concerned that we would have to come back in the morning for the permit, instead of doing our shuttle that evening and getting started with our hike first thing in the morning.

I asked if it were possible to get our permit even though the backcountry desk was closed and the ranger went in the back for a minute and said another ranger could help us.

Dorita was the ranger who had been working the backcountry desk and she was kind enough to open things up again and take care of our permit. She was awesome, never rushing us and making sure we had all our questions answered including where we could count on finding water, and how to cross the marshy area above Kirk Cabin. Give yourself plenty of time as the back country desk closes an hour before the main visitor's center, because you may not be so lucky.

With our permit in hand, we left a vehicle at the Peek a Boo trailhead in the Squaw Flats Campground and headed out to the road that goes out to Ruin Park/Beef Basin and our destination, Cathedral Butte.

As we traveled, we could tell it hadn’t been very long ago that there was some difficult road conditions as the road has some very deep ruts and made it slow going for us even though the roads were dry.

Arriving at Cathedral Butte, we found about 4 cars already parked there and the sun was quickly disappearing. The view down into Salt Creek was spectacular. The wind really picked up as we were setting up tents to camp for the night.

Day Two: Cathedral Butte to Salt Creek Camp #2 (SC2)

It rained hard during the night, but we woke up to clearing skies and what looked like a promising day for hiking. As we were enjoying the morning sunlight spreading out over Salt Creek we noticed that when the sun was just right, you could see Kirk Arch clearly. At any other time it blends in to the canyon walls behind it and it’s very hard to see.

The trail down from Cathedral Butte was steep, but easy to follow and well maintained. The two of us who had trekking poles appreciated their ability to hold us back. My pack was very heavy, so I really appreciated the extra help.

As we entered Salt Creek Canyon, I was surprised at how wide and open the canyon was at this point. I was expecting a much narrower canyons similar to Elephant Canyon on the way to Druid Arch and the section of Salt Creek Canyon near Peek a Boo Springs. We enjoyed the wide-open spaces as it allowed us to follow our progress from Cathedral Butte behind us as we worked our way towards Kirk Cabin.

When we reached the marshes, we could tell the park service had been working on an alternate route around the marshes on the west side of the canyon. But the trail had the appearance of being blocked off by tree branches, presumably because they hadn’t completed that section yet. So we took to the marshes as described by Dorita at the backcountry desk the evening before.

As we worked our way through the marshes, we found it got harder and harder to not sink into the mud and water. I think because of the heavy rains the night before the marsh was exceptionally wet that day.

After getting through the marsh with some mud and wet shoes, we stopped for lunch under a small overhang that provided some nice shade.

It didn’t take very long to reach Kirk Cabin after lunch. We reached a place where the water was flowing well and cascaded down into a pond not far above Kirk Cabin. The trail passes right by the cabin so it’s easy to get a good look inside and out. Standing in the door of Kirk Cabin, you can look directly west and enjoy a great view of Kirk Arch on the other side of the canyon.

Just beyond Kirk Cabin is the spur trail that leads to SC1 and SC2. Of the two camps, I thought SC1 was the better camp as it provides more seclusion and protection from the elements. If I were camping in the winter or late fall and wanted the warmth of the morning sun, then I would choose SC2 as it is more out on the open plain than back in the rocks like SC1. We also took advantage of the easy access to the water source not far above Kirk Cabin to filter water for camp and refill our water bottles.

Day Three: SC2 to SC3

We woke up to frost all over our heavy duty garbage bags we used to cover our packs at night. It was cold, but not really uncomfortable. The morning sun quickly warmed (and dried) everything up anyway.

The trip from SC1 to SC3 was full of great archeology and arches and excellent vistas. We decided to skip a side hike up Big Pocket in favor of a side hike up to the base of Big Ruin. If you hike to the north side of the entrance to Big Pocket, there is a diamond shaped rock with about half of it buried in the ground that is just before you reach a trail that makes for an easy crossing over to the west side of the canyon and Big Ruin. The ruins are impressive and below them are hundreds of pieces of pottery shards, arrowheads, and two stones that were used to grind maze.

If you know where to look, you can see from Big Ruin back across the canyon to the east and see Wedding Ring Arch. After we returned to the main trail we passed fairly close to Wedding Ring Arch. Fish Eye Arch is also in the distance to the south as well as another arch on the west side of the canyon which my son decided to name UFO Arch.

Anytime you find a well-traveled side trail, it probably leads to a ruin or other interesting natural wonder. After Fish Eye Arch and before a big bend in the canyon, there is a nice set of ruins, that sit low against the canyon wall on the west side of Salt Creek Canyon. One of the ruins still has corn cobs in the structures and melon or squash vines growing nearby. I remember seeing similar vines near Lee's Ferry where rafters begin their Grand Canyon trips.

The next significant attraction, and one of my favorite, was the pictograph The All American Man. It’s the only pictograph I’ve ever seen that has dark blue pigment. It’s very interesting in that is uses red, white, and blue colors and has a very similar design to the American Flag. It was also bigger than I anticipated it to be as it looks to be around 5 feet tall or so. There are a couple of remnants of ruins in the same area as the pictograph.

From the All American Man the trail turns up into a narrow gap in the wall which I assume is used because the creek bed most likely is impassable as it makes a sharp bend south. The trail is steep as it climbs up and through a gap in the canyon wall, but not difficult to do. It's a short climb up into the opening in the wall and then easy switchbacks down the other side.

As the trail works its way back down to the creek we passed through some tall growth and eventually came to another cascade and pool. When we reached that point, a spur trail to the east lead right up to some excellent ruins and a really nice pictograph called The Four Faces. The afternoon shadows made for some very nice lighting.

Not too far downstream from the pool is the spur trail to the southwest that leads to SC3. This was a very nice camp with plenty of room for tents and a great view of the canyon walls to the east and west.

So far our plan for camping after relatively short hikes was working very well. We never felt rushed and took our time at each major point of interest we wanted to visit.

We walked back up to the pool from SC3 to get water which was a short distance and very convenient, similar in distance to our walk back from SC2.

Day Four: SC3 to Angel Arch Canyon

We had rain during the night, but not as much as we experienced at Cathedral Butte, and decided to take the time to dry out the tents in the morning sun before packing them away. Because of the location of SC3, the sun came early to that side of the canyon, which we appreciated.

From SC3 we encountered Upper Jump, which is an interesting section where the water falls off a shelf down to another pool.
From Upper Jump we had the chance to look at a set of ruins high up in the wall on north side of the canyon. An interesting pictograph on the west end of the ruins looks like a set of paper dolls with joined hands.

I checked out SC4 even though we weren’t scheduled to camp there. It’s a small camp, so if there were more than two tent sites needed, it would be a bit more challenging. This is the last camp that is by reservation only, and the last camp with bear boxes (20mm rocket boxes in river rafting language.) From Angel Arch Canyon down to Peek a Boo Springs it’s at-large camping, no reservations needed. The park rangers refer to it as The Zone.

We arrived at Angel Arch Canyon in plenty of time to hike up to Angel Arch that afternoon. We decided to camp just downstream from the entrance to Angel Arch Canyon in an area that is definitely used for camping frequently. There was plenty of open space with rocks piled up for the “kitchen” and the protection of large cottonwood trees.

We set our packs down and headed back up Angel Arch Canyon. The last time I had been here was in 1974 and we had traveled up the canyon from the visitor’s center by Jeep all the way to Angel Arch. The canyon seems to be taking back it’s pre-Jeep road state and on occasion you can see the two-track road, but it also appears that flash flooding and plant growth are hiding what was a trail in many places.

Even as a teenage I remember being very impressed with Angel Arch and I was anxious to see it again. We were not disappointed. Angel Arch sits high on the western wall of the canyon as it boxes out and is simply much more spectacular in person than any picture can capture. But that can be said about most of the desert southwest.

The wind picked up pretty good while enjoying Angel Arch and continued to be steady and strong on our way back. Cooking dinner was a bit challenging with a strong wind. Setting up tents was even more challenging as the winds continued to be steady and strong.

As the sun went down, so did the winds and the night was calm and mostly uneventful. Some kind of rodent took an interest in the bag of sunflower seeds that was in an outside pocket of my backpack, even though it was covered in a plastic garbage bag. It climbed up underneath the cover and chewed a hole right through the thick fabric of the backpack to get at the seeds inside. I suppose in the future I will keep the food in the middle and deep inside my pack to reduce the temptation for rodents. It would have been convenient to have the bear boxes there also, but as of this hike in April 2011 the boxes are only found in the upper section of Salt Creek and not in The Zone.

Day Five: Angel Arch Canyon to Peek a Boo Springs Camp

The hike from Angel Arch Canyon to Peek a Boo Springs was the longest day of hiking so far on the trip. Because there weren’t any significant side hikes, it worked out fine to schedule the trip that way.

One of the larger side canyons to the west appeared to have really pushed a lot of water through in the past. Later that day in talking to one of the rangers hiking up Salt Creek, he mentioned that a major flash flood had come through there in August 2010. So only about 8 month previous there had been significant flash flooding through that area.

The canyon was narrowing a lot more than prior to Angel Arch Canyon and the scenery was excellent. We were fortunate to have been able to get a reservation for the Peek a Boo Springs Jeep Camp which is normally only available to vehicle campers coming up the canyon to that point.

We were able to cut off a whole bend in the canyon by hiking up and through the arch that gives this area the name of Peek a Boo. One of the very nice things about camping in the vehicle camp was the convenience of a picnic table, but more importantly a vault toilet that meant not having to dig cat holes and helps minimize that human impact in the canyon. I suppose we could also debate the impact of the construction of a vault toilet as well.

It was also very obvious that major flashflooding had come through this area because the gate that prevents vehicles from going any further up the canyon was laying on the floor of the creek bed and the creek bed was significantly wider than the gate would ever be able to cover. I suspect the flooding also made most of the road impassable from Peek a Boo back to the confluence of Horse Creek and the entrance to the canyon further downstream.

About 8 years prior to this trip I drove a Jeep up as far as the Peek a Boo Camp. I towed a Ford Explorer out of that section that had sucked water into the engine and blew the motor. The water in that section would sometimes be up to the bumper on my Jeep. I wonder what it must have looked like after the flash flooding from the previous August? I wondered even more if hiking out that way would have required stream crossings that meant getting boots and lower legs wet or not. Hiking out from Peek a Boo to the Horse Canyon gate is an alternate exit for this hike.

Day Six: Peek a Boo Springs to Squaw Flats Trailhead via the Peek a Boo Trail

This day brought overcast skies and the threat of rain. We made our way around the larger bend of Salt Creek Canyon when you leave Peek a Boo to a place were a long ladder helps you get up and out of Salt Creek Canyon and working your way northwest back to Squaw Flats.

Having not been on the Peek a Boo trail before, I had imagined it to weave through canyons to Lost Canyon. But to my surprise we just kept climbing higher and higher until we were almost at the highest level we could get. It started to rain softly which wasn’t too bad, except that it did make the grip on slick rock a little less sure. I would not attempt this section if it were icy or if there was snow.

There were a couple of occasions where the trail edged along some pretty steep drop offs, so if you are fearful of edges or heights, you might have a hard time in a few places. A couple of times I lost my footing coming off a ledge because it was wet, but nothing serious and in dry conditions it probably wouldn’t be a problem.

The final day proved to be the most challenging physically as there was a fair amount of elevation gain and loss. I suppose you could break up this section by staying at the backcountry camp at the junction of Lost Canyon and the Peek a Boo trail. This camp requires a reservation like the camps in the upper section of Salt Creek.

Since the trail skirts edges of a number of canyons on the way to Squaw Flats, the views of the Needles District, the Blue Mountains, and the La Sal Mountains were excellent. Well worth the extra effort to exit via the Peek a Boo Trail.

Once we reached the trailhead, my wife and I drove the vehicle we left there back up to Cathedral Butte and made the return trip back to Squaw Flats in about an hour and a half. Poor road conditions could make it much more time consuming.

We had dinner in Moab and made it home to Salt Lake City later that evening.

Salt Creek is an excellent intermediate hike. Not one I would consider for a beginner. A back country permit is required and campsites SC1 - SC4 are assigned by the NPS. I recommend going on-line at to print a permit request well in advance of your hike. Of course, the information provided is not to be relied on as canyon country can change dramatically at anytime and weather conditions can have a significant impact on your experience. Use your own judgment and resources to determine whether this hike is for you or not.

© DTE Consulting 2011. “Helping you Do The Extraordinary!”

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