Uncovering the Hidden Treasures of Salt Creek Canyon: A Backpacker's Dream Come True
For hikers with a passion for exploring ancient Native American ruins and rock art, embarking on a backpacking journey through Utah's Salt Creek Canyon may very well be an opportunity of a lifetime. Located in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, a far less frequented area of the park, Salt Creek Canyon is adorned with towering arches and sandstone cliffs, vestiges of the early pioneer era, a vast number of prehistoric ruins, and some of the most distinct pictographs found in anywhere in North America. The multi-day backpacking route follows Salt Creek, the largest perennial stream within Canyonlands National Park, through desert meadows, prairie-like grasslands, and alongside red rock formations. The highlights of this journey include the All-American Man, Four Faces, and Flying Carpet Pictographs, a vast number of prehistoric cliff dwellings and granaries, ancient artifacts, and ample opportunities for seclusion. This article delves into a brief history of Salt Creek Canyon, logistical considerations when backpacking it, and what to expect during the expedition.
Trailhead elevation 7,054'
Water Three seasonal sources
Don't miss the All-American Man and Flying Carpet Panel pictograph panels
History of Salt Creek Canyon
For millennia, Native Americans resided and traversed Salt Creek Canyon, pursuing game, gathering natural resources, and eventually cultivating crops like corn, squash, and other plants. The earliest visitors were Paleo-Indians, hunter-gatherers, who inhabited the area as far back as 10,000 years ago during the Early Archaic Period (8000 BC to 1000 BC). Much like hunter-gatherers in other regions, they built small, rudimentary structures, but lived without any permanent dwellings.
The majority of the sites in Salt Creek Canyon found today can be attributed to the Formative Period (1000 BC to 500 AD) and Pueblo III Period (1150 AD to 1300 AD) when the Mesa Verde Anasazi inhabited the area. More than 115 of these sites can be found within Salt Creek Canyon in the form of masonry architecture, specifically fieldhouses, habitation sites, and granaries. The largest of these sites is Big Ruins, which features 32 structures, including 15 living rooms and several granaries perched along a 250-foot long ledge roughly seventy feet above the canyon floor.
Further supporting the Mesa Verde Anasazi presence is the abundance of ornate black-on-white pottery and triangles or sawtooth pictographs found throughout the canyon.
By 1200 AD Salt Creek Canyon experienced its height in population. Based on archaeological findings, researchers estimate that between 40 to 73 Anasazi inhabited the canyon around this time, harvesting crops like squash, corn, and other cultivates. Many of the structures found in Salt Creek Canyon feature numerous grindstones used in corn processing centuries ago, and a careful eye will even find impressions of corn cobs in several of the structure's masonry.
By 1300 AD, Salt Creek Canyon had been abandoned, likely due to changes in climate, but the ancient ruins and rock art left behind tell a story of what everyday life may have been like for natives thousands of years ago. It's important to treat these ancient ruins and rock art with respect. Take only pictures and leave only footprints. Leave the canyon's treasures intact for everyone to admire for generations to come.
Logistical Considerations to Backpacking Salt Creek Canyon
There are a number of logistical considerations to take into account when planning the trip. First, with this being a point-to-point route, you'll either need two vehicles, one parked at Cathedral Butte, the southern trailhead, and a second at either Squaw Flat or Cave Springs, the two northern trailheads.
Second, Beef Basin Road/Bridger Jack Road/CR-107, the road to Cathedral Butte, is only suitable for high-clearance vehicles. Near the beginning of the drive to Cathedral Butte you're required to cross a creek that when water levels are high can be impassible. The NPS gives current road conditions on its website, however they aren't always reliable. For example, Beef Basin Road/Bridger Jack Road/CR-107 could be in great shape, but the creek crossing near the start of the drive could be potentially hazardous. Under no circumstance should a sedan attempt the drive to Cathedral Butte. If you're planning on solo backpacking Salt Creek Canyon you'll need to utilize a shuttle. Moab-based Coyote Shuttle is a great option, but they carry a stiff price tag.
Third, you'll be required to obtain a backcountry camping permit for each night that you plan on camping in the canyon. These can be found on Canyonlands National Park's Backcountry Camping page. Camping is only permitted at four designated areas within the canyon, SC1, SC2, SC3, and SC4. SC1 is the southernmost campsite and SC4 is the northernmost. Depending on how much off trail exploring you plan on doing will likely dictate which campsite(s) you choose to reserve. SC1 & SC2 are side-by-side and located at roughly 4.5 miles, SC3 can be found around 9.2 miles, and SC4 near 12.1 miles. It's important to note that the mile markers for the backcountry campsites do not take into consideration any off trail exploring that you will inevitably do.
Third, the best season to backpack Salt Creek Canyon in my opinion is spring. Water is typically flowing well at the canyon's four water sources and daytime temperatures are much more tolerable. Summer can be brutally hot, water can be far less reliable, and there is very little shade for most of the hike. The only drawback to backpacking in the springtime, aside from the creek crossing near the beginning of the drive to Cathedral Butte, are the abundance of mosquitoes that plague the canyon shortly after the SC3 backcountry campsite until pretty much the end of the trail.
Finally, Salt Creek Canyon is traditionally backpacked south from Cathedral Butte to north, ending at either the Cave Springs or Squaw Flat Trailhead. The trip distance from Cathedral Butte to Squaw Flat is roughly two miles longer than Cathedral Butte to Cave Springs. Starting at Cathedral Butte allows hikers to descend into the canyon at the start of the trip rather than ascending out of the canyon at the end of the trip. This article focuses on backpacking from Cathedral Butte to Cave Springs.
Cathedral Butte to SC1 & SC2
The Cathedral Butte Trailhead is located along Beef Basin Rd/Bridger Jack Rd/CR-107, a few miles outside of the Canyonlands National Park's southern boundary. Before you set off on the trail, consider taking a look into the East Fork of the canyon through the pinion and juniper forest that adorns the rim. The view is quite spectacular from above.
The descent into the canyon is fairly steep, dropping roughly 800' in elevation during the first mile alone. The trail consists of packed dirt, sand, and plenty of medium to large sized boulders to negotiate, but is very easy to follow. Once the trail levels out it crosses a wash a number of times before reaching Canyonlands National Park's southern boundary, which is marked by a sign at the top of the bank.
Immediately after passing the park boundary, you're greeted with a wide open view of the canyon. The packed sand trail is now surrounded by prickly pear cactus, sagebrush, and in the spring, patches of orange and yellow wildflowers.
At roughly 3.5 miles you'll encounter a marshy area overgrown with tamarisk and shortly after that the trail will vanish. When this happens, and it will, the best option is to stay right and follow Salt Creek until the trail reemerges a few hundred feet later. Black bear sightings in this area are fairly common, especially during spring when they come down from the Abajo Mountains in search of food. For this reason, the park service requires backpackers to carry a park approved bear canister. On a recent trip through Salt Creek Canyon I encountered an adult black bear immediately after the overgrown tamarisk.
At 4 miles the trail passes right beside a rock formation containing several pictographs, including four hands, a human-like figure, a few other depictions, and what appears to be modern day graffiti. Handprint pictographs are very common in the region and were created by blowing diluted pigment around the edge of a person's hand as a kind of ancient airbrush technique. You'll find many more handprints of varying design and color throughout Salt Creek Canyon.
The canyon's first reliable water source, commonly referred to as the waterslide, is found along the trail roughly 100 yards after the pictograph panel. Like all in the canyon, water from here should be filtered and/or treated.
Shortly after the waterslide, Kirk's Cabin comes into view. Just prior to reaching it you'll pass by the remains of one of the property's two corrals to the right of the trail.
At roughly 4.5 miles you'll arrive at Kirk's Cabin. Built in the 1890s by cattle rancher Rensselaer Lee Kirk, the 15 x 20 timber constructed home was abandoned two years after its construction after Kirk failed to earn a sustainable living in the canyon. On the near side of the cabin from the trail you'll find an old wagon chassis.
The cabin has quite a few relics inside, including pots and pans, old metal cans, horseshoes, various small farm tools, and more.
A look inside from the doorway shows the cabin's fireplace to the left and the old timbers that hold the structure up. Even after all these years much of the roof is still intact.
Just past Kirk's Cabin you'll find a spur trail to the right, which leads to SC1 & SC2, the first designated backcountry campsites along the trail.
SC1 & SC2 to SC3
At around 5 miles, just as the trail drops down into a small wash, you'll notice ruins on the other side of the wash off to the right. A 100 yard spur trail leads to the site which contains three structures. A minor scramble up the slope allows you to get front and center with the ruins.
Once you're back on the main trail, keep your eyes on the horizon to your left. Near coordinates 37.9955513, -109.7411961 and for a short time thereafter you'll see Kirk's Arch far off in the distance.
The next noteworthy site is Big Ruins, the largest collection of ancient ruins in Canyonlands National Park. They're located around 6 miles into the trail to your left, but due to being located more than a half mile from the trail, they're easy to miss if you're not looking for them. They're also inaccessible at this point on the trail due to a steep drop into Salt Creek to the left. However, if you wish to explore the site, you'll find a spur trail that crosses Salt Creek about a half mile later. The side hike to Big Ruins, which I was unable to do due to time constraints, has been advertised as 1.5 miles round trip. The photo of Big Ruins below was taken from the main trail with a 10x zoom.
Shortly after passing Big Ruins you'll encounter a spur trail to your right near coordinates 38.0102118, -109.7425051. Following the spur trail for 100 yards or so will lead you to a small, deteriorated ruin
At the site you'll also discover two handprints to the left of the ruins.
Soon after this, if you pay attention to the right side of the canyon you'll find the appropriately named Wedding Ring Arch. It can be viewed from the main trail, but to get up close to the 200' tall arch you'll need to follow the spur trail located on the right side of the trail a few hundred yards later. Wedding Ring Arch can be found near coordinates 38.0124542, -109.7434931.
Along the same spur trail to Wedding Ring Arch, you'll also find several ruins along the canyon wall left of the arch. I could not find a trail leading to the ruins and hiking off trail would have required walking over vast amounts of cryptobiotic soil, which is highly frowned upon. The photo below shows the ruins as seen from the spur trail to Wedding Ring Arch with a 10x zoom. Even if you were to walk over to the site, it does not appear that there is any way to safely get up to the ruins.
Just beyond Wedding Ring Arch and the ruins mentioned above, you'll find a smaller arch on the right side of the canyon.
Approximately 0.5 miles later, you'll encounter a spur trail on the left side of the trail near coordinates 38.0189007, -109.7473904. Taking the spur trail for no more than 100 yards will lead you to an interesting site known as Squash Patch Ruins. The ruins are located on the right side of the spur trail and situated in a ground level alcove.
The site contains three small granaries and is a fantastic stop. If you're fortunate to backpack Salt Creek Canyon during the fall months you'll be greeted with a flourishing squash patch bloom in front of the ruins, a testament to the timeless legacy of the native inhabitants who skillfully cultivated the lands many centuries ago.
Throughout the site you'll find large rocks with grindstone marks. The photo below shows the largest of them found at the site, which is located just beside the far right granary.
There is also a fair amount of rock art at the site. As you walk along the alcove, the first images that you'll find are a cluster of three white hands, as well as two others just beyond.
Further along the alcove you'll discover a cluster of five hands above and beside more than ninety dots. The ledge below this panel contains food storage pits that have been filled in to help preserve them and are marked with "do not enter" sign. However, if you're careful you can hop onto a large boulder in front of this area to get a better view of the rock art without disturbing the pits or entering the off-limits area.
Just beyond the five hands panel you'll find even more white dots and an indistinguishable depiction.
Within a quarter mile beyond Squash Patch Ruins a careful eye will find a single handprint 100' left of the trail near coordinates 38.0246820, -109.7506939. It's impossible to reach the handprint without walking over cryptobiotic soil, so the photo below was taken with a 3x zoom from the trail.
Roughly 1.1 miles later, the trail passes beside a cliff that houses more ancient ruins high above. A short spur trail leads to the base of the cliff where you can gain a much better view, but the ruins themselves cannot be accessed. They're fairly deteriorated, but fascinating to examine from below.
Along the same wall and roughly 100 yards beyond the ruins, the trail passes directly below a small cave that contains one of the most fascinating pictographs in Salt Creek Canyon and possibly all of Canyonlands National Park, All-American Man. The photo below shows the cave opening as seen from the trail and on the left wall of the cave you can just make out the white legs of All-American Man. There is also a metal box near the base of the cave, which includes notebooks and pens for those who wish to leave their name behind.
Standing next to the crack that runs up into the cave you can get a great view of All-American Man, as well as two of the handful of granaries that are inside. Those who wish to get a closer view of the pictograph must carefully scale the wall, but remain out of the cave itself. The cave can be found near coordinates 38.0347794, -109.7502929.
Within 150 yards of leaving the All-American Man site, the trail ascends a short, but steep crack in the canyon, drops back down to the canyon floor, and roughly 1 mile later passes a very short spur trail leading to the Four Faces Panel, one of the highlights of the trip. The well-preserved pictographs rest above a series of ground level granaries that can be found near coordinates 38.0397460, -109.7610290.
A careful eye will also spot the beginning of a blue face, similar to those found in neighboring Horse Canyon, immediately left of the Four Faces.
About ten feet left of the Four Faces Panel you'll notice a larger, much more faint red face, and to the left of that a very faint horned animal created in blue pigment.
Further left you'll find two very faint and indistinguishable blue depictions.
No more than 100' along the main trail beyond the Four Faces Panel you'll run into Four Faces Spring, which is often the cleanest water source along the route. The trail continues by crossing over the spring near the top. After crossing over, the trail rounds a corner and opens up to a field filled with orange wildflowers during the spring.
The SC3 backcountry campsite can be found along the left side of the trail in this field, 0.1 miles from Four Faces Spring. It is by far the most coveted backcountry campsite along the trail given its close proximity to reliable water.
SC3 to SC4
Within 0.4 miles from SC3 the trail passes beside Upper Jump, a small waterfall whose water should be collected from the pour over, if possible.
Immediately after Upper Jump, the canyon narrows and trail becomes slightly overgrown, but is very manageable. In the springtime this area is filled with a vast amount of orange wildflowers. From this point until pretty much the end of the trail, the mosquitoes can be overwhelming during springtime. After winding through the canyon for a bit you'll encounter the rock formation in the photo below.
The trail runs right beside it and it sticks out like a sore thumb, so it's tough to miss. About half way up and left of center you'll find a large sawtooth pictograph.
A hundred or so feet to the right of the sawtooth panel you'll find pictographs of two faces.
For the next 1.5 miles the trail largely hugs Salt Creek before reaching a signed spur trail on the right side of the main trail, which leads to Angel Arch. The sign post for the spur trail is sometimes hidden in overgrowth, but can be found near coordinates 38.048956, -109.770548. The excursion to Angel Arch will add on roughly 4 miles round trip. From the Angel Arch spur trail, the main trail continues to hug Salt Creek before rising up to a dry plateau near 38.0533221, -109.7743020. Here, on the right side of the canyon you'll find no less than a dozen impressive ruins, including granaries and dwellings, perched on a ledge about 100' above. Getting up to the ruins is possible with careful route finding, but it is a very steep ascent.
With a careful eye you'll find a large, greyish colored sawtooth pictograph panel with a snake slithering through it to the left of where the ruins end and slightly higher. Binoculars or your camera's zoom can help view both the ruins and rock art from the main trail.
The SC4 backcountry campsite is located on the right side of the trail 0.6 miles after the ruins and rock art. Know that if you are using the AllTrails app to record your trip, they have the campsite located a half mile past where it actually is.
SC4 to Peekaboo Spring
1.9 miles past SC4, the trail passes through an open area with a patch of very large dead trees near coordinates 38.0700269, -109.7675187. Standing near the center of the trees you'll see the rock formation in the photo below on the opposite side of Salt Creek.
There is no easy way to cross Salt Creek from here, but a few hundred feet further along the trail you'll encounter a spur trail leading left. Taking the spur trail will lead you to the base of the formation where there is a fair amount of rock art. Before leaving the patch of trees, consider viewing the upper portion of the rock formations with binoculars or your camera's zoom. There are a number of petroglyphs high up that are best viewed from a distance.
Near the base of the formation you'll find several handprints.
More handprints to the left of those in the photo above.
It's very difficult to view in the photo below, but there is also a string of very faint figures etched into the wall.
The zoomed in photo below offers a slightly enhanced view of the triangular etchings, but unless you're there in person they are very challenging to make out.
Finally, a bird depiction can be found about 20' above the handprints.
From here the trail winds through more open canyon, but I was unable to locate any rock art or ruins until near coordinates 38.0736237, -109.7729897. As the trail makes a slight turn to the right you might notice the formation in the photo below.
High up on a ledge you'll find a well intact granary. I could not locate any other ruins along the ledge, but there are likely more somewhere nearby.
The next few miles are more scenic and there are several spur trails leading up to alcoves and ledges, however I was unable to locate any archaeological sites. The next noteworthy site that I encountered was a Barrier Canyon style pictograph panel known as the Flying Carpet Panel, a large panel just prior to reaching Peekaboo Spring. To locate the site you'll need to find the faint spur trail leading away from a very noticeable grove of trees with an open sandy area along the trail. This open area will be located near coordinates 38.1098924, -109.7609670. Once at those coordinates, follow the spur trail or just route find through the brush to get to the base of the cliff in front of you where near coordinates 38.1098048, -109.7628714 you'll find the panel.
Below is a slightly different angle where you see a bit more detail in the panel, as well as the ledge that runs along the base of the cliff.
The panel is actually quite extensive. To the left of the photos above you'll find even more Barrier Canyon style pictographs including hands and human-like depictions.
Moving even farther left you'll find several more handprints that are different in design from those in the photo above.
More faded human-like depictions, similar to those found in Alcove Panel in Horseshoe Canyon, can be found just beyond the hands in the photo above.
The section of the panel below is quite interesting as well. Here, what appear to be two quail beside a tall, slender human-like depiction can be found to the right of the panel.
Two more depictions found nearby.
After returning to the main trail and hiking another few hundred feet, keep your eyes on the left side of the canyon and look for the rock formation in the photo below.
On the far left side of the formation to the right of the sandstone tower, you'll find the shield pictograph in the photo below. From the trail the image appeared to be quite large, possibly 5-6' in diameter and one of the largest shield pictographs that I've ever seen.
Peekaboo Spring, the final water source along the trail, is just past this. The water here is pretty murky, but filterable. 0.3 miles after the spring you'll have a brief ascent up slickrock before arriving at Trail Arch and Peekaboo Camp.
Peekaboo Spring to Cave Springs
After passing through the arch you'll find a panel containing two white shields and numerous white dots. Behind the shields you'll notice several very faint Barrier Canyon style pictographs that were painted over by the Anasazi when they themselves inhabited the area.
To the left of the shields you'll find a cluster of red hands and a white depiction above them.
To the left of the arch you'll also find a series of five faded white hands.
Peekaboo Camp is just below the arch in a largely unshaded area. From here you have three miles to go before reaching the Cave Springs Trailhead, but they are an agonizing three miles. The trail follows the Horse Canyon/Peekaboo 4x4 Road that is nothing but deep sand with near zero shade. They are easily the most challenging miles of the route and a hell of a kick in the ass to end the backpack. When you reach the Cave Springs Trailhead you'll find a locked gate and a number of placards near the parking area that lend helpful insights to the canyon that you just backpacked through. If you have two vehicles and are planning on backpacking from Cathedral Butte to Cave Springs, you may want to consider reading the placards prior to starting your trip.
During this recent backpack of Salt Creek Canyon, I had planned on spending two nights and three days exploring the canyon. However, my stove broke on day one and only having freeze dried meals, a couple protein bars and a bag of almonds, I was relegated to an overnight trip consisting of two 15 mile days. That being said, I missed visiting several sites that I knew were inside the canyon, but feel that it's important to only write about what I experience firsthand. There are other great resources out there if you're willing to put in the time and do the research. Have a blast out there and bring an extra stove with you!