Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Upper Salt Creek backpacking

This place has been on my list for at least 15 years; it is known for great Indian ruins, rock art, arches, and spectacular scenery. This was the first time I'd brought backpacking gear with me to Canyonlands, so I was prepared. On Sunday morning, the campsite schedule on the wall in the backcountry office showed site SC3 was open for Monday night; perfect, I thought, 8 miles in, just right for an overnight. The woman at the backcountry desk said, "No, one night in Salt Creek isn't enough. Site SC1 is open the next night, take that one too!"  Okay, I took her advice.

The trailhead is 18 miles from the highway on fairly well-maintained dirt road. I would not want to be caught back here in rainy weather though, the road would become impassable in several places when wet. Monday was cool and very breezy, downright cold at the trailhead (7100') but not bad after dropping down into the canyon and getting out of the worst of the wind. Unfortunately the weather forecast is not so great, showers possible on Tuesday, with Tuesday night and Wednesday becoming much cooler and 40% chance of showers. Hmmm, at least I do have extra food and water if I have to spend a couple extra days at the trailhead waiting for the road to dry out.

Upper Salt Creek is pretty much as advertised. The first mile or so is a steep descent, almost 1000', then the walking is mostly easy walking on the canyon floor. Two hours in, you come to Kirk Spring which is an enormous water source, and the site of an old cabin. The first two campsites, SC1 and SC2, are about a 6-7 minute walk from the spring. (SC1 is the nicer of the two, shadier and more secluded)
From that point on, the scenery (which has been great) just keeps getting better. Several arches are visible, Big Ruin (the largest in Salt Creek) is about a mile further on the opposite side of the canyon, most of the places that look like they might have a granary or a ruin do indeed turn out to have ruins, and there is more and more rock art the further you go. Binoculars are mandatory equipment for this trip, for scanning the canyon walls. The best-known rock art here is a panel known as "All American Man", for obvious reasons... Click on the picture to enlarge it, and note the handprints on the panel.
The pigments have been radiocarbon-dated to approximately 1295 AD, plus/minus. This pictograph is about 7 miles from the trailhead. Another 3/4 mile or so brings you to the Four Faces ruin and pictograph panel, again named for obvious reasons.
Then about 50 yards to a huge spring, the first easily accessible water since Kirk Spring two hours ago
and another 100 yards to my campsite for the night.  SC3 is a nice campsite, in the open about 75 yards from the main trail; it has a good cooking area, two tent sites in the open, one tent site in the shade of a tree, and two rocket boxes for mandatory food storage (there are bears in Salt Creek Canyon). I set up my tent, stored my food, unloaded my pack as much as possible, and hiked another 1.5 miles further; it's all spectacular.

At 5am the next morning, I woke to what sounded like very light rain on the tent fly; not what I wanted to hear. It continued off and on, and by 6:00 there was enough light to get up and get moving. 40 degrees and raining is not my favorite weather, even in a spectacular place; I had my rain gear on over the top of my down jacket. It didn't rain hard, but a steady light sprinkle just enough to want rain gear.

I was already concerned about the weather forecast; the last I'd heard, cooler and wetter weather was on its way. I figured I had seen most of the highlights here, I didn't want to get caught at the trailhead with muddy impassable roads, and after almost three weeks of hiking and biking in southern Utah, all the spectacular scenery was starting to run together. That left only one conclusion: time to go.

So after a quick breakfast in the rain, I struck camp and headed out. The rain stopped by about 8:30 or so. I did stop at campsite SC1 just to see what it looked like (very nice!). After 4 hours of brisk hiking I ate lunch sitting on the tailgate of the truck. It did rain lightly on the drive out, but never hard enough to get the road really wet.

GPS log and pictures at EveryTrail.com

Picasa web album for this Canyonlands trip

Thoughts for future Salt Creek trips: Binoculars are mandatory equipment. It would be handy to have a guidebook or detailed info on all of the ruins to be on the lookout for; in some cases, like Big Ruin, just getting to the ruin itself is a challenge if you don't know the route.  For a one-night trip, get campsites SC1 (preferably) or SC2, hike to camp, drop most of the gear there, and then continue on to the ruins and rock art. Bring large water containers for sites SC1/2, it's a bit of a walk to water. The best trip would be an end-to-end hike with a vehicle shuttle. Getting the permits right would be a bit tricky, as camping in the upper 14 miles is limited to designated sites SC1, SC2, SC3, and SC4. From Angel Arch on to the north, the remaining 12 miles of Salt Creek is dispersed backcountry camping with no designated sites. I think three nights would be fine but four would be deluxe.

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