Backpacking Salt Creek Canyon

Backpacking Salt Creek Canyon

Canyonlands National Park

Type: 3-Night Backpacking, One Way Shuttle
Distance: Overall 28.2 miles (45.4 km).  Day 1 – 4.3 miles (6.9 km).  Day 2 – 5.1 miles (8.2 km). Day 3 – 8.9 miles (14.3 km). Day 4 – 9.9 miles (15.9 km).
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: +1093, -3240 feet (+333, -988 meters)
Date Visited: Sunday, April 14, 2019 – Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Backpacking Salt Creek Canyon Map (KTNP)

In 2018, we enjoyed exploring the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. But we wished we had been able to visit other areas of the park too. So, the following year, that’s what we did. After researching, we decided on a four day, three night backpacking trip through Salt Creek Canyon in the Needles District.

Salt Creek Trail has a lot of draws and is located in one of the more remote areas of the Needles District. There are reliable water sources, archeological ruins, history, arches, solitude, and more. The area can be hiked via multiple routes, and we decided to do a one-way shuttle hike. Overall, the route we chose was easy to moderate. We planned low mileage days so we could take our time and explore.

Our trip turned out amazing – we loved the history, scenery, and vibe of the area. It was exactly what we were looking for. Unfortunately, we ran into a couple issues along the way (primarily due to our own mistakes). But when backpacking, you have to be prepared for anything. So we rolled with them as best we could, and this post goes into detail, so hopefully it helps someone else. Get ready, this is a long one.

Planning – Route and Campsites

Trail map showing entrance at Cathedral Butte in the south, and the exit at Cave Spring in the north. Our route, via Salt Creek Trail and Angel Arch Trail, is highlighted in red.

We started our route at the southern border of Canyonlands, at Cathedral Butte in Bears Ears National Monument. There are two options for hiking out – Cave Spring or the Needles Campground. Exiting at Cave Spring makes for a shorter route, but the final 3.5 miles is along a sandy wash. Hiking out at the Needles Campground would mean an additional 1.3 miles, but it affords more views along the slickrock. We decided to finish our trip at Cave Spring, making the total distance 28.2 miles.

Along the route are four designated campsites: SC1, SC2, SC3, and SC4. There’s no dispersed camping until reaching the Salt/Horse Zone (after 14.1 miles). So, for us, it was critical that we got the campsites that we wanted. We wanted SC1 -> SC3 -> Salt/Horse Zone permits. SC2 was our backup to SC1, while SC4 was our backup to SC3. SC1 and SC2 are adjacent, and we had read that SC1 was more private. SC3 was preferable to SC4 because there’s a lot to see between SC1/SC2 and SC3, and we wanted time to explore.

The trail begins at 7,074′ of elevation, and ends at 4,931′. The trail descends initially, and is fairly level for the rest of the trip. The longest day for us would be the last one (day 4), while the other days were fairly low mileage. We decided to hike it south to north, so we would descend, rather than ascend, about 2,000 feet of elevation. About half way along Salt Creek Trail is a side trail to Angel Arch, the largest sandstone arch within Canyonlands NP. So we tacked on an additional 3.2 miles round-trip to see it.

Planning – Permits and Regulations

We were able to reserve the sites online, but the reservation system has changed since then. Starting in 2020, Canyonlands uses, and future blocks of campsites are available on four specific dates throughout the year. For example, on November 10, 2020, the permits for March 10 through June 9, 2021 became available. This makes it easier to grab the sites for your entire trip. (To reserve our campsites, I had to wait until 2am EST, for 3 nights straight, when the permits became available.)

With our permits secured, our next step was booking a shuttle, since this was a one-way hike. We contacted Coyote Shuttle, headquartered in Moab. We reserved our shuttle well in advance, for $300 (the cost now is around $375). Expensive, but worth it, and they were responsive and professional.

Next, it was time to research specific points of interest. We bought books and scoured the internet. Along the trail are numerous ruins, cliff dwellings, pictographs, and artifacts that were created thousands of years ago by the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan (also called Anasazi) Native Americans. People lived in the region for roughly 2,000 years, starting as hunter-gatherers, and eventually farming. By 1200 AD, large groups of people lived in what is now Canyonlands, and the society reached its peak. Around 1300 AD, the Ancestral Puebloans left the area and migrated south toward Arizona and New Mexico, possibly due to drought.

Big Ruins, the largest archaeological site in Canyonlands, evokes a sense of grandeur. There are at least 20 structures high on a ledge. The Ancestral Puebloans also lived in what is now Mesa Verde National Park, so they have similarities. There are also smaller features within Salt Creek Canyon that are just as worthwhile. Directions to these landmarks are not always public knowledge, but you can find information about them online or in books with enough time and effort. To protect them, we won’t provide the specific locations of these special places.

A couple important details that are specific to the area: First, there is a small population of black bears in Salt Creek Canyon. In late summer, the bears migrate down from the nearby Abajo Mountains, so bear canisters are required along Salt Creek Canyon from March 15 to November 30 (and highly recommended at other times). This was the first time we needed a canister, and we bought a BearVault BV500, which sufficed for four days with two people. Another important thing to know is that all human waste must be packed out when camping at designated campsites (which includes SC 1-4). When we visited, only toilet paper needed to be packed out, but this changed in 2020.

DayMileageElevation GainDescriptionCampsite
14.3 miles+142, -1301 feetHike from Cathedral Butte to SC1 CampsiteSC1
25.1 miles+289, -555 feetHike from SC1 Campsite to SC3 CampsiteSC3
38.9 miles+494, -770 feetHike from SC3 Campsite to a campsite within Horse/Salt ZoneDispersed campsite in Salt/Horse Zone ("Angel Arch Campsite")
49.9 miles+168, -614 feetHike out to the Cave Spring Trailhead

Day 0 – To Moab

It’s also vital to know that Beef Basin Road, which leads to our trailhead at Cathedral Butte, is a rough dirt road. We expected the weather to be sunny and dry like our first trip to the area. But it rained heavily just before our trip, and it turns out that the road gets muddy and can become impassable after a downpour…so we weren’t sure what Beef Basin Road had in store for us. Other than that, the weather looked nice for our trip in late March – mid 60s to low 70s during the day, and 40s at night.

When we arrived in Moab, we checked into Inca Inn before heading to Coyote Shuttle to pay for the trip. While there, we were told that there was the possibility of snow/ice on the trail. We decided to stop by a local shop and grab some cheap crampons. Fortunately, we didn’t end up needing them, but I’m glad we had them just in case.

Canyonlands: Coyote Shuttle in Moab
Coyote Shuttle in Moab

Day 1 – To Cathedral Butte

The next day, we woke up early and drove to Canyonlands National Park, Needles District. On the way we stopped at a few places with scenic views or attractions like Newspaper Rock. Once we arrived at the Needles Visitor Center, we got our backcountry camping permits. Since we had reserved an at-large area (Salt/Horse), we were required to pick up our permits from the Visitor Center (so a ranger could give us brief instructions before the trip).

At the visitor center, we also changed our permit to exit at the Needles Campground rather than Cave Spring. We decided we preferred to hike on slickrock instead of the sandy path to Cave Spring. But, we ended up exiting at Cave Spring anyway… we’ll get to that later.

Around 9:45 a.m., we met our shuttle driver, Farland, at the visitor center. We followed her in our car to the Needles Campground, where we parked. Then, we hopped in the jeep for our bumpy ride. Farland was very friendly and engaging. She told us about her past career as a teacher (Kristin is also a teacher), as well as her experiences in the Moab area.

Canyonlands: Newspaper Rock Outside of Canyonlands
Newspaper Rock, one of the largest petroglyph sites, located just outside The Needles district
Canyonlands: Needles Visitor Center
The Needles Visitor Center
Canyonlands: Coyote Shuttles Jeep
Loading up the Jeep from Coyote Shuttle

Beef Basin Road goes through Bears Ears National Monument, where Cathedral Butte is located. Initially, the ride wasn’t too bad. We zipped across the dirt road with towering redrock monoliths beside us, and through a large pool of water. The further we went, the worse shape the road was in, until it got pretty muddy. Farland and the jeep were able to handle it all, and we got to the Cathedral Butte trailhead without any issues. She dropped us off at 11:30 a.m., and we thanked her profusely.

The trailhead was at the top of a cliff surrounded by pinyon and juniper. Looking out over Salt Creek Canyon – at 7,074 feet of elevation – gave us a scenic view of where we were heading. It’s intimidating to suddenly be dropped in the middle of nowhere with no transportation, aside from walking. There was some lingering snow around the parking area, as well as one other very muddy truck with chains on its tires.

Canyonlands: Beef Basin Road Water
Driving through water on Beef Basin Road
Canyonlands: Scenic Views Beef Basin Road
Scenic views in Bears Ears National Monument
Canyonlands: Cathedral Butte
Cathedral Butte, the trailhead for Salt Creek Canyon, in Bears Ears National Monument
Canyonlands: Cathedral Butte Trailhead
Trailhead parking that we shared with only one other vehicle
Canyonlands: View of Salt Creek Canyon from Cathedral Butte
Looking into Salt Creek Canyon from the trailhead
Canyonlands: Photo Before Descending Into Salt Creek
Excited and ready to hike

Day 1 – Cathedral Butte to SC1

Before starting our hike, we checked out the trailhead sign. We signed the register, and found an NPS map describing a challenging marshy section about 2.5 miles into the trail. We snapped a photo of it, just in case. Around noon, we started our descent into Salt Creek. After 4.3 miles, we would reach our campsite.

Over the next 1.5 miles, we descended almost 1000 feet. It wasn’t hard, but the trail was steep and eroded in places. We were glad we were going down and not up! The weather was cool, but we quickly peeled off layers as we moved. There was a bit of scattered snow, but none on the trail. As we got lower, we started seeing cryptobiotic soil – which we made sure to avoid. The views were incredible, and we enjoyed looking back at Cathedral Butte, to see where we had come from.

Eventually, the route descended into a flat area with sagebrush, and then the sandy “bottom” of Upper Salt Creek Canyon. From there, we left Bears Ears National Monument and entered Canyonlands National Park. The vegetation around us started to change again until we were surrounded by tamarisk, rabbitbrush, willows, and other brush and grasses. We went through this section until we came to the marsh mentioned on the map at the trailhead, full of tall scouring reeds.

Canyonlands: Salt Creek Trailhead Sign
Trailhead sign with register
Canyonlands: Map of Salt Creek Marshy Area
Map of the marshy area that we found in the register
Canyonlands: Starting Descent into Salt Creek
Starting our descent. Notice the patches of snow!
Canyonlands: Looking Down Into Salt Creek Canyon
Looking down into Salt Creek Canyon
Canyonlands: Final Descent to Salt Creek
Final descent into Salt Creek
Canyonlands: Plateau Fence Lizard Along Salt Creek Trail
A plateau fence lizard (Sceloporus tristichus), which was only a few inches long
Canyonlands: Cryptobiotic Soil Along Salt Creek Trail
Cryptobiotic soil was prevalent along some sections of the trail
Canyonlands: Phlox on Salt Creek Trail
A type of phlox wildflower along the trail
Canyonlands: Looking Back at Cathedral Butte from Salt Creek Trail
Looking back at Cathedral Butte
Canyonlands: East Fork Salt Creek Canyon Wash
The sandy wash in the Eastern Fork of Salt Creek Canyon
Canyonlands: Entering Canyonland on Salt Creek Trail
Finally entering Canyonlands!
Canyonlands: Surround by Rabbitbrush on Salt Creek Trail
Rabbitbrush, reeds, tamarisk, and other tall plants surround the trail on both sides

Initially, the path was easy to follow through the towering reeds. We crossed small streams that flowed through. While the park does have pink ribbons tied around reeds as markers to follow, they were difficult to find. The further in we went, the harder it was to navigate. We had read that hikers should bear right along the path toward the east side of the marsh, and we were able to figure our way through. But I can see the benefit of having the map (from the trailhead) just in case.

We brought binoculars so we could see some of the ruins and cliff dwellings that were further away. The marshy section was where (we think) we got our first glimpse of some granaries high up on a cliff along the east side of the trail.

Eventually, the trail follows a sandstone cliff to the east (our right). The trail is very clear here, and runs right past the first pictograph panel we saw. The panel has four handprints, as well as a small humanoid figure. We couldn’t help stretching out our hands and comparing them to the ones on the wall (without touching them). We wondered who created them and why. How long ago? Interesting thoughts and theories flooded our minds as we speculated.

Canyonlands: Entering Salt Creek Marshy Area Through Reeds
Navigating through the reeds
Canyonlands: Colors of the Marsh in Salt Creek
Multicolored marsh – if you turn it on its side, it’s an Italian flag
Canyonlands: Pink Trail Marker on Salt Creek
These hard-to-find pink ribbons are the “trail markers” in the marshy area
Canyonlands: Exiting Marshy Area on Salt Creek
Exiting a marshy area
Canyonlands: Salt Creek Trail Along Sandstone Cliff
The trail leaves the marsh and continues along a sandstone cliff
Canyonlands: Four Hands Pictograph in Salt Creek
Our first pictograph in Salt Creek Canyon!

Shortly after the pictograph is the first reliable water source – Kirk Spring. Water cascades down a sandstone slope and lands in a large pond. It’s very picturesque, but we didn’t linger too long. It’s close enough to our campsite that we would come back to filter later. 150 yards beyond the water source, we encountered the next historical treasure: Kirk’s Cabin.

A small hewn log cabin sits just next to the trail. Built in the 1890s by Renssalaer Lee Kirk, the cabin has stood for over 125 years. Kirk ranched there until 1905, when he abandoned the area because he couldn’t make a living. Scattered around the cabin are remnants of the ranching days: a corral, fences, even an old wagon. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

The cabin is open to visitors, so we went in and explored. Small trinkets (and unfortunately, trash left by other hikers) were strewn about. While the cabin is in decent shape considering its age, I imagine it’s seen better days. It’s hard to imagine living here; I’m sure it was a lonely experience.

Just past Kirk’s Cabin is a small trail to the right that leads to two campsites: SC1 and SC2. We were staying at SC1, so we headed back on the spur, where it split to each individual campsite. We assumed SC2 was booked, but we didn’t see anyone else. Our campsite was large, quiet, and private. We set up our camp, ate dinner, and headed to bed.

Canyonlands: Kirk Spring in Salt Creek
Kirk Spring, a reliable water source
Canyonlands: Kirk Spring Pond on Salt Creek
The pond at Kirk Spring
Canyonlands: Kirk's Cabin on Salt Creek Trail
Approaching Kirk’s Cabin, built in the 1890s by Renssalaer Lee Kirk, with parts of an old wagon nearby
Canyonlands: In Front of Kirk's Cabin on Salt Creek Trail
The entrance to the cabin
Canyonlands: Inside Kirk's Cabin
Inside Kirk’s Cabin
Canyonlands: Trail to the SC1 & SC2 Campsites
The trail to SC1 and SC2 campsites
Canyonlands: SC1 Campsite in Salt Creek
Enjoying the SC1 campsite

Day 2 – SC1 to Big Pocket

The next morning we woke up refreshed and excited for the day. There are so many things to see on the next stretch of trail: the All American Man, Four Faces, Squash Patch, Big Ruins, Ring Arch, and numerous other points of interest. We only planned to hike five miles, so we could focus on exploring. But first, we needed to filter some water…which became more of an issue than we anticipated.

On the way out of the campsite, we spotted Kirk Arch across the canyon. It’s difficult to see because there is another rock face behind the opening. We had missed it the day before, but once you know where it is, you can’t miss it. We headed left on Salt Creek Trail, passed Kirk’s Cabin, and backtracked to the pond.

Our water filter of choice is a Sawyer Squeeze. While we’ve used other systems in the past, we’ve found it to have the best balance of utility, weight, and ease of use. We filled up our water pouches at Kirk Spring, attached them to the filter, and squeezed – water should come out the other side into our bottles. But nothing came out. Not worried yet, we backwashed the filter. It still didn’t work. Insert expletive here.

Canyonlands: Kirk Arch in Salt Creek
Kirk Arch (slightly left of center), located west of Kirk’s Cabin across Salt Creek
Canyonland: Kirk's Cabin in Morning Light
Good morning, Kirk’s Cabin
Canyonlands: Kirk Spring in Morning Light
Kirk Spring as it flows into the pond

Before our trip, we had picked up supplies at the REI in Grand Junction, Colorado. On a whim we also bought some water purification tablets. We’d never carried or used them before, but we were glad we had them. Without the tablets, we would have needed to boil water, taking away our precious fuel. And we hadn’t even seen another hiker at this point, so borrowing wasn’t an option.

We brought a limited number of tablets, so we had to conserve them as much as possible. Part of that meant allowing the water to warm to “room temperature” before we added the tablets, and calculating how much water to put into each container (we used hydration bladders, which made it easier). And, two new takeaways from the trip: first, test our water filter before leaving, and second, bring purification tablets as a backup.

After figuring out the water situation, we headed north past Kirk’s Cabin, then past the wooden fence built by Kirk himself. The fences are fairly intricate, even though barbed wire was available at the time. About a third of a mile later, we came to our first easily accessible ruins – two small granaries tucked in an alcove – not far from the trail. It’s special to be able to get up close (but not too close) to the ruins. Back on the main trail, we spotted another unnamed arch across the canyon to the west. It’s scenic, yet inaccessible. Sometimes this is also referred to as Kirk Arch.

As we continued on the trail, we spotted signs of wildlife. On the path was hairy scat, most likely from coyotes which frequent the area. Also on this stretch, we saw the most peculiar insects – red and yellow colored hairy ants. They lived in holes on the trail. We later learned that they’re called velvet ants, but are actually a type of wasp! They can sting, but thankfully aren’t aggressive.

Soon after, we came upon the Big Pocket area to our right (east) where we spotted a Great Basin gopher snake in the brush. They aren’t poisonous, but we didn’t know that at the time, so we stayed well away. We knew there were additional ruins in the Big Pocket Area, but we continued on the main trail since there was so much to explore.

Canyonlands: Kirk Fence
Heading past an old fence, also constructed by Kirk
Canyonlands: Salt Creek Ruins
Our first set of close-up ruins almost blend in. They are accessible via a social trail off of Salt Creek Trail
Canyonlands: Close up of Salt Creek Ruins
A close up of the ruins
Canyonlands: Unnamed Arch in Salt Creek
This unnamed arch is also sometimes referred to as Kirk Arch
Canyonlands: Velvet Ant on Salt Creek
This little bug is a red velvet ant, which is actually a species of wasp
Canyonlands: Great Basin Gopher Snake on Salt Creek Trail
A Great Basin Gopher Snake….non-venomous, thankfully.

Day 2 – Big Ruins, Wedding Ring Arch, Squash Granary

Looking west, we saw Big Ruins about 0.4 miles from the trail. If you know where to look, the ruins are easy to find. Located on a cliff, it’s the largest collection of Ancestral Puebloan Ruins in Canyonlands. This site was one reason I wanted to hike Salt Creek. Most ruins are tucked into a ledge about 70 feet off the ground. To get closer to the ruins, we found a social spur trail immediately after a large diamond shaped rock. As we approached, the ruins slowly came into focus. Black soot covered the ceiling of the ledges, remnants of fires from over 700 years ago.

At our feet were numerous pottery pieces, so many that we had to make sure we didn’t step on any. Previous visitors had placed most of them on rocks to help protect them. The pieces have various patterns and colors, and we promptly tried to find our favorite designs. As always, leave no trace and do not remove any artifacts from the site.

Metate and mano – tools that were used to grind corn – are also in this area. So logically, there were dried corncobs there too. Could these be over 700 years old? At the bottom of the sandstone cliffs are granary ruins, where corn was likely stored so long ago. On the higher ledge with the structures, we spotted more handprints. There’s no way to get to the ledge, so they’re protected. The Ancestral Puebloans likely used ladders, which have long since disappeared, to access the structures. Big Ruins are awe-inspiring and they lived up to my expectations.

Canyonlands: Salt Creek Near Diamond Rock
Traversing through brush near a diamond-shaped rock
Canyonlands: View of Big Ruin from Salt Creek Trail
View of Big Ruins from the trail
Canyonlands: Sharpleaf Twinpod on Salt Creek Trail
Sharpleaf twinpod (Physaria acutifolia), one of the many varieties of twinpod
Canyonlands: Close to Big Ruins off Salt Creek Trail
Admiring Big Ruins
Canyonlands: Zoomed Into Big Ruins
Zooming in on some of the ruins. Can you spot the handprints?
Canyonlands: Ruins at the Base of Big Ruins
Examining some granary artifacts at Big Ruins
Canyonlands: Big Ruins Pottery Shards
A small selection of the many pottery shards scattered at Big Ruins
Canyonlands: Metate and Mano at Big Ruins
Metate (stone surface) and mano (hand stone) that were used for grinding corn

After exploring for as long as we could, we returned to the main trail. Far in the distance we saw a peculiar shape – Fisheye Arch. Another nearby arch (which isn’t as visible), is also sometimes referred to as Fisheye Arch. Shortly after, we went about 600 feet off the main trail to check out Wedding Ring Arch.

As we were heading to Wedding Ring Arch, we met the first person we’d seen since starting the trail. We were surprised to learn that he was a day hiker, but we weren’t sure where he started from. He had been looking for the All American Man pictograph. While we didn’t know exactly where it was, we knew it was to the north, so we mentioned that. But he was running out of time, and headed south. If he couldn’t find the pictograph, we started to worry that we wouldn’t be able to either.

Wedding Ring Arch is almost a perfect circle, if you look from the right angle. It’s large, about 200 feet high and 150 feet wide. Like Fisheye Arch, another Wedding Ring Arch is located before Kirk’s Cabin on some maps. But this one looks more like a ring than that one. Once we got some photos, we headed back to the main trail. The path goes through some wide open sagebrush areas, through reeds, and then back into sagebrush. Well worn hiker-made trails weave their way from Salt Creek Trail to our next destination – the Squash Plant Ruins.

Three granary ruins sit below an alcove. There are many granaries in Salt Creek, but what makes these unique is the squash plants growing in front of them. They likely grew from seeds originally planted by the Puebloans over 700 years ago! As far as we know, this is the only area in Salt Creek that has squash plants.

We were lucky to spot an old squash from the previous year, now hollow. How cool is that? Seeing it helped us imagine what it would have been like to live there long ago. More handprints above the granaries round out this special area.

Canyonlands: Fisheye Arch In Salt Creek (We Think)
Fisheye Arch (we think)
Canyonlands: Wedding Ring Arch in Salt Creek
Wedding Ring Arch
Canyonlands: Squash Plant Ruins in Salt Creek
Squash Plant Ruins – notice the green plant in front of the far granary
Canyonlands: Squash Plant in Salt Creek
The green spring growth of a squash plant, alongside last year’s yellowed vines
Canyonlands: Last Years Squash in Salt Creek
Squash from the previous year

Day 2 – All American Man, Four Faces, SC3

There was still more to see in this section of Salt Creek. Next were two of the most iconic pictographs: the All American Man and Four Faces. But first, we spotted a few ruins high up in a crack on a sandstone cliff. It’s mind-blowing to ponder how they might have been built. Shortly after, we came to the well-known All American Man basically right next to the trail. It’s located in a crevice in the wall, about 10 to 15 feet above the ground, with some ruins behind it. Below we found a canister with a hiker log, which we signed.

The All American Man is aptly named – a six-foot tall round figure, decked out in red, white, and blue, along with a narrow head and strange antennae. There is even what appears to be an American flag (but of course, it isn’t) near the figure’s “waist.” It’s vivid and spectacular. The blue color is actually gray, but it appears blue in the dim light and among the surrounding red sandstone. At some point, a visitor outlined the pictograph with white chalk – a practice that has damaged many petroglyphs and pictographs. Please treat all ruins with respect, and follow leave no trace.

Canyonlands: Ruins in Crack on Salt Creek
We spotted a crack in the sandstone from far away
Canyonlands: Ruins within Crack Salt Creek
When we approached, we saw ruins inside!
Canyonlands: Approaching All American Man Pictograph
Approaching another crack in the sandstone – this one houses the All American Man pictograph
Canyonlands: All American Man Alcove in Salt Creek
A closer view of ruins and the All American Man in the alcove. Also, note the box which contains a visitor log.
Canyonlands: All American Man in Salt Creek
All American Man Pictograph

The trail briefly veers to the west after the All American Man and goes through a crack in the sandstone. While it was probably unnecessary for the trail to go this way, it does make for an interesting scramble. Afterward, we made our way through dense reeds and other thick vegetation. About 30 minutes past the All American Man, we arrived at some ruins and the next pictograph – the Four Faces.

Most of the ruins in Canyonlands are from the Ancestral Puebloan culture, but Four Faces was created by the Fremont people. The two groups are distinct, and they overlapped in the area. The Four Faces is well preserved, considering it’s over 700 years old. The red colors are vivid, and it looks like it could have been painted yesterday. There are other “face” pictographs in Canyonlands, but most are in poorer condition. One of the nearby ruins was likely a kiln or hearth, as it’s blackened with soot inside.

Canyonlands: Through Crack in Sandstone in Salt Creek
The trail leads through a crack in the sandstone
Canyonlands: Scrambling Up Crack in Salt Creek
Scrambling up at the end of the rock formation
Canyonlands: Between Reeds After All American Man
Through reeds after All American Man
Canyonlands: Four Faces Ruin in Salt Creek
Approaching the Four Faces and ruins
Canyonlands: Four Faces Soot Ruin in Salt Creek
Examining a ruin that was likely used as a firepit or oven
Canyonlands: Four Faces Pictograph in Salt Creek
Four Faces Pictograph, probably my favorite of the ones we saw in Salt Creek

Four Faces Spring, which would be our next water source, is located near the pictograph. The spring is also only a short walk from SC3 campsite. There, we met the second person that we’d seen so far. He was doing a through hike on The Hayduke Trail, which goes from Arches National Park through much of Southern Utah, then into Northern Arizona before ending in Zion National Park. An alternate route goes through Salt Creek. As we talked, we started feeling a bit uncomfortable with some things he was discussing. Then, he asked to stay in our campsite, and we realized that he likely did not have any permits. We’re usually pretty flexible, but due to some odd vibes we declined.

Continuing, we crossed Salt Creek and walked another 0.2 miles to reach SC3, our campsite for the night. The site is nice and big, and more open than SC1. Once we set up camp, I headed back to Four Faces Spring to get some water.

I peered into the pond and was surprised to see some large salamanders. These were Tiger Salamanders, the only species of salamander in the park. As I was taking this in, a small bat flew over the surface of the pond looking for insects. There’s so much wildlife here! I only had my cell phone on me on, so the pictures aren’t great. I headed back to camp for dinner. I tried out a GOOD TO-GO Bibimbap meal – it was not very good, which was disappointing since we’ve liked the brand’s other meals.

Canyonlands: Four Faces Spring in Salt Creek
Four Faces Spring, a reliable water source near SC3 campsite
Canyonlands: Tiger Salamanders at Four Faces Spring
They’re hard to see, but there at least four tiger salamanders in the water. The only species of salamander in the park, they grow to around 6-8 inches long.
Canyonlands: SC3 Campsite in Salt Creek
SC3 campsite, our place for the night
Canyonlands: Primrose on Salt Creek Trail
A variety of primrose along the trail

Day 3 – SC3 to Angel Arch Camp

We started early on day 3. Our plan was to hike 5.3 miles to a dispersed campsite, then head down a side trail to check out Angel Arch. The hike started out in sagebrush and led us to some geometric rock art, before reaching Upper Jump. This is a small waterfall, and would be a good place to get water if we had needed it. The creek bed then drops about 25 feet, and the trail gets greener, wetter, and narrower. We soon found ourselves surrounded by rabbitbrush, willows, and other vegetation. It was a welcome change.

For the next 2.3 miles or so after Upper Jump, we saw lots of trees and crossed numerous streams. The National Park Service has constructed simple wooden bridges across most of the streams. Cottonwood leaves crunched under our feet. Eventually, the trail rose above Salt Creek Canyon. We spotted rock art known as the Paper Dolls, since it looks like a string of figures holding hands. Shortly after, the trail took us back down into the canyon.

Canyonlands: Geometric Rock Art Before Upper Jump
Geometric rock art pattern
Canyonlands: Upper Jump in Salt Creek
A 25-foot drop at Upper Jump, another excellent water source. After this point, the trail becomes wetter and narrower until the intersection with Angel Arch.
Canyonlands: Salt Creek After Upper Jump
A narrow trail through brush, covered with crisp leaves
Canyonlands: Salt Creek Bridge
Crossing one of the bridges that the NPS set up. Nice to have here, but not absolutely necessary.
Canyonlands: Trail by Tree in Salt Creek
The trail goes under a large willow (I think) tree
Canyonlands: Salt Creek Trail climbing out of the canyon
Trail climbing out of the canyon
Canyonlands: Paper Dolls Pictograph in Salt Creek
This pictograph is known as The Paper Dolls – they’re waaaay up there. My zoom wasn’t long enough, and we decided we didn’t have time to try to get closer. The design looks like human figures holding hands.

We neared the SC4 campsite and decided to check it out and take a short break. It’s a nice large site, with plenty of shade, privacy, and logs to sit on (always important!). Past SC4, the trail becomes harder to navigate, but it follows Salt Creek (more or less) as it winds its way north. About an hour and a half after SC4, we arrived at the intersection with Angel Arch Trail. Angel Arch would have to wait, as we wanted to set up camp first.

After this intersection, the trail crosses into the Salt/Horse backpacking zone. This area allows for dispersed camping (best practice is to select a previously established site). We continued north on Salt Creek Trail, and in 0.2 miles we reached the area where we would camp. Formerly known as Angel Arch Camp, it’s an open area that features large cottonwood trees…or at least it did until a wildfire in 2016. According to some forums, the fire may have been caused by humans, but I never found a reliable source. It’s still a nice area to camp, but I imagine it used to be even better with the shade and privacy of the trees. As a reminder, campfires are not permitted in the backcountry.

Canyonlands: Looking Down into Salt Creek
About to descend into the canyon
Canyonlands: Hiking Next to Salt Creek
The trail runs parallel to the creek
Canyonlands: Spur to SC4 Campsite
This spur trail for the SC4 campsite can be tricky to spot
Canyonlands: SC4 Campsite
SC4 was a nice big site – we took a restful break there.
Canyonlands: Salt Creek After SC4
After SC4, the trail becomes a bit overgrown and hard to follow
Canyonlands: Walking Along Salt Creek
In this section, we primarily found our way by following the creek
Canyonlands: Happy Frogs in Salt Creek
Some happy toads doing a fun activity. These are most likely red-spotted toads (Bufo punctatus).
Canyonlands: Angel Arch Intersection
Passing the Angel Arch Trail intersection, and continuing north
Angel Arch Camp sadly burnt to a crisp back in 2016. Hopefully the cottonwoods will grow back someday.

– A brief historical interlude –

Incredibly, Salt Creek Trail north of the Angel Arch intersection, as well as the trail to Angel Arch, used to be open to motor vehicles. In 1998, the trail was closed by the NPS to protect the habitat and archaeological resources. After years of litigation, the trail has remained closed. It’s almost unthinkable for vehicles to drive through a riparian area which is so important to the delicate ecosystem.

While I’m glad 4WD vehicles are no longer in this part of Salt Creek, we found signs of past use, like scratches on rocks and abnormally wide trails. That said, the area has recovered quite well. Wildlife, like black bears, has started to repopulate the area (mainly in a late-summer migration from the Abajo Mountains). Some vehicle tracks have been overgrown with vegetation. Salt Creek itself has began to run clear, and riparian vegetation has increased.

Day 3 – Angel Arch Trail

After setting up our campsite, we headed back south to the Angel Arch Trail intersection. The trail goes 1.6 miles before reaching the arch. Initially, it was easy to follow, and we found some ruins and pictographs on a nearby cliff. The further we went, the wetter and more difficult to navigate it became.

Curiously, some maps have this trail incorrectly labeled as “Abbey’s Triple Arch Trail,” assumedly dedicated to Edward Abbey. Abbey’s Triple Arch is actually located in The Maze district.

Canyonlands: Angel Arch Trail Intersection
Back to the Angel Arch Trail intersection, and it’s time to hike to the namesake arch!
Canyonlands: Angel Arch Trail Start
A cloudy day makes for a nice photo as we started hiking Angel Arch Trail
Canyonlands: Granaries Along Angel Arch Trail
Some granary ruins in the distance
Canyonlands: Grassy Creek Bed Along Angel Arch Trail
Grassy Creek Bed
Canyonlands: Angel Arch Trail Road Tracks
Evidence that this trail once allowed vehicles
Canyonlands: Wide Open Rocky Wash Angel Arch Trail
A wide open rocky wash that served as the trail

Eventually we spotted Angel Arch. Morning lighting would have been better, since the sun is behind the arch in the afternoon, but this was the only time we’d have to see the arch. Cairns guided us up slickrock, to a rock formation known as “the molar.” It supposedly resembles a tooth, though it looked more like a heart to us.

Behind the molar stands Angel Arch. Its size, unique shape, and remoteness make it impressive. Originally, the formation was named Pegasus Arch until 1963, when it was officially named Angel Arch. There is supposedly a cairned 1.5 mile (round trip) trail that leads to the base of the arch, but we didn’t have the time or energy to do it. Thankfully the sky was a bit cloudy, which helped us get some decent photos.

We had brought our cooking gear with us, so we made dinner and ate while enjoying a view of the arch. It’s a great memory – just the two of us, relaxing and enjoying the beautiful scenery. Next, we headed back the way we came until we reached our campsite. We fell asleep to the gentle, and thankfully brief, rain that fell on our tent.

Canyonlands: First View of Angel Arch
First glimpse of Angel Arch
Canyonlands: Angel Arch and Molar
The “Molar” rock formation, with Angel Arch in the background
Canyonlands: Angel Arch
Beautiful and majestic Angel Arch, one of my favorite sandstone arches

Day 4 – Angel Arch Camp to Peekaboo

The next morning we woke up to slightly damp ground. It felt cold and dreary initially, but the weather warmed up as the day went on. For the most part, the trail followed Salt Creek, which had places where we could have filtered water if we needed it. The trail opened up into wide, flat sandstone, which was beautiful and fun to hike. The Salt/Horse Zone allows for dispersed camping, and we stumbled upon a few established campsites (see Google Map below). About 1.1 miles beyond Angel Arch Camp, the trail passes right by Crescent Arch, high in the sandstone.

This was also the section where we started running into more people, since it’s possible to day hike here from the Needles Campground. First, we ran into some backpackers who were heading south. As we talked, we learned they were from the DC area too. They had a wide range of campsite permits that had taken them from Lost Canyon into Salt Creek. They mentioned that Peekaboo Trail was particularly scary. We didn’t think anything of the warning at the time, but knew we would be on that trail shortly.

One of the last major pictographs along the trail, the Flying Carpet Panel, is shortly before Peekaboo Arch. We managed to find a spur trail that led to the panel. Unlike earlier pictographs such as the All American Man or Four Faces, this panel is Barrier Canyon style. Another example of this style is The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon. The Flying Carpet Panel features several figures of varying sizes, and neat red handprints. It’s an impressive collection of pictographs.

Canyonlands: Start of Day 4 on Salt Creek Canyon Trail
A light drizzle greeted us as we started our hike on the last day
Canyonlands: Salt Creek Flats
The trail goes along the rocky flats
Canyonlands: Crescent Arch on Salt Creek Canyon Trail
A view of Crescent Arch
Canyonlands: Dispersed Campsite Along Salt Creek Canyon Trail in Salt/Horse Zone
An established campsite in the Salt/Horse Dispersed Camping Zone
Canyonlands: Salt Creek Canyon Trail Along Sandstone Wall
The trail goes along a large sandstone “wall”… there’s probably a better geology term for it
Canyonlands: Flying Carpet Pictograph Panel
Flying Carpet Panel, shortly before Peekaboo Arch

After hiking about 6.5 miles from Angel Arch Camp, we reached Peekaboo Arch. It’s very unique and looks almost like it was punched out of a fin. The trail goes right through the arch. Formerly, it looped around the entire fin, but that’s no longer the “official” trail. Which is nice, since going through saves about half a mile.

We hiked up the slickrock and passed through the arch. We turned immediately left to admire a well known pictograph next to the opening of the arch. It was created by the Fremont Native Americans. If you look closely, you can see that it was painted over faint red artwork that is even older. Handprints are also nearby. There were a few people here, which was unsurprising since the area is accessible from the Needles Campground.

Looking down, we spotted Peekaboo Camp, a designated campsite. The 4WD road to Peekaboo Camp is only open a few weeks throughout the year based on weather and driving conditions, but we didn’t see any cars nearby, and no one seemed to be camping at Peekaboo that day. We had read about the nearby Peekaboo Spring but weren’t able to find it, but there did seem to be pools of water right before the arch.

Canyonlands: Approaching Peekaboo Arch
The small opening in the center is Peekaboo Arch. Hiking through it shortens the hike by about 0.5 miles, compared with going around the fin.
Canyonlands: Peekaboo Arch Pictographs
Pictographs on the other side of Peekaboo Arch
Canyonlands: Close Up Peekaboo Pictographs
The white pictographs were created by the Fremont Native Americans. If you look closely, you can see that they were painted over even older red Barrier Canyon style pictographs.
Canyonlands: Peekaboo Hand Pictographs
Hand pictographs are also nearby
Canyonlands: Peekaboo Camp in Salt Creek
Peekaboo Camp has some shade, and a handy picnic table

Day 4 – Peekaboo Trail

After this point, Salt Creek Road heads north to Cave Spring Trailhead, where we originally planned to end our hike. When we picked up our permit, we had switched our point of exit to the Needles Campground (previously known as Squaw Flat Campground), since we thought hiking on slickrock would be preferable to sand. So instead of heading north, we hiked west from Peekaboo Campsite, onto Peekaboo Trail. The trail ascends onto benches – areas with vertical rock both above and below. The 4.7 mile trail is primarily on slickrock until you reach the campground.

Our first obstacle was a ladder in a crack between fins. Climbing it was a lot of fun, even though our backpacks were a tight fit. Once on top, we spotted a small ruin nearby. As we followed the cairns along the slickrock, the views became more and more impressive. We scrambled up to the benches and ledges above the canyon. At one point, we climbed through a small window in the sandstone.

Canyonland: Peekaboo Trail Sign
Starting on Peekaboo Trail! What could go wrong?
Canyonlands: Climbing Ladder on Peekaboo Trail
Climbing up a ladder to the sandstone benches and gorgeous views
Canyonlands: Exiting Peekaboo Ladder
Kristin reaches the top of the ladder
Canyonlands: Peekaboo Trail Bowl
Unique geological features along our route
Canyonlands: Granary Near Rock Formation on Peekaboo Trail
A small granary on the ledge of a large rock formation
Canyonlands: Looking Down at Peekaboo Camp from Peekaboo Trail
This view of Peekaboo Camp and surrounding area was worth the climb
Canyonlands: Climbing Slickrock on Peekaboo Trail
Peekaboo trail continues to ascend the slickrock
Canyonlands: Peekaboo Trail Views
The canyon and the La Sal Mountains in the distance. The views here are quite different compared with our first three days.
Canyonlands: Hole in Wall on Peekaboo Trail
Crawling through a small hole to get to the other side…we’re not chickens, but we needed to cross.

We continued until we got to an area that seemed sketchy, and recalled the backpackers who told us about this earlier in the day. The narrow, sloped sandstone goes for about 10-15 feet, and has a sheer drop-off. As I started to go across it, my foot slipped. I caught myself and backed up. By this point we were looking around, trying to figure out if this was even the right spot, and were a bit freaked out.

We decided not to risk it and backtracked out of Peekaboo Trail. Our only other option was to hike out to Cave Spring. The trail to Cave Spring is shorter than the hike to the Needles Campground – but our car was parked in the campground. We would need to walk an additional 3.6 miles along the road to reach our car.

Looking at photos of Peekaboo Trail, that narrow area doesn’t look so bad. But I still think we made the right choice for our safety. When hiking and backpacking, it’s vital to trust your instincts and know your limits. Online, it looks like other hikers get past that section just fine, though some blogs mention that it’s scary (a chain or bar would help). Someday, we intend to go back and take another look.

Canyonlands: Peekaboo Trail "Sketchy" Section
Near the center of this photo is where we turned around on Peekaboo Trail
Canyonlands: Far View of Peekaboo Trail
Far view of the area where we turned around, to the left of the tree (center).

Day 4 – Peekaboo to Cave Spring Trailhead

We headed back toward Peekaboo Campground, our emotions still running pretty high. It was going to be a very long day, so we had to move at a good pace. From there, we went north on Salt Creek Road. It’s flat and obviously used by vehicles. It’s also a huge pain to hike because it’s covered in sand.

I tried to keep a steady pace ahead of Kristin to keep us going. Eventually I tired out, and she took over the lead. The setting sun blazed into our eyes as we tried to find areas with firmer ground. There’s nothing special about the road, but we were more focused on getting out of there than sight-seeing. After 3.4 miles (which seemed like an eternity) we reached the Cave Spring Trailhead.

From there, we hiked an additional 3.6 miles to the campground along a paved road. Once we got back to our car, we were exhausted and it was late. We had hiked around 16 miles that day. We drove back to Moab, grabbed some fast food (from the golden arches), and crashed at our hotel for the night.

Canyonlands: Salt Creek Road Start
Starting our hike on Salt Creek Road
Canyonlands: Heading North on Salt Creek Road
Sand is one of the worst things to hike in
Canyonlands: Salt Creek Road
The setting sun blazed into our eyes as we trudged along
Canyonlands: Almost End of Salt Creek Road
The setting sun afforded some shade as we approached Cave Spring Trailhead
Canyonlands: Salt Creek Trailhead Sign from Cave Spring
Salt Creek Trailhead sign
Canyonlands: Cave Spring Trailhead
The gate that blocks vehicle access to Salt Creek Road at Cave Spring, and two very long and tired shadows

The End?

Overall, the trip was an amazing adventure (in spite of our issues with the water filter and Peekaboo Trail). It was one of my favorite trips we’ve ever done, particularly because of the archaeological features. Pictographs like the All American Man and Four Faces are iconic sites that are forever burned into my memory. It was worth all the time it took to plan the route, campsites, and shuttle.

We wish Peekaboo Trail had worked out for us. It’s far more scenic than Salt Creek Road to Cave Spring. The parts of Peekaboo we hiked provided sweeping views, and it was very different compared with the first three days of our trip. If you’re feeling brave, I recommend exiting at the Needles Campground. If you want to play it safe, exit at Cave Spring. A compromise could include a short hike to Peekaboo Trail to see the views and sandstone rims, then exit at Cave Spring.

There’s still more to see in Salt Creek (and the rest of the Needles district). Salt Creek has many side canyons, arches, and other geological features. There are more ruins, pictographs, and petroglyphs out there to find. Someday we plan to go back and explore even more. Until then, I hope this special place stays protected for everyone that visits in the future.

Backpacking Salt Creek Canyon (Cathedral Butte to Cave Spring)

Backpacking Salt Creek Canyon Map (1:32,000)

Date: Sunday, April 14, 2019 – Wednesday, April 17, 2019
3-Night Backpacking, One Way Shuttle
Total Distance:
28.2 miles (45.4 km) round trip
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss:
+1093 feet (333 m), -3240 feet (988 m)

  • Day 1:
    • Distance: 4.3 miles (6.9 km)
    • Overall Cumulative Gain and Loss: 142 feet (43 m) gain, 1301 feet (397 m) loss
    • Time: 5.5 hours, which includes lunch, breaks, and exploring
    • Overnight: SC1
  • Day 2:
    • Distance: 5.1 miles (8.2 km)
    • Overall Cumulative Gain and Loss: 289 feet (88 m) gain, 555 feet (169 m) loss
    • Time: 8 hours, which includes lunch, breaks, and exploring
    • Overnight: SC3
  • Day 3:
    • Distance: 8.9 miles (14.3 km)
    • Overall Cumulative Gain and Loss: 494 feet (151 m) gain, 770 feet (235 m) loss
    • Time: 7 hours, which includes lunch, breaks, and exploring (not including the hour we spent at Angel Arch)
    • Overnight: Salt/Horse Zone (Angel Arch Camp)
  • Day 4 (assumes exiting at Cave Spring):
    • Distance: 9.9 miles (15.9 km)
    • Overall Cumulative Gain and Loss: 168 feet (51 m) gain, 614 feet (187 m) loss
    • Time: 7.5 hours, which includes lunch, breaks, and exploring

Trail Markings: Cairns, pink ribbons through the marshy area on the first day
Difficulty: Moderate
Crowds: Low
Water: Streams, creeks, small waterfalls, ponds
Highlights: Views, archaeological sites, wildlife, history, waterfalls, geological features
Directions to Cathedral Butte Trailhead: Google Maps Directions
Notes: Alternately, you could go the opposite direction, but we highly recommend south to north.

Trail Directions

  • 0.0 mi – From the Cathedral Butte Trailhead, go north on Salt Creek Trail.
  • 3.9 mi – Pass Kirk Spring on the left, a reliable water source.
  • 4.0 mi – Pass Kirk’s Cabin on the right.
  • 4.1 mi – Turn right onto the spur to SC1 and SC2. The spur then splits to each individual campsite.
  • 4.3 mi – Arrive at SC1/SC2. In the morning, retrace your steps back to Salt Creek Trail.
  • 4.4 mi – Turn right onto Salt Creek Trail, heading north.
  • 6.3 mi – Wedding Ring Arch is nearby. Find a social trail that avoids cryptobiotic soil if you’d like to get closer.
  • 8.2 mi – The trail passes close by the All American Man Pictograph.
  • 8.8 mi – Cross over Salt Creek, and Four Faces Spring, another great place for water. Right before the spring is the Four Faces Pictograph and ruins.
  • 9.4 mi – A small spur trail leads to the SC3 campsite. Stay the night, then continue north on Salt Creek Trail in the morning.
  • 12.5 mi – Pass by the spur trail to the SC4 campsite.
  • 14.4 mi – You’ve reached the intersection with Angel Arch Trail. Continue north on Salt Creek Trail.
  • 14.6 mi – Reach Angel Arch Camp. You can set up your tent here, or wherever you prefer since this is part of the Salt/Horse Dispersed Camping Zone. Just remember, the best site is found, not created. After setting up camp, head back south to the Angel Arch intersection.
  • 14.9 mi – Turn left onto Angel Arch Trail.
  • 16.5 mi – You’ve arrived at the Molar and Angel Arch. Enjoy! If desired, take the social trail (some scrambling required) to the base of the arch. Head back along Angel Arch Trail when ready.
  • 18.1 mi – Turn right onto Salt Creek Trail.
  • 18.3 mi – Arrive back at your campsite. In the morning, continue north on Salt Creek Trail.
  • 24.8 mi – You’ve arrived at Peekaboo Arch. Continue on the trail, and go through the arch in the fin. Peekaboo Camp, as well as some petroglyphs, are on the other side. Hike through the camp, and continue north on Salt Creek Road.
  • 28.2 mi – Salt Creek Road ends at Cave Spring Trailhead, where hopefully you have a car waiting for you. You’re done!




Planning Resources

Elevation Graph

Interactive Map

4 thoughts on “Backpacking Salt Creek Canyon

  1. What a great trip! I know how much time it takes to put all this together, and very few do it to your level. We toured the Southwest for four months last year. Like you, we saw the northern part of Canyonlands and Dead Horse State Park, but didn’t make it to the Needles area, although we passed right by Bear’s Ears, not knowing anything about it. My Canyonlands, by Kent Frost is a fun and easy read about early explorations, tourism and floating the rivers. It took him a lifetime to really explore it all. The distances he would walk are unimaginable.
    Thank you again. I love reading your wonderful blog!

    1. It’s great to hear from you again! Thanks for sharing your experience and the book recommendation. I’m always looking for books to read about the national parks.

  2. Wow, this is SO helpful!! We’re doing the same trip mid-October 2023, and all of your resources, maps, and descriptions are really useful. Thank you for taking the time to make such a clear trip report!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *