Trip Report: Falling in Love at Salt Creek

Trip Report: Falling in Love at Salt Creek

November, 2011.

It was one helluva weekend trip. We only made it back home on time because we made a couple of wise decisions; otherwise, we could have been stuck out there for a couple of days or more, suffering in the cold and beauty of the canyon (would that really have been a bad thing?). This was only my second trip with Kyle and we were still just getting to know each other when we decided to leave for Utah right after work on a Thursday evening and spend a weekend backpacking through a remote canyon. I was game for anything adventurous. We rolled into the park after midnight and camped out on the mesa top. Before crawling into our sleeping bags, we wandered to the edge and looked down into the inky blackness. Looking down into a deep canyon at night is a rather eerie experience–you know the bottom lay a thousand feet or more below you, but you can’t see a thing. Nada. No lights, no civilization. This place is rugged, untouched. It may have dropped into the 30s that night, but it felt warm. Camping under the stars sans tent felt appropriate. When we awoke the next morning, we looked down into the void that we could not see the night before. Whoa, what a view! Hundreds of intricate sandstone canyons lay before us. It amazes me that each canyon can look so drastically different from another. Having explored other canyons such as the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, and even Yosemite/Kings Canyon, I had never seen anything quite like this place. Welcome to Canyonlands.


We picked up the permit for our trip from the ranger station and headed down a 20-mile dirt road to the trailhead. We took the Subaru – the road is passable by car when the conditions are good, although there was a creek crossing at the beginning, about three or four inches deep, that the Scubie didn’t mind. Arriving at the trailhead, we were greeted by a strong wind. Brrr! We hurriedly organized our gear, loaded up and hit the trail to escape the brutal, icy gusts by dropping into the canyon. The trail descended steeply and we quickly bottomed out and aside from some minor up and down through dry creek beds, it was flat hiking thereafter. It’s amazing, though, how the terrain can vary so wildly within a canyon! We were on nice, dry, hard-packed dirt most of the time, but the creek bottoms were quite sandy. After a couple of miles, we reached a marsh. Yep, a marsh in a canyon in the desert, inhabited with cattails and willows and other green vegetation. This proved to be one of the more challenging parts of the hike because the ground was soft and flooded. We attempted to stay above the water by stepping on the tops of clumps of grasses, but inevitably one would collapse, or we’d misstep, and a foot would become partially submerged in the nearly freezing water. We finally reached dry ground on the other side of the marsh and continued on until we came across a very large tiered spring that was running strongly. It was evident that the spring ran year-round; large, green strings of algae grew along the rocks under the running water with a pool at the bottom which looked quite deep. We sat for a few minutes, enjoying the sound of the rushing water before moving on. The trail meandered between walls of red, pink and white sandstone in a wide little valley. Strange formations were fascinating: some were hoodoos, others were precariously balanced boulders, and a select few formed complete arches spanning over sheer walls. It was a most surreal landscape, one I would have liked to have stayed in for much longer than we were allowed. We came upon an old cabin and a wagon, or what was left of a wagon: only the steel-banded wooden wheels and the axles remained. The abandoned abode was dubbed “Kirk’s cabin” according to our map, though I doubt the Captain ever stepped foot in it.


(The cabin was built by a cattle rancher that tried to eke out a living in this harsh region at the turn of the last century.)
Further down the trail, we came to the first goal of the trip: a Puebloan pictograph known these days as the “All-American Man” (radiocarbon dating places the creation of this figure at about 400 years before the American Revolution [Chaffee 1994]).


The weather was looking pretty ominous at this point, so we continued on and chose not to stop at the second goal – another pictograph panel called “Four Faces” because, well, there are four face figures painted on it (there is actually a very faded fifth face to the left of the four). A beautiful panel, but we knew we needed to reach our campsite and set up the tent before the clouds opened up. The winds were picking up and they were bitterly cold; curtains of precipitation draping below their bases. We had to cross another creek before we reached the site, and this one had some water running through it (awesome! We didn’t have to walk far to refill our water bottles). Finally, we found our campsite and set up the tent, organized our gear, and cooked dinner. Settling in, it was then that the skies opened up.


The rain started coming down shortly after we zipped everything up and crawled into our sleeping bags. It came down harder and harder. It hit the ground so hard that it splashed mud up onto the sides of our tent and water dripped from the top of the 20-year old tent and a pool formed at the foot. We both managed to stay dry and warm for the most part, but our gear was soaking wet. Relentless. It did not let up. We could not sleep. Each minute that the rain kept falling meant that it would be that much more difficult to get out of this place: we were concerned about what it was doing to the road a thousand feet above us. As I said earlier, the dirt road is easily passable by car if the conditions are good. Utah dirt is great, but Utah mud is nothing to fool around with and that combined with what were essentially racing slicks on the Subaru meant that we were going to have one hell of a time trying to escape the park. It potentially meant that we would be stuck for an extra day or two…


Eventually the sound of the rain pounding on the tent lessened and we peeked our heads out. The rain had turned to snow or something like it. Frozen rain is probably more accurate. Temperatures had dropped below freezing and it continued to rain/snow/sleet throughout the night. We woke up to a serene quiet and a gentle snow; the sky was a dreary grey and the snow fell steadily. We realized that we couldn’t do much as our original plan was to hike up further into the canyon that day and stay at another campsite, but we decided it was best to stay put. That afternoon we alternated between eating, reading from Desert Solitaire (an appropriate book for our adventure), and cat-napping the time away. The sun finally broke through the clouds and gave us an opportunity to wander to the creek where we got our drinking water. What had been a trickling creek when we crossed it the day before was now a massive torrent of reddish-brown water rushing down deep into the canyon. Flash flood. Yep, we weren’t getting out anytime soon. Fortunately, flash floods subside quickly (by “quickly” I mean a few hours) and we hoped that the next day would reveal a much-subdued situation.


It had started snowing again and the temperature was dropping fast. We crawled back in the tent and cooked dinner and drank wine while it continued to snow outside. We kept each other warm while the temperature fell further and Kyle read to me some more from Abbey’s book. A little kangaroo ran up to the tent and ate from my cooking pan, which I had stored underneath the rainfly just outside the door of the tent. It ran up and down the front of the tent a couple of times until Kyle flicked it off and sent it airborne. Lesson learned: it never returned.


We awoke to a completely different situation. The snow had stopped, the sun was actually shining, and everything had frozen. Good news! We stepped out of the tent and saw not a single cloud in the sky. Great news! Hopefully the raging creek waters had enough time to subside and the snow at the top of the canyon where the car sat had cleared a bit. After breakfast, we dragged our gear out of the tent and laid it in the sun to dry out while we slowly packed up for the hike out. We figured that it would be wise to ditch our original plans of spending one more night here and escape the canyon today. Who knew what another day out here would bring; let’s take advantage of the good weather while we have it. Loaded up and relatively dry we began the 8+ mile trek back to the car. The creek that had flooded the day before was still higher than normal but very passable this morning. We hiked on a little further and then stopped at Four Faces to take some photos. Damn! missed good lighting by about 15 minutes. Oh well, we made it out here, let’s take some anyways… We’ll have to make another trip out here when the weather is better (will our luck ever allow it?).


Returning to the trail, we kept up a good pace for a while, happy to have eaten and drank our way to lighter loads for the hike out. We relied on potholes and eventually snow for water to lessen our burden. The first major creek crossing was passable with a decent leap. Well, Kyle cleared it, but he is tall; my legs are a bit shorter, so he tossed in a rock as a midway point for me. Made it! Back up the other side and on through the sagebrush and cacti. On past the smooth sandstone shapes that towered over us. The flat terrain made for a fast hike.


Our only other concern on our hike out now was the dreaded marshland. We laid down and soaked up the sun, which was quickly disappearing behind the clouds that had been slowly gathering throughout the day, preparing for the final push out. It was starting to look pretty ominous once again as the wind turned icy. We needed to get the hell out of there fast. Finally, we made it to the edge of the marsh and plodded our way through. At first, it wasn’t bad – a little sketchy trying to step and hop over the small streams, but we had to rely on the willows to support us both underfoot and above. But then we were then faced with the actual marsh. The water had risen and it was cold. I tried hard to stay above it, but I stepped wrong and slipped a couple of times and by the time I got out of it, my right shoe was soaked. Shit. Fortunately, my foot wasn’t cold and I felt I could go on without a sock change. Kyle was suffering pretty good by now – he had developed blisters on his feet on the first day and his feet were hurting. We crossed the large creek one final time – here it was nearly dry – and then we started our ascent up the canyon wall. A substantial amount of snow had fallen since we had descended into the canyon. We wondered what we would find at the rim…


The Scubie was blanketed in a beautiful white. She started up, thankfully! A little hesitant, but she went. I brushed the snow off of the windshield, hood, and windows. We let her warm up for a few minutes while we loaded up our gear and thought about the drive out. Thank God Kyle is an amazing driver. He got us out of there. The road was so bad in areas that we were basically in a controlled slide for a couple of miles. He needed to keep the momentum up so that we wouldn’t get stuck. Cattle and other animals had wandered all over the road tearing it up and making it a sloppy mess as the tires flung mud all over the sides of the car. We had been transported into a slo-mo rally race! We both clenched our butts until we reached the paved highway. Luckily, the small stream crossing was at about the same level as it had been on Friday. Lucky this time. Whew! We were out!


We decided to spend the night in Monticello, UT and then continue home the next day. A nice, soft bed, hot shower, good meal at a local restaurant, and television substituting a fire. We snuggled and watched football while the snow continued to fall outside. A perfect ending to a great adventure. It was there, resting peacefully in that small town watching snow accumulate on the Abajo mountains that we realized we finally had found something familiar, yet rare. May your roads be crooked…


The Utah mud took its toll on my car. Back in Santa Fe, I noticed a loud whine emanating from the power steering and a puddle of fluid pooling underneath the engine block. Inspection by a mechanic at the dealership revealed a cracked housing on the power steering rack. The entire unit had to be replaced.

I also bought new tires. All-weather tires. 🙂