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backpacking in the needles with newbies


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This spring my girlfriend Steph and I decided that for our last spring break before we both graduate college and have to find real jobs, we wanted to go for a backpacking trip. My birthday was also during spring break, so it would also be a treat to be on a trip for my birthday. She had never been on a true lightweight backpacking trip before, and I had already been getting her ready for a trip by getting her an osprey pack for Christmas, and letting her "inherit" my old pad and sleeping bag since she didn't own a decent pad and her sleeping bag was an old rectangular bag with no hood and cheap insulation.

To add to this, her best friend Tamara and her fiancé Jeremy got invited to come too, neither of which had ever been backpacking before, and had lots of heavy car camping equipment that they insisted that they needed, so my work was cut out for me.

Prior to the trip, we went through what they actually needed, and what they were allowed to bring, and I gave them a simple list of things for them to pack. Luckily, they had enough basic gear, along with some of my old gear and borrow stuff from friends to make it work pretty well.

After doing a lot of searching for a fun trip, I decided that the needles section of canyonlands should be in prime season, and that the Salt Creek trail would give everyone a trip to remember without having to worry about water sources or other technical difficulties that may arise from desert hiking.

The only hiccup was that we would have to start kind of late on the first day because we had passed the deadline to get reserved permits, so I had to be at the visitor center at 8am, and we would need to shuttle one of the cars to the end trail head at Cathedral Butte. We ended up doing that the night prior, however we were so exhaust from driving all night to get there and shuttling the car, everyone ended up sleeping in till noon while I got the permit and packed all the backpacks up.

The morning of the first day gave us the views that we were all hoping for, a clear sky and a beautiful landscape!


Me and the girlfriend at the trailhead



To get to the peekaboo trailhead, the start of the actual hiking trail, we would have to follow a 4WD road that goes through Salt Creek. The road literally goes through the middle of the creek, and so within a half mile, we found ourselves wading through the ankle deep water. Here there was no trail to follow, just the flowing water. When I do this trip again, I will probably start out from the Squaw Flat trailhead, i think it would be a little more scenic and drier.





A nice sheet of ice left over from the winter snow :-)


Finally spotting the peekaboo double arch, where we also spotted our first Indian ruins



These ruins were just the beginning with many more spotted along the route

After traveling past the peekaboo arches, the canyon began to wind through the desert landscape and dig itself a narrower path with huge walls on either side.



All sorts of new rock formations started to show up, and the sky began to turn colors as the sun set on our first day, setting up camp just after spotting crescent arch.






All of these photos can be viewed full size by right clicking on "open image in new tab" or something like it depending on what browser you're using.

Edited by tmountainnut
picture problems
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Day 2

We woke up in the morning, quickly boiled some water for breakfast, and set out on the trail just as the sun was rising. Because we had gotten such a late start the day before, we needed to cover almost 20 miles today to get to the campsite, and seeing as how we were averaging just less than 2 mph yesterday, that meant a long day. We were greeted by another day of fantastic weather, and we headed off to our main objective, angel arch.


First, we got to see some better views of crescent arch with the sun just about to peak out behind it.


Another natural arch


Ah ha, we're at least in the right spot


Finally around mid-morning, we reached the culmination of our trip, angel arch, the largest arch in canyonlands! However, they found a shelf with a hollowed out hole that was much more entertaining :)




My favorite -


After leaving the arch and getting back to the canyon the landscape began to change a bit. The canyon widens out again, and larger trees became visible. There was also a lot of blow down damage from storms last fall, giving the creek a different look.



I have to throw this one in here. We thought it looked like Jay Leno kissing Rosie O'Donnell, lol


After a little longer, we came to a spot marked as "upper jump" on the map, however didn't indicate what it was. When we found it, it made perfect sense. It was one of the prettiest places along the trip, and if I had an extra day, I would have probably spent the rest of the day here and camped at SC3 just down the trail afterwards. Alas, we had to leave, but not until I took a quick (and cold) shower under the falls, and we refilled our water and took a nice break.


Just south of the upper jump, the canyons winding ceased, and the canyon opened up even more. There we came upon even more Indian ruins, and a climb up to a scenic highpoint







As we left the last of the ruins, the sun began to set. We actually covered almost 16 miles; however we needed to do another 4 to get to SC1 for our camp that night, so we hiked for two hours after dusk with the stars. Surprisingly, I think we made faster time at night than during the day, probably because we didn't have anything except the stars to look at.


i'll write up day three next

Edited by tmountainnut
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Day three was a pretty short day; however it was the most elevation gain of the entire trip. We had actually been hiking upstream the entire trip, but it had very little elevation difference since the river only gains 800 feet or so during the hike which starts out at just less than 5000'. However, the final trailhead sits at 7000', with those final 1000+ feet of elevation gain in the last mile or so.

We did get to see some more Indian ruins before finally hiking out of the creek, and we also got to explore Kirks cabin, an old ranch that use to be located on the south side of canyonlands with a cabin that was built in the 1890's.



Looking out the window of Kirk's cabin



Finally, our destination in sight, Cathedral butte!


At the canyonlands border. Now the uphill part begins



Since the hike up to Cathedral Butte is all northfacing, we ran into some significant snow near the top.




Finally, at the top, we reached the trailhead where we had shuttled one of the cars to three days earlier. Exausted and happy!




I plan on coming back out to Salt creek again. If I could do it differently, I would have changed a few things. I would have hiked it south to north. Not only is it downhill, but I think it would have navigated a little easier. staying night 1 just outside the south boundary of the park, spending day two exploring all the Indian ruins south of SC3, spending the evening of day 2 at upper jump swimming, and staying night 2 at SC3. Then staying night 3 at peekaboo camp, and hiking out to the squaw flat campground. I would also like to come back and hike all the way down horse canyon and see Castle and Fortress arch. Also spending an extra day or two between SC1&2 and peekaboo to explore the side canyons would be really nice and a good way to really be in a pristine isolated area of the Colorado Plateau. However, hiking off trail is not advised in a lot of canyonlands due to the biological soil crust, so staying in the river washes would the best plan for exploring off trail.

Edited by tmountainnut
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Aaron Zagrodnick

Great report so far - Can't wait for day 2 & 3. Very cool rock art.

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I finished writing up day 2, and i'll write up day three tomorrow. let me know what you guys think.

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finished with the trip report. let me know if you guys have any questions about the trip.



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Aaron Zagrodnick

Great report! I've been meaning to visit Canyonlands but have been putting it on the backburner due to the no dogs policy. However, after this report I might have to make an exception. Oddly even though no dogs it appears that 4WD vehicles are ok. :D Great pictures documenting the journey and there were a few that definitely made me laugh. Looks like it was a great trip. Did you start at Cave Spring?

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yeah, the trail head starts at cave spring. its defiantly one of the longest hiking only trails in canyonlands and well worth it. if you're planning on 4wheeling though parts of canyonlands in the early season, lots of the trails are closed. there would be no way that any jeep or truck would have been able to make it more than a mile on the road we hiked in on at the time. im kind of glad it was closed off to 4WD, i think the engine noise would have ruined it a little for me.

there is a lot of cactus along the southern half of the route, and i would think it would be very hard for a dog to avoid getting cactus needles in their paws and legs, so bringing a dog would be a bad idea. i got stuck with a few smaller needles during the trip, and they were a pain to get out. Also, since the ground is mostly covered with the biological crust, it would be a bad idea to have a dog off trail.

Edited by tmountainnut
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Aaron Zagrodnick

Thanks for the info! I actually don't think my car would make it very far on their 4WD roads, I just thought it was amusing that there is a strict no dogs policy but off road vehicles are allowed. :) But I suppose if the area is packed with cactus it might be best to leave the dog at home either way for this one.

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Finally got a chance to read your full trip report - awesome pictures! I really enjoyed seeing the Indian ruins, and they look relatively undisturbed (no graffiti?).

I'm curious... what were the temperatures like during your trip?

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