At the far southern end of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is a valley called Salt Creek. This desert canyon is an interesting multi-day backpack, a point-to-point route covering about 25-30 miles, depending on how much off-route exploring you do. While Salt Creek offers typical desert scenery one would expect in Canyonlands, it is really its Ancestral Puebloan history that makes it interesting. The Salt Creek region is full of ancient ruins and petroglyphs unlike other areas of this national park.
A trip here requires some advanced planning. A backcountry permit is required to camp within most of the Salt Creek, and campsites need to be reserved in advance. There are only four campsites in the permitted area, and being so limited they can be hard to get. But the silver lining of limited permits is that you won’t be in there with many other people.
The north-south canyon route can be completed in either direction. We chose to head north from Cathedral Butte to Peek-a-Boo Spring and then Squaw Flat, spreading out the distance over four days. We had permits for two campsites, SC1 and SC4 and for the third night we were in the Salt/Horse Open Zone and were allowed to camp in place of our choosing. On the fourth day we made it to the Squaw Flat Trailhead where we had left a car. That allowed us to shuttle back down to Cathedral Butte and pickup the one we left at the start.
The ruins and petroglyphs were impressive. It wasn’t long after starting that we encountered mud and mortar constructed shelters, old granaries, and even grinding stones with old dried corn cobs laying around. In many places, when we looked closely, we found loose jasper and pieces of arrowheads, as well as shards of broken pottery (known as potsherds) scattered on the ground. Petroglyphs often decorated the walls above, including well known examples such as the Four Faces and All American Man.
It’s really something to be near these ruins and ponder the life of the original inhabits a thousand years ago. It’s hard to imagine what it must life must’ve been like for those early people. Certainly different than it was for us, with our super light backpacking gear, cook stoves, freeze dried meals and satellite communication. I think that’s what made Salt Creek so interesting for me.