Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Canyonlands NP - and a change in plans

Salt Creek - Canyonlands NP
Before setting out into Canyonlands, we took a day of rest at the Outpost to resettle ourselves before really plunging in deep. We picked up our backcountry permit at the ranger station, and ended up weathering out our first heavy storm from the comfort of the barstools at the Outpost grill. Rain dumped down on Beef Basin and the Needles, as we enjoyed hot fajitas and tasty burgers - some much appreciated home cooking by Tracy and Gary. The two of them run the Outpost entirely by themselves, a quirky little camping establishment on literally the edge of nowhere. They haul in their own water, run the place on solar, and are the caretakers and hosts to all who pass through. It was refreshing to see families out camping and visiting their national parks, instead of daytripping from the nearest town with Corporate comfort facilities. The west used to be full of little places like this that are now are falling by the wayside. I'm glad to know that places like the Outpost are still holding on, and we were glad to pay them a visit.

We embarked on our first major modification to the trail. Instead of heading through the Grabens and Butler Wash, we decided to route our journey through Salt Creek in the eastern section of the Needles, reconnecting with the trail in Beef Basin.

Salt Creek ruins
In the past few weeks, I realized how much there really is out here. The problem with the Hayduke Trail is that you travel through a narrow corridor across the Plateau, while getting to see some incredible places. But even then you can't see it all. My list of places to visit off the trail keeps getting longer the deeper we get in. Our itinerary of 100 days is insufficient time to explore the trail. It would take more than an entire lifetime of thorough exploration and appreciation to really get a sense of this place. I guess we'll have to our best instead.

Salt Creek was absolutely incredible. The canyon cut through bands of stacked salmon and creme Cedar Mesa sandstone, carving out towering walls and recessed alcoves. Charcoal stained tears seemed to drip down the sheer cliff faces. Pillars, spires, and sculpted arches abound. We hiked through thick reeds, stands of willow, and forests of naked cottonwoods. Sagebrush and prickly pear grow on the banks of the free-flowing creek. Every bend brought new views and vistas. We hiked along small falls into cool green pools, ideal swimming holes in summertime. Giant pink pastries and golden bagettes sat atop balanced pedestals of stone. We walked among stone gardens shaped like spaceships and frigates, whales and witches hats. I spent one morning exploring the trail up to Angel Arch, following fresh mountain lion prints up the frozen wash. Fine needles of ice spread like feathers in the sand. Every feeder canyon into the main channel tempted exploration and discovery. We had to keep on moving.

Anasazi pictographs
But the most incredible part of Salt Creek were the archaological sites. Ruins and pictograph panels were everywhere, some of the most impressive we have ever seen. The most incredible part about it is that the park service doesn't list them on maps or even advertise their existance. In fact, we saw no sign of cataloging, digging, or stabilization. They are just there for you to discover, as they have sat for a thousand years. We found dozens of stone graineries and storage bins, the fingerprints from the original builders still imprinted in the mud. Ancient corncobs, juniper logs, and potshards. We came across numerous pictograph panels, with images of detailed figures painted with decorated sashes and regalia. Some wore elaborate headdresses, globe earrings, and hanging necklaces. We found negative hands outlined in blowpaint, the single act of breathing recorded on stone for a millenia. I found the print of a small child, the size and height of an eight-year-old. We were absolutely blown away by the few sites we came across. Who knows how many more places lay hidden away, undiscovered?

We hiked out the head of the canyon, following an abandoned pack trail up a scree slope. Not much was left of it, but it was a logical exit point to continue our trek overland. We climbed high along the slopes below Elk Ridge, and easily found our first winter cache just outside Beef Basin. The view from the cache was spectacular. We could see the Roan Cliffs and Sierra La Sals to the north and east, and all the way to the Henrys and Boulder Mountain to the west. And everything in between. We could see a quarter of the state of Utah from our vantage point.

And this is where things changed. Ben had been keeping a close watch on his ankle, since it had begun acting up. But his right knee had begun bothering him, and had been getting progressively worse the last several days. He thought with a little rest, we might get through it. But from there, we were headed even deeper into the backcountry - into Youngs Canyon and Dark Canyon. These canyons are deep crevasses with no way out if something were to go wrong. We decided to play it safe and hike out.

We repacked the cache and routed ourselves through Beef Basin. We hiked among grazing cows and fields of cheatgrass. Lizards scurried in the dust beneath our feet. And the dirt roads were choked with traffic jams of thorny tumbleweeds. Ah, the open range. We hiked back into the park through Chestler Park and the Needles, and eventually got to the pavement and a trailhead. A friendly hiker offered us a ride, and thus we hitched back into Moab and retrieved Ben's truck.

La Sals above the Needles District
From here we are at a crossroads. We spent alot of time deliberating and discussing our options. Ben's projected recovery will take several weeks, and we decided it might be best for him to recouperate back home in Oregon. As for me, I plan on continuing the route, hiking the trail solo. Upon his recovery, Ben will come back down and rejoin me on the trail. But for now I will continue on from Hite, alone.


Emily Julia said...

Holy shit. Well if anyone can do it, you can. Thinking good thoughts for you...

Anonymous said...

North of Peekaboo, did you hike down next to Salt Creek rather than on th NPS designated trail about it, generally east of the canyon? I hiked the designated trail, north, a few years ago from Cathedral Butte south of the park and the number of arch. sites seemed way more limited than your description. THANKS. jjg

Ryan Choi said...

We hiked south from Peekaboo Arch both in and out of the drainage - all the way to the Bright Angel Pack Trail, where we exited the park boundary. In the blog, I stated we found dozens of granaries and artifacts - which is true. They tended to be concentrated in tight localities, anywhere from 4-15 per site. But in addition, there were also a number of sites located on both sides of the drainage as well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I meant south of Peekaboo. jjg

Saree said...

wow very nice blog!

John Clark said...

Hi Ryan,

I would like to talk to you about using one of your photos on a book cover for the University of Utah Press. Please contact me at: