There are places all over the world that inspire us as humans; Machu Picchu, the Pyramids at Giza, maybe the Roman Colosseum. Whether it’s a place you read about, see on TV or hear in a song, timeless places beckon us to visit, and create our own timeless experiences. Places like these usually see thousands of people every year, and for good reason, but there are places in our country that are equally as inspiring yet seldom looked upon or even known about. To us these are the truly timeless places.
Salt Creek in Canyonlands National Park is a remote canyon that has a cultural history that is so well preserved, and uncorrupted by masses of people, that I have a hard time telling you about it. The truth is I don’t want to see this place become popular. It is because it is remote and untouched that it possesses an extra special character. To get there requires a lot of work. First, it’s many miles of rough unpaved road that definitely requires high clearance and could demand 4 wheel-drive. Second, it’s a hike down a STEEP trail that requires some serious effort, especially in the 100 degree temps of summer. Next, you really can’t just go for a day trip, you need to backpack in and camp, hiking 15-20 miles at minimum. For all the work you put in to a trip to Salt Creek, you get rewarded in quiet moments of awe-inspiring sights. It’s a trip of discovery and exploration, not only of the canyon itself, but of what it feels like to be truly human.
Our trip started in the dreaming stage, planning to visit months before we made the trip. The dream was always accentuated with background music. I have long been a fan of the band The String Cheese Incident, and in high school the song “Little Hands” was high on my list of favorites. Back then I never knew the origins of the song, with its mentions of Cathedral Butte and the Anasazi.
(right click below and open the song in a new window)
“Little Hands” by String Cheese Incident
It was simply a catchy tune until I moved to Moab and pieced together the lyrics with place names in Canyonlands National Park. After our long summer apart, one of the first trips Leigh and I took last fall was to live out the song and the dream we had been having all year.
We made the arduous drive to Cathedral Butte and parked near the trailhead to sleep over night. From the trailhead you stand 1000 feet or more above the floor of Salt Creek Canyon. Salt Creek has its head waters in the Abajo Mountains and flows down into Canyonlands National Park. Along the way it carves a magnificent canyon striped in red and white cedar mesa sandstone. Looking out over ribbons of lush grass and trees, lined by steep, rugged waves of stone, you are hit with a yearning to explore it. The canyon was home to the Ancestral Puebloans, a culture and people commonly referred to as the Anasazi. These ancient people lived along Salt Creek up until 700 or 800 years ago and without an explanation or much of a trace vanished. But what they left behind was evidence of the life they led in what is now a gorgeous National Park.
After a cold night camping at elevation we woke up the next morning, strapped on our boots and backpacks, and headed down the steep and sketchy trail toward the canyon bottom. The walk down went pretty quick, but with every step further into the canyon, we agonized over thoughts of our return trip back up this same trail. Once at the bottom, the path leveled out and the size of the canyon system became enticing. We hiked on with high hopes of what we would find, and what we did find surpassed all my expectations. Ruins of dwellings and granaries, artifact-littered alcoves, and colorful rock art panels blurred every mile we covered.
The number of sites in Salt Creek gives you an image that an extensive culture once lived here. It must have been a bustling corridor of families, farms, and activity. You can picture children playing games and laughter echoing through the canyon. I could imagine neighbors helping each other with building projects; community meetings to discuss public affairs. You could see conflict and camaraderie, happiness and melancholy, success and failure. In Salt Creek your imagination never rests, thoughts of the ancient past fill every side canyon and alcove.
We hiked down canyon about 8 miles that day and set up camp at one of the backcountry sites. It was an early night: dinner was done and cleaned up before sunset and as the light faded we crawled into our sleeping bags. We opted to lighten our load by leaving the traditional tent at home and instead used a lightweight tarp shelter strung up into a low-hanging scrub oak. We packed up early the next morning to head back toward Cathedral Butte vowing to return some day to finish the canyon all the way through. Before really hitting the trail we gathered water from Salt Creek, which runs all year around and is more than ok to drink despite its name. We made breakfast on the slickrock, in a growing patch of sun above a small falls. Adjacent to the falls was one of the more memorable pictographs. While taking in the still air that filled the chilly canyon and after one last look at the rock art, we took off preparing our minds for the uphill climb back to the truck.
Places like Salt Creek are irreplaceable resources not only for their scientific and cultural value but for their aesthetic and spiritual value as well. The most remarkable aspect of Salt Creek is the level of respect that is given to its sites. The canyon and its relics, with only their beauty and presence, demand the appreciation of every visitor that passes by. Leigh and I have visited areas of National Parks all across the country that have been vandalized and disturbed beyond repair. Salt Creek is largely intact; still preserved and unspoiled. There have been many visitors to Salt Creek in the past that have done their part to protect it. I hope that carries on for future generations. Please take only pictures!
As we reached the base of the 1000+ foot climb out, the canyon tune from our dream filled the air. Humming Little Hands the whole time, we pushed our way up the canyon wall. We were in the sun which only compounded the strain and that last mile seemed to take hours to cover. In the end we made and back to the rim and realized our dream had come true!