Monday, December 11, 2017

Salt Creek, yet again

Salt Creek Canyon in the Needles of Canyonlands National Park is one of those places that can be explored for days. Over Thanksgiving break, I returned for 4 days to visit the part I hadn’t been to between Angel Arch and Kirk’s Cabin. This area is designated an "archeological district" because there are more ruins and petroglyphs/ pictographs per square mile than anywhere else in Canyonlands.
Year-round, reliable springs allowed the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people to thrive here around 1200 BCE.
I was eager to see All American Man, an unusual red, white and blue shield-like figure. It’s 8 miles from the southern trailhead, so could technically be seen in a long dayhike if one had a vehicle that they wanted to take on the bumpy road to that TH (which I do not).

But more time is required to get a sense of the amazingly redrock scenery, diverse plants in this riparian area, plus the solitude, quiet, and wildness of this place. To find and appreciate all the hidden archeological sites might take a lifetime.
"All American Man" is the most well known pictograph in this area (and the only one I will post a photo of). It is so unusual that people questioned if it is authentic. Radiocarbon dating confirmed that it dates to the 14th century.
I set out early from the northern trailhead near Cave Spring. Bitingly cold air causes me to put on my puffy down jacket by 3 PM even while hiking. A clear, moonless night makes for more stars than I've ever remember seeing. It is so cold that my nose hurts from breathing (even through my buff) and I get frozen condensation inside my tent but I stay warm and sleep well, considering that I'm sharing my sleeping bag with all my water and electronics.
I wake up early and hike over to catch the sunrise at Angel Arch.
I use my hiking pole to break a hole in the thick ice that formed on this water source during the night so I can collect some more water.
The Salt Creek Canyon Archeological District contains graineries, dwellings, pictographs and petroglyphs, and lithic scatters left by the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people. It's quite fascinating seeing the mix of these two cultures. The sites are not marked but some can be spotted from the trail.
Looking up to see an ancient site.
On my second day, I just hike 7 miles of designed trail and spent the rest of the time exploring washes and slickrock.
There are countless arches too.
Climbing up and down the slickrock. Much backtracking is required to figure out routes that avoid pouroffs, crypobiotic soil crust, and thickets.
In this section of trail there are many archeological sites. You must camp in the designated campsites. 
Climbing up the slickrock above camp in the evening.
The trail mainly stays at the bottom of the wash, but here it takes a climb up to avoid a steep drop-off in the aroyo.
After three days of seeing no other people, I finally meet two backpackers near the turnoff to this site. They are doing a one-way hike and are on a time-constraint so they don't make the side trip. I'm glad I allowed enough time for such things.
Down a side canyon, under some low-hanging branches, I find a sherd laying in a wash. Its the biggest I've ever found. I lay it back down carefully, right where I found it. The fact that is hasn't been moved or put up on a ledge makes me wonder who the last person who touched it was. I show this photo to a friend who works at a nearby national monument who knows how to identify pottery types. He says it is probably McElmo black on white, likely made between 1150-1250.
Near some pictographs, I entered a crack between the boulders and found a junction of two cracks that formed this star-shaped pool of light. An incredible, wonderous place.
After a cloudy start to the day, finally the sun come out and I sit on sandstone slab in sun in the warm embrace of the sheer orange walls and eat ramen and tuna which are the best ever. While my condensation-dampened sleeping bag drys, I put on fresh socks and think this is probably as peaceful and content as I’ve ever been my whole life.
A plateau side-bloched lizard is also sunning itself on the rocks. They have a fascinating mating system that may have helped give rise to the many regional varities and species (read more here and here). There haven't been many fellow creatures out here, only those two other backpackers and a few ravens. So these feel like a special treat and make me wonder about (and feel my connection to) the diversity of living things.
 Even though I've been to Salt Canyon and nearby Horse Canyon, this place still surprised me with its unparalled history and the amazing sense of solitude it provided. I was so glad to have planned an out-and-back hike since there were many things I missed on the way out that I spotted from a different perspective and in different light on the way back. I hope that this place is preserved and protected so that future generations can have opportunities for wonder and wildness too.

More information

Backcountry permits are requred for camping in Salt Creek. You will also need to carry and store your food in a bear canister in Salt Creek. See the Canyonlands National Park website for more rules and regulations.


I have not posted photos of the countless pictographs, petroglyphs, and sites in an effort to protect them and your experience. Please go out and discover all the other ones for yourself. In a world with too many hashtags and gps coordinates, I believe in preserving the experience of discovering things for yourself. It makes for more wonder in the moment. Something I am grateful to find.
It feels like you can reach out and touch history here. But keep your fingers off the sites so the fingerprints left in the past can be preserved!
Do your part to preserve the amazing archeology you can find here for future generations. Don't touch pictographs or stone walls. Stay outside of graineries and dwellings. Be careful about leaving anything including footprints. Leave everything like you found it.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Grabens in the Needles

Combining the Confluence Trail with Lower Red Lake Trail in the Needles of Canyonlands National Park makes for a geologically-fascinating overnight backpacking trip.
This hike rocks.
The confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers is geographically important because it divides Canyonlands National Park into three districts- the Needles (where this photo below was taken from), ISKY (top), and the Maze (left).
The more sediment-rich Green River (left) mixing with the Colorado River at the Confluence.
The Lower Red Lake Trail provides the easiest route down to the Colorado River. But I think the real treat is getting to see two of the really old rock formations (the Paradox and Honaker Trail Formations) and also learning about the formation of grabens, which are steep-sided valleys.
Fossils in the Honaker Trail Formation (like these crinoids) date back to 286 to 320 million years ago when this whole area was covered in a shallow sea.
The yellow rock layer is the Paradox Formation which was crucial for shaping the fins, arches, and grabens high above it.
Grabens are rock formations that are broad avenues bordered by steep rock walls that run very strait. The NPS has a good description of their formation here.
But first you have to get to the grabens and hike out past Cyclone Canyon, on the Confluence Trail.
While the Confluence Trail has only 220 feet elevation gain/loss, there is still plenty of scrambling. Long legs are recommended for this trail.
After crossing the deep Elephant Canyon, a high point in the trail is reached via a metal ladder. In the maze of canyons,  familiar places like Junction Butte and the La Sals are reassuring visual anchors.
Sitting with a map and compass and trying to figure out how I will ever get over to the Maze and to Mount Ellen.

The Lower Red Lake Trail drops about a thousand feet but is well-marked and not as sketchy as I feared.
Keep your eyes peeled for the green limestone rocks that contain fossils of the sea creatures that were living during the Pennsylvanian period.

A deer stares at me for a while then decides to head down-canyon to avoid me. Unfortunately, that’s the direction I’m going too. I come upon him after each bend and he looks at me before making his way further down-canyon until we reach the Colorado River.
Tracks of humans and deer in the mud flats along the Colorado River.
After walking upriver for a bit, I turn around and trace my steps back. I hike past dark, hoping to get to a high point to optimize full moon viewing. Darkness comes quickly, so instead, I opt for a cryptobiotic soil-free spot at the edge of this graben.
My permit is for the Grabens/ Red Lake Zone which means plenty of spots to choose from.
 In the 14 hours between sunset and sunrise, there is time to read about the formation of grabens (in this PDF) and learn that John Wesley Powell was the first to describe the grabens system during his 1869 and 1871 expeditions. Thankfully, the geology paper is thick and dense and (mostly) distracts me from other thoughts that come up in the long hours of darkenss.



On my second day, I return via the Devil's Lane jeep road. Deep sand makes for tough walking but at least my pack is lighter after drinking most of my water.
An elevated perspective of the grabens
Overall, this is a great place to visit in winter and there look to be many side-canyons to explore. If I did this trip again, it'd plan on spending more time down on Lower Red Lake Trail checking out the fossils.
 
More information

Do not expect to find water in the grabens. I carried all the water I'd need for both day.

Winter is a quiet time in the Needles. No other people were encountered on this weekend overnight trip.

In winter (late November to early March), overnight backpacking permits are available at the Needles visitor center via a self-registration system.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Winter comes to the La Sals

A Friday evening phone call informs me I am not needed for a Sunday shift at work. While the extra pay would have been nice, having time for a backpacking trip is most welcome.

This week, along with the loss of evening daylight due to the time change, the weather has shifted abruptly from crisp to downright chilly. Winter has arrived.

Yet the La Sal Mountains, from down here in the Moab valley, appear snow-free. Pink sunsets make the peaks seem warm and inviting. I piece together a route using singletracks and 4WD roads that will take me to through heart of the La Sals and down around the foothills in a broad loop.

I get a later start but for a good reason. Breakfast with someone I've known from the hiking community and finally get to meet in real life. It feels like hanging out with an old friend and lifts my spirits. Then we say goodbye and I drive off alone in another direction.
A turnoff just before the deep ford that is unwise to cross in my low-clearance honda civic becomes my trailhead. I cross the ford on foot and start hiking up the road through ponderosa pine and oak scrub.
The forest gradually gives way to aspen and fir as I climb.
A fenced-in spring is partially iced over, yet a frog is hanging out in the water. Turns out the northern leopard frog, like other aquatic frogs, don't bury themselves in the mud like aquatic turtles but instead hibernate in water. Antifreeze is the key to how they don't freeze.
Northern leopard frog
At higher elevations, there is an icy layer over small flowing streams even at mid-day. So much for turning over rocks to look for mayflies here.
Up a side drainage, I follow faint cairns, wondering if this is a route up Mount Peale. 
A small black bear is sighted crossing the scree field. When will she settle into her den to hibernate for the winter?
I loose the cairned route and decide to backtrack to the main trail to find a better way. One drainage over, the newly constructed Tuk Trail has switchbacks that make the 1.6 miles up to the saddle between Tukuhnikivatz and Mt. Peale a breeze.
Gentle switchbacks and good tread.
The trail gives way to alpine meadow, dormant for the winter. The alpine plants already gone to seed. I hear one pika eeping in the talus slope below. I hope he's got a good stockpile of grass all prepared.
 Here, on the side of the mountain, my heart soars at the feeling of air in my lungs. I gaze at the blue of the sky, watch ravens dancing in the wind below, and wonder at quickly it has changed to downright cold as I climb above 12,000 feet.
Tukuhnikivatz apparently means “The Place where the Sun Sets Last” in the language of the Ute. But this is the dark side, where the winter wind rages and the first snow of the season clings. It is bonechillingly cold up here.
Long before this slippery talus slope, I've told myself that it doesn't matter if I reach the top. That the joy in climbing up (I've gained 4500 feet on this climb) and the thrill of being in this place are what's important. This is the point where I turn around, about 12,100 feet. There is only one more hour of daylight. I am solo and there is no margin for error. My hands are frozen beyond numb, and are worthless for scrambling. Oh how I wish I had antifreeze in my fingertips.

As I descend, I soak in the views and daydream about what it would like to follow this ridge on a warm late summer day when the alpine flowers are blooming and butterflies are hilltopping. I also appreciate the starkness of this season and love seeing how the mountain is preparing for winter.
Looking into canyoncountry, to all the places I've explored and have yet to go. In the other direction, I can see all the way to the Henry's, to Bears Ears, to Sleeping Ute. Past and future, the landscapes that I hope to connect and understand.
Dry grasses illuminated.
Glowing Mt. Peale.
Finally I am glowing too. And grateful for lungs and legs that can take me up here.
In fading light, I try to make it as low as I can to camp.
Night is filled with the magical sounds of bugling elk and spectacular stars.
The next morning, I am grateful to find this so I don't have to dig a hole in the frozen ground.
At the road crossing, I walk up to a group of hunters huddled around a spotting scope. The first people I've seen out here. They let me peer through at the elk I'd been listening to all through the night. Massive, beautiful beasts on the slope above where I'd camped.

I tell them about the bear which sparks their interest. "Weren't you scared sleeping with bears around? Don't you know there are more bears here than anywhere else in Utah?" they ask.

I can't tell for sure but it sort of feels like they think I'm an idiot who doesn't know what I'm doing. But when they ask where I'm originally from I tell them I used to live in Montana and how these bears are tiny compared to grizzles up there. Then I turn and walk away. Back onto singletrack trail where I won't see anyone for the rest of my trip.

Really, I'm glad that the hunters are out here. The truth is that I slept soundly because I know the animals are skittish because there are hunters roaming about (plus I hung all my food and smellables in a tree far from my camp so they wouldn't be interested in me anyway). The bear I saw was in an area far away from trails and roads. These are not habituiated bears (as far as I can tell) and I am grateful for that. It keeps us all safe.

Much further down the mountain, my footsteps startle another creature. A herd of cows on the Pole Canyon Trail hear me coming and start a stampeed down the trail in front of me. I follow in their dust and dung and they rush ahead. We repeat this pattern for (I'm not exaggerating) 20 minutes until they finally veer off trail at a large clearing.
Following behind the cows.
By myself again, I follow the dirt road back to the gravel road back to my car. Grateful for another trip in the lovely La Sals.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Dayhiking in canyon country

One of the downsides of my “dream job” (and now you’ll understand why I say that in quotes) is that it is only 20 hours per week. I have another part time job, but two part-time jobs (for me) take much more time and energy than one full time job. This week I picked up an extra Sunday shift because the pay is less too.

I hope this doesn't come across as complaining. I love what I do and am happy I get to do something that is so meaningful. I just wish I had a 40 hour a week job (with healthcare, retirement, etc).

I’m telling you this because it meant that this week, I just had one day off work. And I needed that one day to count. So I made up my own route to include enough uncertainty to make it interesting and engaging, trees and cool geology to add natural wonders, a scavenger hunt for an arch, and even a peak to scramble up.
The not-so-famous arch that I did end up finding.
I leap out of bed well before my alarm for and am on the road winding through the pitch blackness. After I turn off the highway, I see no other vehicles, not a one. I'm the first one at the parking lot. A kangaroo rat hops across the road, the first I’ve seen here. How night transforms this place!
After a full hour of hiking in the dark, first light.
In darkness, I start down the familiar route. Just enough moonlight peeks through clouds that I turn off my headlamp and let my feet and instinct guide me. As if feet can find the way on their own just by sensing the texture of sand and rock. I try to leave footprints that are so shallow that the wind will cover them before any other visitors arrive.
Turning up-canyon, I find mountain lion tracks in the mud. No human footprints have been left here for a while.
The namesake trees of this wash have dropped yellow crunching leaves.
Late-blooming scarlet gilia.
After crossing the park boundary, the rocks lining the canyon abruptly change from steep to slopey, making it possible to climb out of the canyon here. Update: the geological map shows this is a fault. I'd been walking in a canyon with walls of Entrada-Slickrock but then climbed up the Curtis-Moab along the fault. Now that I see how helpful it is to consult the geological map for routefinding, I'll have to include that in my pre-trip planning phase.
Following lightly-traveled roads. There is a butte up ahead that beckons.
Not sure how I'm going to get up there but I decide to try.
Each layer of rock has different color and texture. I wish I knew what it all meant.

Chert? Jasper? The Morrison formation is such a contrast to the sandstone down below.
I start wondering, as I often do, what the heck I'm doing up here by myself. The wind is gusting fiercely. The popcorn surfaces are slippery and cut my hand when I fall. I try to avoid the underground tunnels in the soil/rock, which I later learn is called "piping". (Piping is subsurface erosion by groundwater in noncohesive layers of sediment. The geology article fails to say if hikers can fall into these but they are discribed in the "Problem Soils" section of the article.)
Stormy sky casts shadows as I get above the saddle. Breathtaking views in all directions. Oh wow!
The way down takes me longer than getting up, since I decide to take a different route back. There is much backtracking when I get to cliffs I can't get down. Finally, I join an old road and the going is easier. Time has flown by and I'm not sure I have time to make it back by dark and I'm worried about going cross country, if there will be cliffs I can't get up. In the end, my curisoity gets the best of me and I veer off the old road across the slickrock to the canyon rim.
Following the rim takes longer but has incredible views of the canyon. I leap over cracks and wind around the circuitious route following the twists and turns of the canyon walls.
Last spring I explored the bottom of this canyon and saw the pools of water at the base. By climbing around the rim, the source of some of that water is revealed. Here is where water pours over the top and a series of tinajas are full.
Finding where the water is.
I end up feeling rushed at the end, hiking as fast as I can on the cross-country part of my route. Finally, I reach the familiar territory that I've been to before and feel a rush of relief. This part I can do in the dark if I have to, no problem.
I collapse on the rocks for a while before the final climb. I don't remember being this tired in a long time.
As the sun sinks in the sky, sunbeams light up distant canyon walls, making me wonder,"how can I get over there?"

Back at my car, I step back into a different universe. The parking lot is packed with tons of visitors. After not seeing anyone all day, it's a bit of a shock. I'm just glad that there are places like this left, where there is plenty of solitude to be found, where you can go to challenge your route-finding skills, where you can discover things for yourself and have mystery behind each canyon twist and turn.


More information

I struggle with wanting to tell you all how to find these beautiful places where you can find solitude,  and not wanting to provide directions that would spoil your sense of the wild or inadvertantly send more people here than this fragile place can support.

My advice is get a few good maps of the area. Figure out how to connect washes with slickrock and old roads so you don't trample the fragile soil crust. Learn how to navigate cross-country. Tell multiple people where you are going.  Carry an In-Reach and know how to use it.  If you are like me and don't carry ropes, don't go down anything you aren't 100% sure you can't go back up. Be responsible for your safety and error on the side of caution.