Upper Salt Creek

Round Trip Distance: 18.7 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 5720 - 7063 feet
Cellphone: 3 bars
Time: 10 hrs. 30 mins.
Trailhead: Upper Salt Creek
Fee: none
Attractions: Arches, ruins, rock art

Upper Salt Creek is located in the primitive backcountry wilderness of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park between Moab and Monticello, Utah. The entire Salt Creek trail stretches for 25 miles between the upper and lower trailheads. Along the way it passes over a dozen natural arches and bridges as well as numerous ruins and rock art sites. The area is most often visited by backpackers who can easily stretch the total distance out to 30 miles or more by exploring the different sites along the way. This post is for a day hike that begins at the upper trailhead and turns around about 8 miles later at the All American Man pictograph. Several more miles are hiked while exploring different ruins and rock art sites along the way.

To get to the trailhead from Moab drive south on 195 for 40 miles and turn right onto 211 at the sign for Canyonlands. If coming from Monticello the turnoff is 20 miles north of town. Follow 211 for 20 miles and turn left at the restrooms onto the Beef Basin Road. Continue for another 17.3 miles to the trailhead. The Beef Basin Road is well maintained and is usually even in good enough condition for passenger vehicles during dry weather. After a soaking rain there are places that will give even 4wd's grief. While the Beef Basin Road is only 17.3 miles allow 60 - 90 minutes for that part of the drive. There are numerous primitive camping areas all along the road and near the trailhead. NOTE: While the trailhead is well known Google Maps will sometimes try to direct you down an impossible road for even 4wd vehicles so use your best judgement and stay on the Beef Basin Road.

The first crux of the hike is the drop in from the trailhead that comes in 2 stages. It begins with a 500 foot decent down a steep, primitive, uneven, rock strewn trail with some step downs being more than 24 inches.

After a brief reprieve the next 500 foot drop into Salt Creek goes down a rock slide that begins leveling off near the 1 mile point. Both drops have slopes that get steeper than 45 degrees. Our time for the first mile was 54 minutes.

A little before the 2 mile point the trail reaches the main branch of Salt Wash where it climbs up on the south bank and passes into Canyonlands National Park. From this point on a permit is required for overnight stays and certain rules, like carrying your food in a bear canister, must be followed.

Next up is a 1.5 - 2 mile stretch where long legged pants are highly advisable as the trail cuts through a super thick growth of tumbleweeds (Russian thistles), rabbitbrush, willows and tamarisks. Parts of this area can be marshy in the spring and early summer. Fortunately the route is marked with strips of red flagging that are indispensable for staying out of the tangles. Just past the 3 mile point some granaries can be seen in a side canyon on the north side of the trail and some pictographs can be found as the trail begins traveling close to north side of the wash.

Before reaching the 4 mile point the trail passes by Kirk's Spring which is the first dependable water source. Shortly past that it comes to Kirk's Cabin. If you look across the wash a little before the cabin you can see some ruins. One of them is built on top of a boulder. There are some pictographs above the ruin on the left that are high enough up that it looks like they were standing on the then existing roof to paint them. There are a couple of white and orange horizontal lines with descending teeth. Next to Kirk's Cabin is what's left of an old wagon that would have been pulled up Salt Creek some 21 miles to reach this spot. The first two backcountry campsites, SC1 and SC2, are on the right just past the cabin.

The Big Pocket Cliff Dwelling can be seen on the left just past the 5 mile point. There is a trail that leads across the wash a little further up that will take you over to the ruins while adding about 1 mile to the total round trip distance.

Another ruin that is much smaller can be found on the north side of a small hill just inside of Big Pocket. The ruin is seldom visited and only faint trail segments can be found leading there.

Near the northwest corner of the mouth of Big Pocket is another seldom visited alcove ruin that has some really nice Barrier Canyon Style pictographs. The image on the right has very good detail in the body area.

The closeup photo of the head of the image on the left looks like a ghostly spectre from a horror movie.

This is another panel in the same alcove that has a larger number of images. Close inspection reveals some of the same greyish colored paint the was used in the All American Man where it appears to be blue. The smaller components and details of each separate group of images are quite interesting to study.

There are a few more small ruins and pictographs between Big Pocket and the All American Man which comes up just before the 8 mile point. The trail bumps right up against the cliff below the All American Man so you don't have to worry about missing it as long as you stay on the main trail. The next worthwhile site to visit is the 4 Faces Pictographs and ruin which are just under another mile. That site is next to Upper Jump Spring and SC3.

The climb back up to the trailhead was a bit brutal but we were running out of daylight and a thunderstorm was fast approaching so we hiked it without stopping to rest. The Canyonlands weather report was for  0% chance of rain but we got sprinkled on at least 3 times and it rained hard non stop from the time we left the trailhead until we got to Moab. Fortunately we knew better than leave our raincoats in the truck. The cooler than forecasted temperatures brought on by the clouds and rain were very enjoyable. We hiked past as many ruins as we stopped at due to a lack of time and the extra distance it would have added. Fall is the best time of the year to day hike Salt Creek as long as the days haven't gotten too short. According to the trail register the other 2 vehicles in the last photo had already been there for 3 days. It's not at all uncommon to day hike Upper Salt Creek and some people even do it during the summer. We don't recommend it for anyone but the more experienced hikers and backpackers. It is an extremely remote and desolate wilderness that takes advanced planning and careful preparation. To see and appreciate all that it has to offer all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.