A year and a half ago I did a great weekend-long pack raft trip in Cataract Canyon with Tom Macfarlane where we started at Elephant Hill (the end of the road in Canyonlands National Park's Needles district), hiked down Red Canyon, floated the river to an unnamed exit point, and hiked back. Really great trip that I chronicled here. While on that trip Tom mentioned that he had been doing some research on a bigger trip that also incorporated Salt Creek and Dark Canyon and would involve mountain bikes as well, and my interest was piqued. Time rolled on and we talked about doing this trip and identified late October as the period to give this a go, and in the meantime I had told some of my pack raft pards about the trip, and it started to come together.
The logistics of Tom's adventure were a little daunting:
- leave boats and food at the Needles visitor's center
- drive 17 miles up to the trailhead for Salt Creek
- leave boatless packs there
- drive 17 more miles up to the Dark Canyon trailhead and leave car there
- ride bikes back down to the Salt Creek trailhead
- leave bikes, pick up packs, and hike down Salt Creek 28ish miles to the main road
- pick up boats and food, go down lower Salt Creek about 6 miles to the Colorado river
- float 38ish miles down the river to Dark Canyon
- hike 25-30 miles up Dark Canyon back up to the car
- pick up bikes from the Salt Creek trailhead on the way out
- Try not to leave behind any critical gear behind at each transition!
A little contrived, but not bad, and it's a fun opportunity to throw three activities together. Here's an overview map:
As it turned out, the schedules were a bit off, so Tom and our good friend Colter were going to be doing a shorter variation of the trip ahead of us, and our crew morphed into four.
I bumped into Matt Clevenger at the Utah Avy Center's party and the first thing he said was "dude I REALLY want to get into pack rafting! I don't really hike and I don't paddle, but I can take abuse and I'm super keen!" And indeed, Matt had been pretty badly Diegelized once before; he triggered an avalanche crossing a slope - that I chose - and was buried quite deeply in the debris, but we were able to get him out, probably not long before he slipped away. So I was a bit flattered that Matt was willing to do another adventure with me!
Jon Jamieson has been a great friend for many years and my pack rafting tales had gotten him intrigued, and when I had told him about this idea a long time ago he said "I'm in", and I knew that he was. And Greg Hanlon (aka "Captain America" as he's known in New England) has been my partner on innumerable dumb and exciting adventures. And a special addition was Greg's brother Chris, who was going to join us in the first couple of stages of our triathlon.
Our first stop was the Needles ranger station. I had talked to a former Needles ranger who is now stationed in Moab and he was not only very helpful but also pretty excited for us and our trip. When we got to the Needles district we talked to the ranger on duty to get our permit, and he was a completely nice, earnest guy who was also keenly interested in our idea. However, when I told him the plan he said "You can't pack raft Cataract! That's class 5 whitewater!" What I thought and what I said in response to that were two different things: What I thought was "don't tell me what I 'can' and 'can't' do!" but I'm learning - ever so slowly - so what I said was "oh that's right; what do you suggest we do instead?" He would have doubly freaked if I'd told him not only were we doing Cataract - which is what our too-expensive permit was for - but we were also doing it with a complete rookie on our team!
The first of our Gear Explosions was in the parking lot of the visitors' center:
and then we had another where we left Chris's truck, at the Needles road:
our third at the Salt Canyon trailhead:
The next at the Dark Canyon trailhead:
and finally we were off!
We had done a hike that day in Chesler Park to "kill some time" and then got a bit concerned about running out of daylight for our ride back, but it was a zippy ride with some great views of Cathedral Butte
|Apparently the Bud Light litterbugs had also made the journey from the Escalante area to the Salt Creek area....|
We camped at the trailhead, and the next morn we left our bikes, donned the packs:
and headed into Salt Canyon.
I'd never really heard of Salt Canyon, but a little bit of research quickly indicated that it is pretty special: beautiful canyon country, tons of arches, and absolutely polluted with Native American ruins.
The ranger had told us there were a lot of ruins and I asked "where?" but he only smiled and said "you'll find them, if you are looking". As we traversed the broad Salt Creek valley:
We thought "if we were natives in these parts we'd probably be using this valley to grow stuff too" and pretty much every major alcove had ruins in them.
The pot shard (is that one word? potshard?) collections were impressive:
And there were other remnants too:
|I don't think corn cobs compost that well...|
|I would call an 800 year old melon plant "heirloom" for sure!|
There was also a pretty stunning piece of rock art that we'd never heard of, but later we found out it's famous: The "All American Man"
|Captain America ponders the All America Man|
Though apparently, its origins are a bit controversial, according to this article.
Matt tried to see if he could be as good of a climber as the Anasazis:
The arches were all over the place:
Salt Creek is apparently so popular that not only is it permitted, but you also have to apply for certain campsites on certain days. We took a bit of liberty with that, and camped in the wash:
Not too far from Nutty Buddy rock:
|the rangers make you take bear cannisters into Salt Creek, which we thought was stupid, until we saw this track...|
Salt Creek was running, which despite the fact that we were in there in late Oct, felt great to cool off in the pools:
And frolic gaily:
Salt Creek was an ATV route until the mid-90's when the park management made the controversial decision to close it to ATV use, and in a good example of how even the desert can heal itself, the trail had "deteriorated" to a nice singletrack
and over slickrock a few miles to the Squaw Flat campground in Needles. It was cool to get into the slickrock that we'd been looking up into for the last coupla days
and of course, men being...boys, in canyon country, I had to try to be funny:
Back down at Squaw Flat we grabbed Chris's rig and drove over to the trailhead where people go to hike out to the confluence (of the Green and Colorado rivers) overlook, and had another gear explosion:
Below the highway Salt Creek goes over a thing called "Lower Jump" which is a 120 foot pourover, that I was told has no rappel anchors and if we did set up an anchor and leave a big rope there (so as to not carry it for the rest of the trip) rangers would find and confiscate it to avoid other joeys trying to do the same thing. So we had to find an alternate route down into Lower Salt Creek, and the Big Springs and adjacent Little Big Springs looked viable on Google Earth. However, we got about a hundred feet into Big Springs and came to about a 60 foot drop, so we trudged back out and tried Little Big Springs, which turned out to be fine, albeit a bit of a thrash.
Down in Salt Creek we camped in the wash:
And using the creek water had a nice dinner of freeze dried meals. Afterwards we made a bit of evening tea, and anti-beverage boy Greg decided to partake (a little) and said "it's not very good". I gave him some shit about being too much of an anti-beverage zealot: "'c'mon...it's mint tea!" until I took a sip myself; at some point after leaving the creek a few miles above and getting back down to it "Salt Creek" actually lived up to its name!
Below Big Springs Salt Creek offered up a bit of canyoneering:
|a fixed line|
|an anchor for a short rappel; we had brought one harness, a long throw rope, and a fair bit of webbing in anticipation of this possibility.|
And finally hit the river!
|another gear explosion|
|Matt getting ready to christen his boat|
We paddled a few miles down to Spanish Bottom and then hiked up the thousand-plus feet to the magical Doll House:
The Doll House has plenty of opportunities for adventure, from tight slots:
To fun climbs
And cool formations
Greg challenging the rock to "who's got the biggest nose"
and going nose to nose on it....
And after a night spiced up with Ringtail cats and a skunk rifling through my food, we hit the river, with the first rapids around the corner
|We laugh at Danger!|
At low water the rapids are mostly class 2-3, but the waves are big and messy, and can toss a pack raft around a little
|Greg lining up|
|JJ also paddling hard....|
|'cause he needed it to punch the hole!|
The Big Drops (Big Drop 1, 2 and 3) are a bit of a step up from the others, are near the end of the section, and get progressively bigger, with BD 3 being infamous at high water. We were at basal flow, but it still had some impressive features and provided a good challenge
|the left line|
|JJ stylin' the left line|
|me in the left-of-center line|
And had a great riverside camp
|native boy pondering the endlessness of time|
Soon enough we reached Dark Canyon, for another Gear Explosion
And started the long haul out of Dark Canyon. It was beautiful and as such made for some slow hiking
Including one spot where we had to backtrack a half mile to do a 4th class climb a few hundred feet to get out of a gorge
I kept seeing a pair of footprints, and knew that Colter and Tom had preceeded us by a coupla days:
|Shoe Geek that I am, I recognized this as the Patagonia Rover, and only Colter would be hefting a heavy pack wearing pretty minimal shoes! I also saw Tom's Hoka prints.|
We thought that Dark Canyon was 25 miles long, but we all - and Tom and Colter - felt that it was longer than that, tho maybe "hiking" like this
not only was slow, but had potential for issues:
But we were able to get some respite from the drudgery
by cavorting gaily,
and we bumped into some locals:
We anticipated that water would be an issue in Dark Canyon; we had gotten the beta that after this nice spring
coming out of Youngs Canyon it would get pretty dry, and sure enough, it did:
But the rain of 10 days prior had created a few puddles, which we were able to survive on
And again camped in the wash, assuming our great stable weather would hold
|ironically, about 20 minutes after we starting hiking the next morning, it started to rain....|
And after a half day, a full day, and another half day we found ourselves back up at 8000 feet, high above the river
However, our adventure was not over. The temp had plunged to the mid-40's the wind was gusting, and it was spitting rain as we loaded back into Matt's car, and we knew that real rain could be a big deal on the clay roads. The trailhead was about 400 feet below the mesa rim so we had to at least get up to the mesa before the road got wet, and sure enough right as we topped out it started to rain in earnest. At that point it was mostly downhill all the way back to the highway, but as anticipated the goo started to build and the car became nearly uncontrollable as we greased around. Our ebullience at finishing the trip was held in check as Matt deftly muscled the steering wheel around trying to keep us from both the gooey ditch and the big drop offs into Salt Canyon, and we hustled at the trailhead throwing bikes back onto the car. Fortunately the road surface got more gravelly, and even as it continued to rain we were able to escape. And we needed to; we had all eaten our last food, and Matt's stashed potato chips were a distant memory, so as it was we were bonking sitting in car as we hit Moab!
Thanks again to Tom Mac for the great idea, and sorry I couldn't have enjoyed it with he and Colter, but thanks again to Matt, Greg, and JJ for being great pards on an incredible trip. These little pack raft things open up the opportunity for all sorts of silly adventures.
If you haven't gotten enough pics of this already, check out Matt's great (better, really, despite the fact that I got a new camera and Matt's used his Iphone 7!) pictures here