Monday, November 30, 2009

Canyonlands Needles District - Salt Creek, Beef Basin, etc.

Last year on Thanksgiving, the three of us stood at Grand View Point Overlook in Canyonlands and looked out at the Needles. For Thanksgiving this year I went off for a few days to make a loop backpack around the Needles District. The photos are here. I don’t think they do the area justice, and I’m not sure any can. I have lived in the West for many years now, but there are still landscapes that make me feel like a kid from Chicago seeing things for the first time. My journal on the Needles District would therefore just be a gushing “ooooh” and “wow.” It’s like the compilation of letters I read by early visitors to Yosemite area, who were writing home trying to explain what it looked like, most often without the benefit of photos. The letters used the most impassioned and borderline outrageous language to describe the place.

My hike up Salt Creek from Peekaboo camp to the Salt Creek Road (18 or 19 miles, although it felt like less) was the highlight of my trip, and right up there with the best trails I’ve ever visited.

A few experiences:

-On the first night, I camped under a small arch that had petroglyphs of a bird, a man and other figures. It was at least ten miles to a road, and I knew there was no one in the area due to the park’s strict permitting rules (more on those below). Hiking up Salt Creek, I had seen areas where the creek had been channeled to increase the flow through to areas below the canyon. I see a lot of backcountry ditches, and I just figured it was another example of some cowboys ditching a creek for cattle or settlers going to great lengths to grow crops in the desert. As I looked at the petroglyphs, however, I realized that the creek had probably been channeled and maintained for much, much earlier. There was no wind at all – totally still.

-The next day, I had breakfast at Upper Jump, a small waterfall in a large amphitheater. Warm rock slab next to flowing water in the desert? Sure, I can do that. Soon after, the Upper Salt Creek trail passed several striking petroglyphs:

And entered into a wide canyon:

Unlike my recent hikes along the Colorado Trail, I wasn’t able to get much information on the area beforehand. The rangers were certainly helpful, especially with where to find water, but they are understandably more focused on keeping everyone safe rather than promoting a long hike around the perimeter of the park. Here are a few things I didn’t know before I went down to the Needles District that others may find useful:

-Water. There is water at the Needles visitor center and also in the car campground. Salt Creek is a "perennial" stream, but in November I found only a few pools of water up to the side trail to Angel Arch. The creek ran clear from a few miles past this junction to Upper Jump. Then it was dry beyond except for the spring at Kirk's Cabin. I also found water in Elephant Canyon near Druid Arch, and in Big Spring Canyon, as well as in a few other little pools. Clearly during a dry year there may be even less. On the other hand, it looks like hiking the canyons after a big rain or during the spring would be a pain - a lot of the trails follow the bottoms. It also gets buggy, apparently.

-Permitting. The park takes reservations for backcountry camping two weeks in advance. My impression is that a lot of folks grab reservations and then don't end up camping - although several spots were reserved, I only saw one other party backpacking the whole trip. Get ready for more than the usual hassle when getting a permit - think Denali or Glacier. The ranger flatly denied me my choice for the first night, saying I couldn't get there by dark (incorrect). I then had to make up a bogus story about people meeting me in Beef Basin for her to go along with the rest of my itinerary. I spent 90 minutes at the visitor center getting my permit, which is no joke considering it's only light in November from about seven to about five-thirty. I think the process may be easier in the high season when the seasonals are working. Of course, the permitting hassle is at least in part what keeps the area so beautiful. Also, the ranger was helpful regarding where to find water. They take credit cards.

-Weather. Last year, it was dumping rain over Thanksgiving. This year I didn't see a cloud until the last day. So weather is "variable." When I went, highs were in the 50's and lows in the teens. In other words, it was t-shirt weather in the sun and butt-cold at any other time. When the sun went down, the cold air would flow right down the canyons, and it was time to put on every layer I had. When the sun came out, I spent time basking on the rocks like a lizard.

-Hazards. The Needles just feels like a place where you have to take extra care. There are a lot of rocks to fall off, endless nameless confusing side canyons, a dearth of water, etc. But all these are present everywhere in the desert, and really pretty much everywhere in the West. For some reason, I nevertheless felt like I needed to be particularly careful when traveling. I never left the marked trails, even though this added several miles to my trip. In a way, the Needles are canyoneering for dummies, with well-marked trails and a helpful ladder here and there to help passage.

The extra mileage occured where I reached the edge of the park. The National Geo. tourist topo map clearly shows a trail heading west to Beef Basin. I couldn't find a trail, and I couldn't see any evidence of anyone going that way. Instead I climbed the steep trail to the southeast to Salt Creek Mesa. Road 107 goes waaaaaay up, maybe 8500 feet, before the junction with Road 104. Although this added a few miles to my hike, the views at sunset were worth it:

-Back of Beyond. This area is REMOTE. I expected to see traffic on the 2wd road into Beef Basin. Instead I saw no cars - no one. At this time of year, day hikers and Jeeps are clustered around going to Druid Arch and the Joint Trail. I've heard it's much busier in the spring and fall, however.

-The Park. There's basically nothing to see at the visitor center and the paved road. If you want to see Druid Arch and/or the Joint Trail, it's a seven-mile hike - a hike with some 3rd-class moves, sandy washes and/or creek crossings, etc. Or you can bring your souped-up Jeep to brave the slickrock. I can't recall another national park without the obligatory scenic drive through the "main attraction," although the Grand View Point Overlook drive may count. I think this is for two reasons: (1) the park was formed in 1967 when the big environmental laws were being passed and backpacking was at an all time high in popularity, and (2) there was no recourse to the CCC Depression-era workforce to blast a road through the sandstone.

-Bears! The ranger quizzed me at some length about how I was going to hang my food. Apparently there are bears around that will eat your food, but when you hang food, attack ravens peck holes in the bag. I did see some bear scat around. Interestingly, the park doesn't use bear-proof garbage cans or take other measures, so it can't be that big of a problem.

-Swimming the Colorado? It's perfectly obvious from the map - hike down to the Colorado River on Lower Red Lake Canyon trail, swim across, and then hike up to the Maze District. There's an article on Backpacking Light about this, but I can't read it because I don't have a subscription. But if you mess up, you and/or your pack goes into Brown Betty Rapids/Cataract Canyon. Not fun. And don't even think of trying to get a permit for camping on the other side doing this. Who knows how many people have done this - it looks possible, especially during low water (like November).

-Topography and geology. Although it's obvious from any topo map, it took me some time to get used to the fact the Needles are actually in a basin lower from the surrounding terrain - rather than raised up from a flat area. This is part of what makes the Colo. Plateau so interesting: the "surface" of pinyon juniper forest is at 6-8,000 feet, with the sky islands above and all the canyons below. This must have been immensely frustrating for travelers - they intuitively and reasonably would go up away from the rivers as a means to get across the area, but then reach yet another huge canyon.

This also reminds me of the fine book "Sea of Glory," about the U.S. Exploring Expedition. The boats made it to Hawaii, and James Dana is watching lava coming out of volcanoes and forming the island. "Origin of the Species" wouldn't come out for a few decades, but Dana and the other scientists are clearly looking at both islands being formed in geologic time and species uniquely adapted to those islands. Likewise, travelers on the Plateau were looking at this big raised area, but the rivers were still somehow flowing through that raised area. What were they thinking about?

-Backcountry sites. The sites in the park are the typical un-fun designed-by-committee NPS ones. The best way to go is probably to try and get one of the sites closest to the parking lot (BS1, EC1) and then to do day-hikes around the park. I didn't realize they allow dispersed camping in some areas, notably along Lower Salt Creek. There are some very nice sites along there. I didn't enjoy camping in Chesler Park because it was so far from water as well as many of the trails. This area was, however, in a termocline and therefore warmer than the canyons.

-Return Plans. The Needles were practically designed for fun scrambly day-hikes. When Will-J is a little older, he'll go nuts over the place. I would also really enjoy spending a full week - or as long as possible - in Salt Creek doing a car shuttle. And then someday we need to do the flatwater float from Green River down to Spanish Bottom and then hike up to the Maze (thereby eliminating the need/desire to swim the river).


Gear. Although this was a pretty short trip, I can't help but writing more about gear. I put up a recent entry about the relative value of gear - an $8 item that gets used constantly and works perfectly versus a $400 item that only gets used intermittently and/or doesn't work well. On this trip, I had a few essential items that cost nothing or next to nothing. I used some Patagonia pants I got at a garage sale for a quarter - they're essentially ankle-length Baggies. They look horrible - "bif" (butt-in-front) pants. But work great, much better than convertible hiking pants. I also used the base-layer North Face pants I found ten years ago on the top of Mt. Clarence-King. In order to haul extra water, I used the two-gallon MSR Dromedary bag I got a long time ago for the dry PCT sections. As always, it's a simple and reliable solution to moving around with extra water.

I used my full Cadillac packpacking setup - Cadillac in the sense of this, not Cadillac like the "Cadillac of mini-vans" in the fine movie "Get Shorty" or the "Cadillac of hybrids" in the not-so-fine movie "Be Cool," but in the sense of being heavy and with lots of extra doo-dads: four-season tent, air matress, white gas stove, book, extra clothing layers, etc. I did this because the November nights are so long (not fun to spend twelve hours in a tarp-tent). In retrospect, a lighter weight setup would have worked well as long as it could handle the weight of an extra gallon or so of water - I felt somewhat foolish carrying my book and stuff up and down ladders between canyons.

I sleep cold, and tried out a Mountain Hardwear "Ultra Lamina" zero-degree bag. It was warm, but has a fatal design flaw - rather than have one full or half zip, it has two silly little quarter zips (that jam). There's no way to adequately vent the bag and getting in and out is a pain. I sent it back this morning. How did no one notice this problem during the design process?

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