Views near Peekaboo Spring in the Needles District

A Change of Plans

Last autumn I made plans to return to Salt Creek Canyon, after visiting a few times in 2022. My adventures so far were limited to the lower end of the canyon, whose starting point is high on the northern flanks of the Abajo Mountains. I had completed a few out-and-back trips, going as far as Upper Jump – a waterfall situated at about the halfway point of full trail.

My goal this time was to see a rock formation called Angel Arch, and so I had reserved a few nights near this halfway point; close enough to make it to the arch during a day hike. Since I had always begun at Cathedral Butte in the past, my itinerary for this trip also had me starting here.

Last winter, however, Utah had a record-breaking season for snow. I heard numbers thrown around like “the most snow in forty years”, and because of this, the road to Cathedral Butte was deemed impassable by the National Park Service. Since I was planning on starting here, this obviously threw a big wrench at my plans.

Flowing water near Horse Canyon, in the upper portion of the Salt Creek Canyon

I called the park and got in touch with a ranger who I had actually met down in this very same canyon, the last time I was there. I told her my predicament, and she assured me that my trip could still be possible by starting instead at the northern end, closer to the Visitor Center. All she had to do was modify my first two campsites. In retrospect, this itinerary made more sense, as it is shorter in total mileage, and had me seeing a new section of the canyon. It would also be my first time camping in the “at large” zone of Salt Creek – an area where backpackers have the freedom to choose their own site, instead of one of the designated sites.

I started my hike at the Salt Creek Trailhead, and began the few mile walk through a sandy wash. With it being early April, I was lucky to have mild weather for most of this section, which is notorious for being difficult (sand is never easy to hike in). I knew little about where exactly water would be, which made me nervous hiking up the dry wash. But once I approached the junction with Horse Canyon, the water began to flow. Some hikers I talked to told me that water was plentiful along most of the trail – especially toward Angel Arch, which is where I was going.

As always, seeing any water within this landscape gets me excited. It is the lifeblood of canyon country, and a tether to my own survival. Eventually I arrived at the first landmark: Peekaboo.

Trail Arch; gateway to the heart of Salt Upper Creek

At Peekaboo, the trail leads up some switchbacks to an opening in the sandstone. Called Trail Arch, this opening represented a gateway to the heart of Upper Salt Creek. It is through this arch that the landscape dramatically begins to change; the canyon narrows, water becomes more abundant, and the explorer is thrust into another world.

Pictographs near Peekaboo Spring

But don’t be too hasty and walk through the arch without first checking out the pictograph immediately to the right of it (it is impossible to miss). The panel depicts two prominent, likely anthropomorphic round figures, with a long series of white painted circles lined above them. The round figures look to be adorned with shields, which is a common motif of rock art in this region. According to the NPS sign located here, this particular pictograph panel is easily hundreds of years old (and possibly up to 1,000).

Closeup of the Peekaboo Panel

If you look carefully, you will notice that the white paintings are actually superimposed over some very faint, brown figures. This suggests that the white figures were painted more recently than the brown ones. Additionally, the faded pictograph immediately to the right of the second round figure bears some resemblance to Barrier Canyon Style (BCS) pictographs, which are thought to be from the late Archaic period (which span a timeframe of 1500 to 4000 years). If the white figures aren’t 1000 years old, then the faded ones behind them might be.

A spring near Peekaboo

After admiring the pictograph and walking through the window, I arrived at Peekaboo Spring , an abundant source of frigid snowmelt. I was amazed to see just how much water was cascading in this area, over rocks and into dark green pools. There is plenty of evidence of past inhabitants in this region, so I would recommend taking your time to explore side canyons, and scanning high cliffs with a pair of binoculars.

As incredible as the Peekaboo pictograph panel is, I was on the hunt for a specific panel off the main trail. It isn’t easy to find, and I would probably do a terrible job explaining how to get there. In general though, it is within a mile or so from Peekaboo Spring, near a notch in the canyon walls facing upstream. Just when I was about to give up, I spotted a faint social trail and a path up to the panel. Like other BCS rock art, the panel was mysteriously ghostly, featuring what I suspect are armored figures dressed in intricate shields.

First Views of the Mysterious BCS Panel
BCS Panel Closeup

Since I spent some time searching for this panel, my priorities shifted to picking up the pace and hunting for a spot to camp. Water was less plentiful here than at Peekaboo, and the canyon in this section meandered with more winds and turns, leaving few spots flat enough to camp. This proved to be difficult, but I found an adequate spot with only enough room for my tent. While it worked for me, I honestly doubt others have chosen it in the past. Beggars can’t be choosers!

Heading to homebase

The following morning I woke up less rested than usual, as I was awakened in the middle of the night by some loud, crunching noises near my tent. I was concerned that the noise was from a bear, as it sounded like it was from something large, and was roughly in the direction of my bear canister. In retrospect, it was probably just some deer, as I saw fresh hoof prints behind my tent that weren’t there the night before. False alarm.

Today would be my biggest day of travel, hiking about ten miles just to get to my next campsite at SC4, where I would be spending my middle two nights. As a reminder, my primary goal on this trip was seeing Angel arch, and SC4 is one of the closest designated campsites to it. Water was not that abundant at this spot, so naturally I became a bit anxious about access near my campsite. Yet as I got closer to SC4, Salt Creek gradually began flowing with more and more water. When I finally arrived at my campsite, I was elated to find a rushing creek mere steps away from camp. I set up camp, then rested a bit before going on a short hike upstream Salt Creek.

My campsite at SC4, which was surrounded by imposing fins

At this point, there was only a short stretch of the trail with which I was unfamiliar. Last time I was here with my brother, we had hiked a bit past SC3 near a spot called Upper Jump. Since I had not hiked in the region between that area and SC4, I took the few hours I had left in the day as an opportunity to explore. Im glad I did, as I spotted rock art and structural remnants up on canyon walls with my binoculars.

A unique pictograph with colors I had not previously seen

One such site was quite incredible, featuring the pictograph above and remnants of what appear to be a kiva or habitation site. The pictograph contains pigments I have never seen before in these canyons – specifically the light blue color. The rock art seemed to decorate the site in front of it, which had a commanding, 180° view of the canyon below. I was very careful up here, as the structures looked very fragile.

Possible Ancestral Puebloan Kiva

While I could have spent hours hunting for other sites, I returned to my campsite to enjoy the sunset while eating a high calorie dehydrated meal – a well-deserved dinner. My campsite was tucked within a sharp meander of Salt Creek. This little bend is surrounded by high sandstone towers, which collect the last rays of sunlight at dusk. I was treated to this glow on both the nights I camped here, which was both pleasant and magical.

Sandstone spires at my campsite

The hike to Angel Arch

On my second morning, I woke up early to scarf down some breakfast and head back downstream toward the Angel Arch junction I had passed the day before. While I wasn’t planning on shooting for sunrise specifically, I did catch some great views of dawn sunlight upon high canyon walls, like at my campsite the night before. I took this soft light as a good omen for the journey ahead, one I had been planning for years!

The clouds lit up a bit during the morning of my hike
The view “downstream”, toward Angel Arch

I was a little too preoccupied with the lighting conditions on the way to Angel Arch, as it was mostly soft and a bit cloudy. What I remember most was how the colors had a pastel-like quality, like the colors you would use to paint easter eggs (funnily enough, easter did occur during this trip). I also recall that the trail after the junction had water flowing from its drainage, which I found fascinating. There was so much water on this trip!

Soft light near Angel Arch
First Views of Angel Arch

I finally arrived at my destination, and was the lone person there to witness the mystique of Angel Arch and the Molar. I must have spent an hour or two just admiring the rock formations; writing notes and making a sketch of the arch in my backpacking journal. It is hard to tell via photos, but Angel Arch is enormous, and provides a unique backdrop to the Molar rock formation in the foreground. The Molar doesn’t seem like it should even be possible, as most its weight is distributed at the top. When standing underneath it, I got a dizzying sense of vertigo, as if the Molar would tip over and onto me.

The Molar, standing in front of Angel Arch

Despite worrying about lighting conditions, I was treated to some cool shadow work on the Molar, when the sun finally rose up above the canyon walls behind me.

Molar and Angel, after clouds broke

After I felt like I had absorbed the grandeur of this area, I decided to head back to my campsite, taking some extra time to explore side canyons and hunt for more ancestral sites. One of these I had seen on the way to Angel Arch, and stuck out like a sore thumb. It was a single, solitary brown figure painted high on a vertical wall. When I scoped it out with my binoculars, I noticed the BCS-like details and carefully searched for a route up to it. Not knowing its name, I called this pictograph the “Lone Warrior”.

“Lone Warrior” – conspicuous, yet easy to miss
Views near Lone Warrior

On the way back to my campsite, I noticed a side canyon that stretched far beyond another meander of Salt Creek. At first I didn’t see anything particular besides a faint trail, so decided to walk it a bit while scoping with my binoculars. Not long after searching around, I spotted two granary-like structures and a beautiful tapestry of white pictographs above them.

Granaries and Tapestry Site

It’s hard to pinpoint the style(s) represented in the pictographs below, but I can at least describe how similar they are to other styles I have seen. The eight total figures on the left look distinct from the ones on the right. The perpendicular arms remind me of Basketmaker figures I have seen in Grand Gulch, not terribly far away from here. The figures on the right, however, share resemblance to BCS rock art I have seen, if only for their trapezoidal, narrow bodies and mystic quality.

Interesting Pictograph Tapestry

Regardless of style, this site was fantastic to behold. The figures underneath the doorway have their arms outstretched in an almost welcoming manner; I like to think that these two were powerful heads of a family that inhabited this side canyon. If you look very carefully you can see faded, repeating patterns next to the archway. I suspect this panel was much larger in the past, and wrapped around the hollowed section of rock above the two granaries. This was definitely a highlight of the trip, for I was unaware of this panel’s existence and my finding it was fortuitous.

Final Sunset at SC4

The Return Journey

My objective on the third day was simply to pack up and hike at least half the way back, camping again in the at-large zone. I wanted to dedicate some time searching for a great campsite, rather than just an adequate site like the one that barely fit my tent last time I was in this zone. An ideal site would also be situated right at the at-large zone’s boundary, minimizing the mileage on my final day of hiking. Right around the boundary, the canyon opened up around a wide bend. There was a large sandy spot suitable for a tent, and a solitary juniper tree providing much-needed shade on this warmer day. I didn’t do much after arriving, besides relaxing in the shade and fetching water.

My campsite in the at-large zone
The views in this section of the canyon were superb
Photo Credit: Bladder

I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and despite the moon being out, enjoyed plenty of starlight. I snapped a few photos of the same rock formation that was catching sunlight during dusk, just hours before. As I was crawling back into my tent, I realized that it was technically my birthday. I spent the rest of the night trying to get some rest, giddy to experience sunrise in this spot.

Waking up on my birthday. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is something therapeutic about watching sunrise in this area of the Colorado Plateau. The highest sandstone formations catch the purest of golden light, while shadows retreat with the rising sun. This morning was the ideal way to start my birthday: stretching out of my tent, making coffee, and waking up with the canyon. I’m grateful that this trip worked out, especially with the last minute itinerary change that afforded me the chance to explore new areas. After this trip there are only less than two miles of the canyon that I have yet to explore, and I hope to get the opportunity next spring!

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