The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is much less popular than its neighboring Island In The Sky district across the Colorado River, which receives six times as many backpackers. Of all three districts of Canyonlands, the Needles is best suited for backpackers looking for a unique backcountry experience. Well-signed trails abound that take the backpacker to very scenic viewpoints and campsites. Incredibly beautiful rock features are around every corner, while unique desert meadows and savannah-like grasslands are also abundant. In a state overflowing with incredible backpacking opportunities, the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park is sure to rank highly among the favorites.
Salt Creek Canyon lies on the very southeastern end of the district, and it is the largest perennial stream in all three of the Canyonlands districts. This area is distinctly different from the rest of the Needles. While Salt Creek Canyon is not as directly scenic and stunning, it is one of the best places in Utah to view Native American dwellings and pictographs. Salt Creek Canyon is also very long and wild, making it an excellent multi-day backpacking trip, probably the best in the Needles District.
Backpacking Salt Creek requires two main things: permits and a shuttle. The Trailhead is at Cathedral Butte, which is just outside of the park at 7,000 feet near the Abajo Mountains. The ideal trip starts up high at Cathedral Butte and descends over 3,000 feet in 33 miles to the Squaw Flat Trailhead off of the paved road near the visitor center. Permits also make this hike a little tricky, as there are only four overnight sites in Salt Creek, and quite frankly sites 1 and 2 are not positioned well for a through hike. To do this trip, you must plan ahead to get the proper campsites (sites 3 and 4).
From Cathedral Butte, descend the rough trail into Salt Creek Canyon. The descent is tough, but once it is done, the rest of the 30 miles are very mellow. The first major attraction in the canyon is Kirks Cabin, which is a very old cabin that was used for ranching. Tour the cabin, and just past the cabin on the right side are your first Native American ruins. This ruin has a granary, pottery shards, and a few handprints on the wall. This type of ruin is extremely common in the canyon and is a primary reason why Salt Creek is so unique.
As the hiking continues, you will notice that Salt Creek is incredibly lush for such a harsh environment. You will hike through extremely tall grass and rabbit brush, as well as cottonwood trees and tamarisk. Complete this hike in late October and the fall colors will be astounding. To get to campsites 3 or 4, you will pass so many ruins and pictographs that it is impossible to mention it all. The highlights of the day are All American Man, one of the only colored pictographs in Utah, and the Four Faces, which is a stunning artistic drawing of four large faces on the rock wall.
The major attraction after campsites 3 and 4 is Angel Arch, which is approximately a 3-mile round trip detour. Don’t worry, it is worth it. Angel Arch is massive and remote. Hikers will not want to miss the opportunity to see an arch of this size.
Once through Salt Creek Canyon, you will pass some amazing art by Peek-a-Boo springs, and then ascend a tight ladder to the top of the slickrock cliffs. The 2.3-mile journey from here to Lost Canyon is some of the most scenic hiking done anywhere in the world, guaranteed. Huge views of the Needles and its labyrinth of canyons abound. Follow the cairns to Lost Canyon, which would make an excellent campsite on your second or third night. From Lost Canyon, it is around 2 miles to Squaw Flat Trailhead.
Take note that hiking mileage in a desert like this is different from mountain environments. A 15-mile day in the Needles is extremely strenuous and not recommended except for the fittest of hikers. While this trip can be done as quick in three days, a full week could easily be spent exploring the side canyons and ruins of Salt Creek.
Before you head out on your next adventure, make sure you have the right gear!
Here's a list of our go-to hiking essentials to get you started:
Hip Belt, Adjustable Torso, Compression Straps, Raincover + Hydraulics LT 2.5L Water Reservoir Included
Cushioned, GORE-TEX, High Traction Contagrip, 15.8 oz
Sun Protective, Moisture Wicking, Quick Drying, Roll-up Sleeves
Waterproof, Calorie Burn Tracker, GPS, Sleep Tracker, Shock Resistant, Speed Tracker, Lap Timer
Aluminum, Adjustable with DynaLock Levers, Four-season Functionality, 20 oz.
Made in USA, Anti-bacterial, Merino Wool, Breathable, Fast-drying
LED, Waterproof, Maximum Beam Distance: 80 m, Takes AAA Batteries
Ultralight, Watertight, Group Size: 1 person, Trip Duration: 1-2 days