There are places called "Indian Creek" across the U.S., but to rock climbers the name recalls only one location. This is a broad red rock canyon in southern Utah next to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Indian Creek is famous for the "splitter" cracks that fragment huge and otherwise featureless rock walls, making for thrilling and difficult climbing. Rock climbers already know Indian Creek, and there are numerous guides online and in print for climbing routes. For non-climbers, however, this place is often off the radar even though it holds plenty of other opportunities.
Indian Creek is most valuable as a gateway to Canyonlands National Park. To enter the Needles District, you have to drive through Indian Creek. Camping here on public land is free, as opposed to the fee charged inside the park. The drawback is that no sites in Indian Creek have water or hookups. There is a fire ring and picnic table at each site, and there are pit toilets in each area. The campgrounds are all signed from the main Highway 211. There is a group site at Creek Pasture and another at Indian Creek Falls. Both of these have the added bonus of a covered picnic shelter. It is worth noting, however, that all campgrounds will require a $5 or $6 per night fee to support maintenance starting in September 2016, and Hamburger Rock currently costs $6.
Dispersed camping is an option as well, and it will remain free. The caveat is the lack of amenities, and the rule is that all waste must be packed out sanitarily, but this is a good option for those seeking solitude off the beaten path.
You will notice a lot of cows and extensive fencing within the canyon. Some of the land is private. Indian Creek Cattle Company has ranched here for a long time, but the land is now owned by The Nature Conservancy, which uses the ranch to research effects of grazing on desert rangeland. Access is permitted unless posted otherwise, so be sure to respect this privilege by staying on roads and re-closing all gates. No camping on private land.
There are few developed hiking trails in Indian Creek, but trekking up a dry wash is always an option, and this is a great way to look for petroglyphs and ruins. If you venture deep enough into a side canyon, you may come across mule deer or even an elk.
There is one trail that leads from Newspaper Rock toward the Abajo Mountains. This is Indian Creek Trail, which meanders alongside the creek in its secluded upper canyon. To start the trail, cross the creek just upstream from Newspaper Rock and follow the dirt road. After about 2 miles the road turns into a hiking trail and continues 5 more miles to FR 104, west of Monticello.
There is plenty of truly spectacular hiking in Canyonlands, some of which can be accessed from dirt roads in Indian Creek rather than passing through the entrance station. Beef Basin Road will take you up into the high country for spectacular views of the Abajos and Cathedral Butte. When dry, the road is rough but passable for two-wheel drive vehicle. Approximately 18 miles from Highway 211 the road meets the southern end of Salt Creek in Canyonlands National Park. This is an overnight route loaded with natural arches and archeological sites.
Indian Creek Canyon has been populated for at least 1,000 years, and art on the cliff walls stands as a testament to its previous inhabitants. This is one of the best regions in Utah to find Native American rock art. Newspaper Rock is the most famous site, and it is perhaps the largest collection of figures you will ever see. It is located a short distance into the canyon, and road signs make the parking area obvious. Though most visitors only notice this panel, there are countless others scattered throughout the canyon.
To find them, look closely at the dark-colored, slightly overhanging rock at cliff bases. Numerous panels can be spotted from the road if you have a keen eye. There are also ruins tucked into the cliffs. Remnants of stone granaries, forts, and houses can be found in side canyons or high in cliff walls. A pair of binoculars will help spot them.
Davis and Lavender Canyons are two of the best places to find rock art and ruins. These are hikes within Canyonlands, but they cannot be accessed by vehicle from inside the park. Instead, take the signed turn from 211 in Indian Creek. These roads require high clearance, and four-wheel drive is recommended.
More recent human history is evident at Indian Creek as well. Shortly after turning on Highway 211 from US-191 you will notice an abandoned ranch on your left. Further along the road, just before dropping switchbacks into the canyon, you will pass a cluster of rustic cabins on your right. This is the site of a religious colony that notoriously attempted to resurrect a dead woman in the 1930s.
Many rock climbers come to Indian Creek armed with bikes. Highway 211 makes an excellent road ride if the weather isn't too hot. As for mountain biking, the only option within Indian Creek is the dirt BLM roads, the best of which is probably Lockhart Basin Road north of Hamburger Rock and the Indian Creek Falls group site. Bringing the rig is definitely worthwhile for mountain bikers because a short drive toward Moab opens up a whole world of terrain.
Indian Creek is a place of extremes. Summer is blistering hot with possible thunderstorms, and winter is bitterly cold with possible snow storms. The best times for rock climbing are fall and spring. Camping is good year round if you are prepared for the weather. Summer is when Canyonlands gets the most traffic, and you will probably find Indian Creek's campgrounds relatively uncrowded with climbers during that time of year. So if you are on a road trip to Canyonlands, no matter the season, consider staying here as a base camp to the Needles District.