Canyonlands National Park: Salt Creek-Lavender Canyon Loop

Anasazi ruins, slickrock scrambles, and a wealth of arches spice up a rugged 4-day tour of the Needles.
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Anasazi ruins, slickrock scrambles, and a wealth of arches spice up a rugged 4-day tour of the Needles.

Renowned for its pinnacles and picto-graphs, the Needles District, in the park’s extreme southeastern quadrant, attracts six times as many backpackers as Canyonlands’ other sections. One of its most famous treks is Salt Creek, a canyon thru-hike that passes numerous ruins and rock art, but requires a long road shuttle. This 23.4-mile loop avoids both crowds and shuttle logistics by connecting upper Salt Creek to Lavender Canyon; the link is a cross-country route that climbs up steep slickrock from Big Pocket, then crosses high benches near Cedar Mesa. Along the way, you’ll pass a historic pioneer cabin, numerous Anasazi sites, some truly spectacular overlooks, and at least 20 sandstone arches. While no technical rock climbing is involved, this is an advanced route requiring fitness, scrambling ability, and solid navigation skills.

The route begins and ends at Cathedral Butte trailhead (reached via the long Beef Basin dirt road). On foot, you’ll drop into upper Salt Creek, passing a reliable water source near historic Kirk Cabin, before reaching a faint trail that diverges southeast into the broad basin of Big Pocket. Side exploring should turn up at least two major Anasazi sites (look, don’t touch). From near the mouth of Big Pocket, a slickrock ridge climbs northeast to the rim near Fisheye Arch. Use extreme caution when climbing over several easy but exposed ramps that lead to fine slab camping and endless vistas from atop the rim.
Rounding Cedar Mesa to its west and north, you’ll pass jaw-dropping overlooks of Davis Canyon, then reach an intersection with an abandoned jeep road. Cross the road and begin a series of loose scrambles down a western fork of Lavender Canyon, always detouring left of canyon bottom when blocked. Flowing water appears in the broad wash bottom of Lavender as you hike north to good campsites near massive Cleft Arch. Return to Cathedral Butte by hiking out the southern fork of Lavender and scrambling up slopes of fractured rock to the pinyon-juniper benchlands of Salt Creek Mesa. Head due south for a half-mile to reach Beef Basin road and your 2.2-mile stroll back to the trailhead.
USGS quads: Cathedral Butte, South Six Shooter Peak
-Mapped by Steve Howe

TO TRAILHEAD: From Moab, drive 38.7 miles south on US 191 to UT 211. Turn west and drive 33.6 miles to the Needles Visitor Center for your permit. Backtrack 14 miles to the signed turnoff for CR 107 (Beef Basin/Elk Mountain). Turn south, ford Indian Creek (occasionally difficult for 2WD vehicles) and continue 20 miles on graded dirt to the subtle trailhead beneath Cathedral Butte.

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 37.5

Waypoints

SCK001

Location: 37.9501, -109.70652

Salt Creek Trailhead. Head north on pack trail

SCK002

Location: 37.972317, -109.740585

Cairn at milepoint 3.3

SCK003

Location: 37.98315, -109.745399

Pools, waterfall; good watering point

SCK004

Location: 37.985634, -109.743782

Kirk Cabin

SCK005

Location: 37.986177, -109.743268

National Park Service Campsites

SCK006

Location: 37.987701, -109.742203

Old fence

SCK007

Location: 38.003315, -109.740067

Big pocket; faint trail; turn left for a 1.6-mile round-trip to Natural Arch

SCK008

Location: 38.012665, -109.743584

Natural Arch on right

SCK009

Location: 38.0144, -109.74427

Easily accesible stream; good watering point. Backtrack to waypoint SCK007

SCK010

Location: 38.001801, -109.735298

Good lunch spot on slickrock

SCK011

Location: 38.001118, -109.733833

Begin ridge climb out of Big Pocket

SCK012

Location: 38.001682, -109.73185

Lone pinyon atop slickrock slide; turn right

SCK013

Location: 38.001534, -109.730919

Go up on the left

SCK014

Location: 38.001949, -109.730865

Switchback left up slabs

SCK015

Location: 38.002766, -109.729469

Traverse right

SCK016

Location: 38.002735, -109.728996

Climb slabs straight up

SCK017

Location: 38.003685, -109.728653

Traverse right

SCK018

Location: 38.005417, -109.727837

Gain ridgeline

SCK019

Location: 38.005001, -109.725037

Caution: There are some exposed moves here.

SCK020

Location: 38.004833, -109.723587

Top out onto plateau rim; head NEN

SCK021

Location: 38.015915, -109.720284

Red saddle; swing east

SCK022

Location: 38.015934, -109.710632

Spectacular views into South Fork of Davis Canyon

SCK023

Location: 38.023468, -109.699501

Turn southeast

SCK024

Location: 38.022598, -109.698181

WPT027

SCK025

Location: 38.022282, -109.696854

10.50 MI

SCK026

Location: 38.023285, -109.692719

Intersect old road then descend red streambed to the northeast; detour left around all obstacles

SCK027

Location: 38.027638, -109.683069

Return to streambed after detour and loose downclimb

SCK028

Location: 38.027748, -109.681847

Boulder pile allows passage across pourover

SCK029

Location: 38.029682, -109.679337

Ramp returns you to streambed after long ledge detour

SCK030

Location: 38.029034, -109.679016

streambed

SCK031

Location: 38.028351, -109.679802

Large alcove; good shade

SCK032

Location: 38.025234, -109.660919

Lavender Canyon wash; turn right/southeast

SCK033

Location: 38.017666, -109.664314

Park Service gate

SCK034

Location: 38.009949, -109.664818

Possible water point

SCK035

Location: 37.990952, -109.680016

South Fork: Large pool and running stream provides good water source. Continue southeast into Lavendar Canyon to Cleft Arch.

SCK036

Location: 37.987801, -109.68692

Turn right to cleft arch

SCK038

Location: 37.987465, -109.689735

Go up slickrock gully

SCK037

Location: 37.987549, -109.68943

Go up slab on left. This route avoids crytogram soil and bushwhacking

SCK039

Location: 37.98695, -109.690384

Top of slickrock gully

SCK040

Location: 37.986599, -109.690132

Clft Arch: Slickrock alcove provides shelter from wind and sun. Backtrack.

SCK041

Location: 37.989265, -109.682915

Take faint trail into South Fork

SCK042

Location: 37.968967, -109.678467

Cross ravine

SCK043

Location: 37.968235, -109.678703

Head up ridge on the right

SCK044

Location: 37.96785, -109.679398

Traverse right under red cliff

SCK045

Location: 37.966618, -109.680969

Traverse left

SCK046

Location: 37.96505, -109.679886

Cairn marks top of Lavender Canyon's South Fork

SCK047

Location: 37.965332, -109.677933

Old road cut

SCK048

Location: 37.963322, -109.67907

Old roadway thru pinyon/juniper visible running due south

SCK049

Location: 37.958851, -109.68

Meet road; turn right (west)

SCK050

Location: 37.958099, -109.702682

Sideroad on right; continue straight back to trailhead