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.