Satadark- A Grand Adventure in Canyon Country



Photos by Matt Clevenger

Cataract Canyon has the capability to be so many different beasts: at medium water levels it’s a rollicking romp through big water that’s welcome relief after days of flat stroking to get to the rapids, at high water it generates some of the most fearsome hydraulic features in the West, and at low water it makes for a little excitement for rafters who are otherwise lazing down the river and appreciating huge beaches. But increasingly Cataract Canyon is attracting pack rafters, who have the ability to hike in, hit the 15ish miles of fun class 3 rapids, and then hike back out. There are a couple of different ways to do this. The easiest is Elephant Hill, going a bit more intrepid is going in via the difficult-to-access Maze, and then there’s the long version that may have been a little contrived, but overall it’s a great adventure: SataDark!

The basic premise for our adventure was thus: hike all of Salt Creek down to the Colorado River, float 45 miles of the Colorado down to Dark Canyon, then hike back up the remote and rarely-visited Dark Canyon almost into the Bears Ears area. In order to do so we had to stage one car with our boating gear, stage our camping gear, spot another car, ride mountain bikes, stash and then retrieve mountain bikes, with associated gear explosions at each transition point… it was almost too contrived….but only almost!

Cataract Canyon has about 15 miles worth of rapids, and historically the only way to access those rapids were to paddle the other 85 miles of flatwater. But with the advent of pack rafts – those unlikely-looking little one man crafts that can be rolled up and put on your back that run rivers surprisingly well – there are a few different ways that the rapid section of Cataract (from Spanish Bottom on down): from Elephant Hill it’s about a 10 mile hike to the put in and a 25 mile hike back out, and if you’re an intrepid 4WD driver you can drive (or ride; probably on a fat bike to deal with the sand) in through the Maze to the Dollhouse. I had done the former version a couple of years ago, but a friend – who had spent a lot of time in upper Salt Canyon when he was a kid – had told me about a bigger loop he had in mind: start on the south slopes of the Abajos at the head of Salt Creek Canyon, hike down Salt Creek to the Needles District, pick up your boats, make it down the rest of Salt Creek to the Colorado, float not only through the Cataract Rapids section but also a bit further down, then “just” hike out Dark Canyon back up to the foot of the Abajos. Easy!

The first step of the trip is to get permits; in the fall, when the water is low, it’s pretty easy to get a Cataract Canyon permit. When we picked it up at the ranger station the ranger asked what our plan was, and while he was impressed, he also exclaimed “You can’t go through Cataract in pack rafts! That’s class 5 stuff!” Now to be sure, there are rapids in there, and at high water they are as big and intimidating as any in the US. But at basal fall flows (6-7000 cfs) it’s class 3, which is generally considered to be fun and safe.

The second step was to get the gear staged appropriately, since there was a fair bit of it and it was looking easy to forget or mis-plan something. Our crew included a couple of moss-behind the ears New Englanders keen to dry out in the desert, a Phoenician keen to get out of the smoking heat, and two of us from Salt Lake- including one who was on his virgin river trip! We filled one car with our boating gear at the Needles campground/trailhead then piled into another car that was loaded with backpacks, camping gear, and mountain bikes and headed up into the hills above Indian Creek. At the upper Salt Creek trailhead we stashed our backpacks and camping gear, then drove the 17 more miles to the trailhead for Dark Canyon. As sun was setting over Canyonlands we pedaled back down the road we had just driven to the trailhead, where we camped for the night.

Salt Creek is a well-known and much-loved trail; it too requires camping permits that are probably harder to get in the fall than the river permits, with designated campsites. It’s an amazing trail: once down off the initial descent it’s a broad valley with spires, pinnacles, and arches within view at all times -most of the time simultaneously, and if you don’t see a LOT of native ruins you are walking with your eyes closed. It’s 26ish miles to the Needles Campground, and with pretty easy loping and plenty of stops to ogle at ruins it’s a couple of days to wander through it.

At Needles we had our second or third gear explosion as we jettisoned the required bear boxes (yes, there are bears in that desert canyon: they wander down from the Abajos; it was hard for us to believe it until we saw some unmistakable tracks), refueled our food supply, and loaded up our boats and gear into our packs. The next phase was a little tricky: Salt Creek goes over something called the Lower Jump, and it’s a bit of a daunting obstacle: a 200’ pourover, with no obvious options to circumvent it. It’s theoretically possible to create an anchor and rappel it canyoneering style, but you don’t really want to carry 400’ of otherwise-unnecessary rope with you for the rest of the journey and – once we innocently told the park service folks of our plan – they made it clear that any ropes left would be confiscated. But we were able to find a tributary canyon that was a bit brushy and scratchy but ultimately delivered us to the bottom of Salt Creek Canyon, well below the Lower Jump. And a note to lower Salt Creek hikers who are camping in there: no need to bring the saltshaker if you are using the creek water to use for cooking water!

We knew from Google Earth that the bottom of Salt Creek to the Colorado was not a total gimme, and sure enough as the canyon gorged up there was another pourover that required a short rappel; we used a 75’ throwbag, shared one harness, and were glad we’d brought some webbing and quicklinks for an anchor. And finally -after days of staging, hiking, and re-staging – we were at the river; a fine place for another gear explosion! After an hour of transitioning we floated peacefully towards Spanish Bottom, grateful to be off our feet and have the packs off our shoulders.

Spanish Bottom is a popular site: many folks float down either the Green River or Colorado using flatwater boats to the Confluence of the two mighty rivers that lies just upstream, and within earshot of the first rapid camp at Spanish Bottom to await the jet shuttle back up to Moab. Additionally, that camp provides a steep 1.5 mile trail access to the jaw-droppingly-beautiful Doll’s House; a poorly-named wonderland of sandstone spires, walls, and nooks that would be incredible by itself, but it also provides an amazing vista across the rest of the Maze and south across Needles to the Abajos and La Sals in the distance, so most river trips also do layovers there. Due to its popularity, it also attracts both ringtail cats and skunks, who apparently have developed a fondness for freeze dried dinner remnants and gorp, and are either too dumb to be scared of humans or are simply fearless, so they add to the nighttime festivities.

The next phase of the journey was the infamous rapids. Again, they are “only” class 3, but for newbie boaters – and we had 1 – they can be exciting, but for someone who’s strong, bold, game, and rational enough not to be terrified by a little swim, the rapids are not a big deal. There are 25 or so rapids that culminate in Big Drop 2, which is a bit of a step up in bigness, but it’s also easily portaged. Generally pack rafts are much more stable than whitewater kayaks and less stable than rafts, but their quickness relative to rafts also provides a good advantage. Our crew made it through with enough excitement to make it interesting, but past Big Drop 2 as the rapids eased back into flatwater, we laughed at how much fun the rolling waves were.

Another half day of floating got us to the mouth of Dark Canyon. Dark Canyon is one of the more remote areas in Utah, with long access from the river or from the rim. Despite a fair bit of research we had a hard time finding anyone who had hiked the length of the canyon and due to the many meanders it was difficult to figure out how many miles it was and how difficult it might be to ascend through the many rock layers that it cuts through. Most of the canyon is either hiking or very easy scrambling, but going up from the bottom we found it to be easy to get sucked into gorges that are inescapable aside from backtracking to easier escape routes, which sucked up our time, energy, and ever-dwindling food. Additionally, Dark Canyon has some water sources, but again it’s easy to suckered to pass a nice water source in anticipation of more ahead, but there are long sections – especially higher in the canyon – where there is no water.

Despite the fact that our packs were now pretty much devoid of food, the last thousand-plus foot climb to the rim weighed heavily on our shoulders after a couple of hard days grinding up Dark Canyon. We had been out long enough at this point that we hadn’t seen any weather forecasts, but the lenticular clouds we’d seen indicated to us that weather was indeed imminent, and we knew that our adventure would be far from over if we got to the car in a big rainstorm since the roads in that part of the world turn to absolute goo. As we gratefully hit the trailhead and saw the car the first drops of rain splattered on our faces, and with no fanfare we simply chucked our packs in the car and bolted. Sure enough, it took only a squall for the roads to get super greasy, and there was some white-knuckle driving – and passengering – as we skittered along the edge of the huge cliffs dropping into Salt Creek. We stopped briefly at the Salt Creek trailhead to throw the bikes back onto the car, and hurried on down the road, which to our relief became increasingly more-graveled as we neared Indian Creek and the highway.

There are easier and less-contrived ways to enjoy Cataract Canyon and to do the Satadark Loop requires a bit of logistical gymnastics and it’s almost too much of a hassle, but the vastness of the terrain covered and fun factor of all the various modes -including a greasy drive -make it a worthy and grand adventure.

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