Yesterday my husband and I decided to hike to Paul Bunyan’s Potty in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. We’ve done quite a bit of hiking down in the Needles in the past (almost) two years that we’ve lived in San Juan County and we love it down there- it’s one of our favorite places to hike. I’d guess that there are at least 60+ miles of hiking trails in the Needles, with hikes ranging from less than .3 miles (Roadside Ruin) to about 25 miles (Salt Creek).
After almost two years of hiking in the Needles I think we have done almost every day hike (I’m counting all hikes under about 12 miles- which is the most that I would want to do in a single day) there is, with the exception of Paul Bunyan’s Potty. So when we saw that the weather was looking good for the weekend (over 50 degrees in mid- December!) we decided that we’d better get down there and do it- you never know when the snow will hit!
The drive down to the Needles District of Canyonlands on Hwy 211 takes you through Indian Creek- an area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It’s a popular rock climbing area and it’s absolutely beautiful! If you’re passing through be sure to stop at Newspaper Rock- a large petroglyph panel that’s just off the road.
We arrived at the entrance of the park at about 10:00am- since it’s the slower season for visitors, the entrance station is closed and you have to stop at the Visitor Center to buy your pass. We visit the national parks and monuments in this area quite a bit, so we always buy the Annual Pass. It costs $80 and allows you unlimited entry to any national park or monument for 1 year. Fees to enter the parks vary, but if you’re planning on visiting several within a one year period, the Annual Pass is definitely the way to go.
For example, if you’re on vacation in Southern Utah and you’re planning to visit the parks and monuments, this is what you’ll spend if you pay for them each individually:
- Zion N.P. $35/vehicle
- Bryce Canyon N.P. $35/vehicle
- Capitol Reef N.P. $20/vehicle
- Natural Bridges N.M. $20/vehicle
- Hovenweep N.M. $20/vehicle
- Canyonlands N.P. $30/vehicle
- Arches N.P. $30/vehicle
I work part time at the Southeastern Utah Welcome Center in Monticello, UT and I can’t tell you how many times people have come in and told me about their trips starting at the Grand Canyon ($35/vehicle), then going to almost every one of the places I listed above. I always ask them if they have the Annual Pass and very often then don’t. BUY THE PASS!! IT’S WORTH IT!!
After a quick stop in the Visitor Center to show them out pass, we continued on to the trailhead. Here’s some advice for anyone who is planning on doing this hike… you don’t have to park in the Cave Spring parking lot- if you start down the road toward Salt Creek, there’s a parking area before the road turns into a 4-wheel drive/high clearance road. We didn’t know this, so we parked in the Cave Spring parking area and walked back down the road, turned toward Salt Creek, then came to the parking area at the gate (4-wheel drivers need a permit to enter, hikers don’t). I think doing this added about a mile to our hike. I don’t know about everyone else, but when I’m already hiking 10 miles, I really don’t need to add on an extra mile if I don’t have to!
This hike is actually following a 4-wheel drive road, so there’s not really a trail- you pretty much just follow the wash and walk in the sand. Within about 5 minutes of the parking area the road intersects the wash that you’ll be following. Yesterday when we got there it was dry but covered with icicles where the water would have been. It wasn’t ice though- it was really thin icicles that were hollow underneath.
We stopped to take some pictures and were trying to figure out how the icicles formed, and all of a sudden we saw (and heard- I don’t remember which happened first) water coming down the wash. It wasn’t like a flash flood or anything, it was just slowly making its way down the wash toward us. It was a really cool thing to see, we were saying to each other that if we had come along 5-10 minutes later the water would have already been past where the road met the wash and we never would have even seen it!
As cool as it was to see the water come down, it did make the hike a little difficult since the trail/road follows the wash for about the first 2.5 miles. So we spent the next hour and a half or so jumping back and forth across the water and sometimes even bushwhacking our way through the vegetation on the banks.
Finally the canyons split, Salt Creek to the right and Horse Canyon to the left. We took the left fork and after another 1.5 miles we reached Paul Bunyan’s Potty. I’ve seen pictures of it, but until I was actually there I had no idea how massive it is. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how big something is without actually seeing it, so I took this picture with my husband in the foreground to try to show the size a little better…
We hadn’t seen it as we were approaching Paul Bunyan’s Potty, but right as you’re rounding the last bend before you reach it, if you look to your left just a few feet about the wash, there’s a ruin nestled in the canyon wall partially hidden my a large tree. If you don’t see it on your way, you’ll definitely see it on your way back out.
After spending some time taking pictures and having lunch, we continued on toward Tower Ruin, which is just one more mile down the trail. After about .5 miles there’s a sign on the left hand side of the trail that directs you to the ruin, and from there it’s another .5 miles. It was really beautiful out there and if it hadn’t been for the short hours of daylight (and the fact that we already had 5+ miles to hike back to the car!) we might have kept right on going down Horse Canyon!
The last .5 miles of the trail was very narrow and overgrown. I would definitely recommend wearing pants rather than shorts on this hike. Even though it was only a .5 mile stretch that was like this, it was pretty bad- not only were there lots of things scratching our legs, but there were also lots of pokey things that kept getting into our shoes and socks.
Tower Ruin looked really cool- very intact from what you could see from down on the ground. It didn’t look easy to get up to the ruin, and we were tired and racing the daylight anyway so we didn’t even try- we just took a few pictures then headed back.
**I wanted to share this informative video put out by Friends of Cedar Mesa, which is just one in a series of ‘Visit With Respect’ videos that they’ve developed. In the excitement of visiting a new archaeological site it can be easy to forget how easily they can be damaged, and these videos offer helpful tips on how to ensure that our amazing archaeological sites like Tower Ruin, can be enjoyed by future generations. If you’d like to view the rest of the videos in their Visit With Respect series, please click HERE.
Hike length: 10 miles (8 miles round trip to Paul Bunyan’s Potty, and an additional 2 miles round trip to Tower Ruin. *Approximately 1 mile farther if you park in the Cave Spring parking area!)
Total Time: 6.5 hours with lots of stops for pictures, lunch, and water crossings- would probably be quite a bit faster when the wash is dry.
From Monticello: Head north on Hwy 191 approx. 14 miles to the turn for the Needles District of Canyonlands. Turn left onto Hwy 211 and drive approx. 34 miles to the park entrance station.
From Moab: Head south on 191 approx. 40 miles to the turn for the Needles District of Canyonlands. Turn right onto Hwy 211 and drive approx. 34 miles to the park entrance station.
After entering the park, follow signs toward Cave Spring/Salt Creek, *DO NOT PARK AT THE CAVE SPRING PARKING AREA- this will add about 1 mile to your hike! Take the turn toward Salt Creek and there is a parking area at the trailhead.
Distance from Canyonlands Needles District Visitor Center to lodging in San Juan County, Utah:
- Monticello: 48 miles/50 km
- La Sal: 60 miles/67 km
- Blanding: 70 miles/113 km
- Bluff: 96 miles/155 km
- Mexican Hat: 122 miles/196 km
- Monument Valley: 147 miles/237 km