All American Man Pictograph in Canyonlands National Park's Salt
All American Man, a pictograph created some 700 years ago, with a shield design incorporating red, white, and blue (or black) pigments, and made by an Ancestral Puebloan or Fremont artist, Salt Creek Canyon in The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Salt Creek Canyon, located in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, is where my wife and I chose to backpack in October of 2017. Our last backpack in Canyonlands occurred in October of 1976: 41 years ago! It was wonderful to return to this land of red slickrock, golden cottonwoods, and starry, starry nights. This time, we were enchanted by the evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan People of the region. Their houses, granaries, potsherds, and pictographs provided a spiritual presence and brought the canyon alive in our imagination. 

There are trail guidebooks and blogs that provide detailed descriptions of the hike, so I decided instead to simply provide a visual look at the canyon through my photography and to use a few word impressions to give a sense of the experience.

Backpacker in Canyonlands National Park's Salt Creek Canyon
Karen Rentz climbing a route through a sandstone fin within Salt Creek Canyon

10,000 years ago, a Raven chuckles to its mate and young as they play in the air currents along the canyon walls. A Camel glances upward at the sound, then resumes munching a mouthful of Sagebrush, vaguely wondering why it hasn’t seen any other Camels for years. Wind quietly flutters the Cottonwood leaves as a Coyote howls in the distance.

800 years ago, Ancestral Puebloan women chatter and giggle along the creek while filling clay pots with water. Children play hide-and-seek among the sagebrush and rocks, shouting suddenly upon spotting a companion. Turkeys gobble at the irritation of being packed together in the village’s pen. Men chip arrowheads from chunks of chalcedony, creating sharp percussive sounds. Then a sudden shout to ascend to the cliff fortress, as strangers are spotted creeping along Salt Creek!

700 years on, the sound of cattle lowing and spurs-a-jangling occasionally brings the canyon alive, as ranchers run cows in the sagebrush. Picture the clouds of dust during the roundup as cowboys herd the cattle along ancient trails. Listen to the crackle of pinyon logs in the evening campfire while cowboys scrape their tin plates; a Great Horned Owl hoots in the distance.

60 years ago, a jeep engine roars as a uranium prospecter shifts into low gear while descending steep red slickrock. He gets out and tests the sandstone with his rock pick, then tosses the rocks aside with a clatter. He camps tonight near the stream, the soft gurgling reassuring him. Then a wildcat screams from the cliffs above.

In October of 2017, we set up camp as the last warm sun glows on the cliffs. I use a rock to pound the tentstakes into clay, while the gas stove hisses as water starts to boil for our evening meal. After dinner, all is quiet as we snuggle in a warm sleeping bag. Two Coyotes howl back and forth in the canyon. There are no human sounds in the distance under the vast panorama of stars.

Dead Tree in Canyonlands National Park's Salt Creek Canyon
Dead tree among the colorful sandstone formations within Salt Creek Canyon

Here is a selection of other photographs from the trip. Double Click on one to see them larger and with captions.

Canyonlands National Park’s Salt Creek Canyon was a quiet place during our four day backpacking trip. In fact, we didn’t see anyone for 2 1/2 days during the hike, making it the perfect wilderness experience.  It is a place suffused with remnants of the past, as well as spectacular slickrock formations and evidence of wildlife.

When we visited in October, we started out at the Cathedral Butte Trailhead and hiked in about as far as there was potable water. It is named Salt Creek for a reason: there are alkali salts suspended in the water that quickly clogged our filter, so we had to depend upon iodine tablets and boiling water in order to get drinkable water. No problem if you are prepared.

October was colder than we expected, with the three clear nights reaching down to 16°F, 13°F, and the last night at 11°F. Our down sleeping bags were perfect; don’t expect to be warm with summer-weight bags. The Milky Way and moonlight were wonderful in the canyon, and it was great to climb into the fluffy sleeping bag after our stargazing sessions.

Black Bears are frequently sighted in the canyon, so the National Park Service now requires that hikers carry bearproof canisters. What would the wilderness be without a few predators to make us wary?

Salt Creek Canyon is filled with evidence of prior inhabitants. Please, leave everything untouched so that our descendents can enjoy the magic of this spiritual place.

The National Park Service requires backpacking permits for Salt Creek Canyon, and there are four campsites that are assigned when hikers get their permits. Go to the Canyonlands National Park website for more information about the park and backpacking permits.

For more information about my photography go to Lee Rentz Photography.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)

For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.

We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.

We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.

We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.

Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!

When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.

I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.

The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.

At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

Go to to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.

Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, 2008 The Goat Rocks Wilderness

2008_wa_11601Backpacker choosing an off-trail route down the snowfield below Elk Pass

There are places on earth to which my mind wanders in quiet moments, thinking back to great hikes through alpine wilderness. The Goat Rocks Wilderness is one of those places. The Goat Rocks are the remains of a 12,000 foot Cascades volcano that blew its top some two million years ago, leaving jagged peaks reaching to over 8,000 feet. Located in Washington State between two “living” volcanoes, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams, the Goat Rocks Wilderness is part of the Gifford Pinchot and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests. But enough geography. What I want to tell you about is one of the great hikes in America.

Five of us left the North Fork Tieton Trailhead at the start of Labor Day weekend, for a five day backpacking trip. I was the lone male with four ladies, including my wife, Karen, and friends Betty, Sue, and Joan. As we shouldered our packs, a group left just ahead of us on horseback, which would be an easier way to go if we had horses. We don’t. Plus I think my photography of natural details would suffer if I was always looking way down from the high perch of a horse.

The first part of the trail is a long, but gradual ascent to a ridge where the North Fork Tieton Trail meets the 2008_wa_12141Pacific Crest Trail (PCT, also known as Trail 2000). This trail leads through old-growth forest with huge hemlocks and firs; streams trickle down off the high ridges. When we reached the PCT, we turned left and marched toward the McCall Basin, where we planned to camp for four nights. Along this stretch of trail, we encountered a series of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, which I detailed in a previous blog entry Pickles, Seven, Money and More. 

We camped the first night in lower McCall Basin, along a bend in the North Fork Tieton River. In the subalpine meadows here, wildflowers bloomed late. On our previous hike to this basin on the same weekend some six years

2008_wa_10911Tieton Peak catching the last light above McCall Basin

before, we encountered only late gentians in bloom; this time, the wildflowers were at a peak of color. The snow must have melted out late this year. The mountains above McCall Basin were catching the alpenglow on this clear evening. As we drifted off to sleep, the trumpeting cries of a band of Elk drifted down from the nearby mountainsides.

The next morning we decided to move to a different campsite in what we call the Upper McCall Basin. While the lower McCall Basin is gentle and flat with beautiful meadows studded by pointy firs, the upper basin feels raw, as if the glaciers left just yesterday. It is a distinctly different experience to be up there, but it is lonely and has the feeling of real wilderness, where humans can only be visitors. We set up our new camp in a patch of woods, then set off to explore the upper basin.

2008_wa_46661A waterfall plunging into an ice cave in the cirque of Upper McCall Basin

The day was cold and windy with a threat of rain from low, gray clouds overhead, so layers of fleece and down and wind-blocking shells were the rule. With warm woolen hats knitted in Nepal. Again, we were surprised at the lush wildflowers still in bloom. Near a series of cliffs and waterfalls, we found a family of Hoary Marmots, 2008_wa_12261with three youngsters sitting on a big rock while the mother looked on nearby. Unfortunately, that was the only wildlife we saw in the basin, other that the freshly-picked bones of an Elk fawn. When we had hiked here six years ago, we counted 32 Mountain Goats and a band of 10 Elk. Later, back in camp, we met a man who reminded me of Moses; he carried a tall staff, had flowing gray hair, and was leading a flock of fellow hikers on a long day hike. We told him that we were disappointed at the lack of Mountain Goats. He then told us a long story, relating how a rogue hunter had entered the basin in early autumn six years before and had singlehandedly murdered an entire band of 44 Mountain Goats, leaving their carcasses to rot on the cold ground. He said that the authorities were still hoping that the killer would blab in some bar, bragging at what he had done, and would eventually be caught. Moses described this terrible story with such earnestness that we were all bummed for the entire weekend. Well, maybe that’s overstating our degree of bummedness, but we did indeed feel bad. Moses also told of hunters who had killed a 600 pound bear very close to where we made our camp. That put us on edge, so we made sure to hang our food high. Then Moses led his flock out of our basin and back out of the wilderness.

An addendum: When I returned to civilization, I made inquiries to the U.S. Forest Service, to a state DNR biologist, and to a prominent local outdoor writer about the killing of the Mountain Goats. None of them had heard of it. The writer said that he had been hearing stories of massive goat kills in the Goat Rocks Wilderness since he was a teenager, and that once he had even gone up in a helicopter to try and confirm a story. None of these incidents had ever been confirmed, so he thinks they are all merely myths spread by word-of-mouth. While many people are fooled by urban myths on the internet, we were apparently duped by a wilderness myth told by Moses. Anyway, I’m glad it wasn’t true … or was it?

2008_wa_10861The Pacific Crest Trail climbs through high subalpine forests

The next morning we rose early to make breakfast and prepare for our hike to the high and barren ridges crossed by the Pacific Crest Trail. Unfortunately, the day dawned gray and cold again, so we would have to hope for better weather as the day wore on. It didn’t happen.


Snowfields and raw rock on a peak hidden by dense clouds

As we walked upward along the PCT, we walked into the clouds and it began snowing. Scraggly fir trees wore a fresh coat of ice, and we wore every layer we had, including mittens. As we approached Elk Pass, I found a high gravel plateau overlooking the valley below. Here Mountain Goats had rested.


Shallow bed created by a Mountain Goat on a high overlook

We saw where they had used their feet to scape rocks out of the way, forming roughly circular beds where they could comfortably rest. There was also plenty of scattered goat scat. I picked up a piece of chert that looked out of place; about 2.5 inches in diameter, its edges had been worked into a tool by ancient hunters. It may have been used to scrape Mountain Goat hides in this very location several thousand years ago.

2008_wa_09311Chert tool left on a high overlook, perhaps for several thousand years

The sense of timelessness of wilderness came upon me in a rush. Looking around, I also found numerous obsidian flakes that had been made by native Americans long ago. In researching this location later, I found out that early Indians had an obsidian mine site at Elk Pass that archaeologists say was used from 6,500 to 500 years B.P. (before present); they came up here both to hunt and to mine the volcanic stone from which they could create arrowheads and other tools. I can just imagine people looking out from this high ridge for thousands of years. But if they were here on a day like this, they would see only gray clouds.


Twisted trees enduring fresh snow blowing through the high country

We climbed higher, eventually reaching Elk Pass. We passed hikers coming from the other side of the Goat Rocks, including one young man who had just emerged from the clouds. He said apprehensively that he had never done anything like this before. He may never again, but at least he will have the memory of a solid accomplishment in his life. While resting at the pass, I decided that Elk Pass should be renamed “Dead Elk Pass,” at least for this hiking season. On a snowbank just below the pass lay the carcass of an adult Elk, with the nearby remains of either a very young Elk or an Elk fetus. The bones had been recently picked clean, with Gray Jays still doing their wilderness duty of visiting the bones to get the last remnants of meat as we watched. We don’t know if the Elk may have died in birthing its young, or if it was surprised by a Cougar at the pass. A predator–probably a Cougar but perhaps a Coyote–had left scats right atop the rib cage bones of the younger Elk. I’m not an expert, but the constrictions in the scat would indicate Cougar, which may be more than you wanted to know.

2008_wa_10162Adult Elk skeleton at Elk Pass (above) with skeleton of fawn or fetus about 30′ away (below)


I spent perhaps an hour at Elk Pass photographing, while some of our group hiked higher into the clouds. They got very cold and soon returned. We decided that the threat of hypothermia from blowing snow on the exposed ridge was too great, and we began our long descent back to camp, regretting that the views weren’t better.

Warming ourselves around a campfire that night, we talked about a strategy for the next day. We decided that if it was once again cold and gray, we would hike out a day early. But if the first person to get up the next morning saw clear skies, at least some of us would again attempt the same hike as we did today. Awakening at 4:00 a.m. to answer nature’s call outside, I saw only a heavy cloud cover. But when I was the first one up two hours later, I was greeted by a sea of blue sky. I woke everyone and suggested we try again. So we ate a quick breakfast and motivated our tired bodies to again begin the long trudge up to Elk Pass. But this day was different, exhilaration was in the air.

As we hiked higher, we encountered several Hoary Marmots who didn’t mind posing for pictures. The views from the ridge were wonderful and became better the 2008_wa_09811higher we climbed, though there were some clouds forming. We went still higher beyond Elk Pass, passing a Mountain Goat chilling out on a snowfield and a couple of Gray-crowned Rosy Finches foraging in the talus–true residents of the high country. We could see for miles on the exposed ridge and felt the exhilaration that always comes in high places. Maybe it’s the thin air!  

This ridge is steep and narrow; there are old, wind-blasted U.S. Forest Service signs dating from way back in the last century that warn travelers that it was only safe to take 30 stock at a time over the next stretch of trail. We met PCT thru-hikers who proclaimed that this was the most magnificent stretch of the long trail since the best of California’s High Sierra mountains. And still higher we climbed, to the highest point along the trail. Then the time caught up with us and we realized that it was time to descend quickly to camp. We arrived back at deep twilight, satisfied with a day well-spent in the mountains. We slept well on our last night, happy after the day’s wonderful experiences.

2008_wa_12011The Pacific Crest Trail winds through subalpine meadows north of Elk Pass

2008_wa_11371Lupine and other wildflowers border an alpine stream


Mt. Ives viewed from the Pacific Crest Trail in the Goat Rocks

2008_wa_10251The PCT follows a steep ridge near Elk Pass

2008_wa_10651Remnant snowfield with watermelon snow

The highlight on our last morning was when Betty put on her bright magenta camp slippers–a nice complement to the violet-blue lupines around camp. Then we packed up and began the long trek down out of the Goat Rocks, another memorable trip to add to the stories of our lives.

2008_wa_09141Betty’s “Fairy Slippers” for wearing around camp

Trail Statistics:  7.5 miles and 2,000′ elevation gain from North Fork Tieton River Trailhead to our camp in McCall Basin (4.9 miles to PCT, 1.6 miles along PCT, 1 mile along side trail into McCall Basin, where there are plenty of horse and backpacker campsites).  Our camp in the upper McCall Basin was at 5,320′ elevation.  The round-trip hikes to Elk Pass were about 8.5 miles and a 1,500 foot elevation gain.  The highest point we reached above Elk Pass was about 400′ higher and half-a-mile farther.

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Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.