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.

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.

GLOWING WITH EXERTION: Hiking in Hanford Reach National Monument

A visit to Hanford Reach National Monument in eastern Washington, across the river from the historic nuclear weapons production reactors of the Hanford Site.

Columbia River and White Bluffs of Hanford Reach National Monument

We came away glowing from our weekend hike in the sunshine of eastern Washington. Or perhaps the glow came from radioactive wastes generated by the nine decommissioned nuclear weapons reactors on the adjacent Hanford Site. Hanford is well known in Washington State, but for those unfamiliar with the name, I’ll give you a brief history.

Step back in time to 1938, when Nazi Germany was ascending and German scientists demonstrated that the uranium atom could be split. Albert Einstein and other scientists put two and two together and realized that if Germany alone possessed an atomic bomb, the world would never again be safe, and Sauron of Mordor would possess the One Ring. Einstein lobbied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enter the nuclear race; research and production facilities were quickly built at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford to create an atomic weapon to deter Germany.

Hanford’s role was to make plutonium, and three reactors were built before the end of the war to help split uranium and create plutonium, which was then sent to Los Alamos for incorporation into weapons. Hanford plutonium was in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

F Reactor, now decommissioned, was used in manufacturing plutonium

After World War II ended, the Cold War intensified the atomic age, and nine weapons production reactors were operating at Hanford by 1963. It was a hot time econonomically in the nearby tri-cities communities of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, and a hot time radioactively for those living downwind and downriver of the Hanford Site. But that was presumed to be a small price to pay in order to provide some 57 tons of plutonium for about 60,000 nuclear bombs.

Fast forward to the winding down of the Cold War and the morning-after headache of nuclear waste. The reactors have all been shut down, and there is a massive cleanup under way. The Department of Energy hopes to block a million gallon waste plume of radioactive groundwater from reaching the Columbia River. They are also building a massive facility to combine radioactive waste with glass to make the waste stable for long-term storage. The threat? Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years, with nearly a half-million years of time before the element is safe for humans. Most of the waste is not plutonium, so it is not quite so dangerous, but remind me not to drink it.

Our seven mile hike did not take place on the Hanford Site, which is still off limits to virtually everyone but clean-up workers, scientists, and nuclear terrorists. Oh, sorry, I made that last one up. Presumably terrorists would be targeted by motion sensors and other security measures that made me a little apprehensive about even pointing a camera at the facilities. Perhaps security was pointing a camera back at me with a predator drone. Instead of trying to sneak across the river, we hiked along the White Bluffs, across the Columbia River from the Hanford Site.

The White Bluffs are now part of Hanford Reach National Monument, a wild area set aside by President Clinton and administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Our hike led past American White Pelicans and Common Egrets resting on the Columbia, two bands of Mule Deer wading in the great river, and tracks of a wily Coyote in the sand. About 20 kinds of desert wildflowers were blooming on the sand dunes and stony expanses atop the cliffs. A rare stretch of free-flowing Columbia River runs by below the cliffs, free of the dams that impound most of the river.

The White Bluffs are sliding away because of irrigation water seepage

The photographs will give you a sense of this barren and beautiful landscape, which is called a sagebrush-steppe community–a type of desert dominated by sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and grasses. To those passing through the desert at 80 mph on a freeway, it is interminably boring; but for hikers, the intimate

landscape of dunes, wildflowers, songbirds, and stones make it a fascinating place. Keep in mind that there are rattlesnakes, black widows, and ticks, just to keep life interesting (we didn’t see any of these, by the way, but we did take precautions against ticks).

For information about the Hanford Reach area, go to: Hanford Reach National Monument and Hanford Site.

For information about hiking along the White Bluffs, go to:  Washington Trails Association.

Beautiful shifting dunes atop the White Bluffs

Lunch break with not much shade

Dunes with the Saddle Mountains in the distance

Mother Nature at the White Bluffs

An impressionist view of Cusick’s Sunflower

Coyote tracks crossing a dune

Sand Dune Penstemon, with the bluest true blue ever seen

Strange concretions were eroding from the White Bluffs

These are all concretions, geological in origin (and not what they look like!)

Yin Yang of dunes and the bluest sky imaginable

Longleaf Phlox flowers by the hundreds were blooming during our hike

Sand dunes and Saddle Mountains

A view of the historic F Reactor, now decommissioned

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to  For a large selection of my work, go to Photoshelter.

GREATER SAGE GROUSE: Dawn on the Sagebrush Plain

Greater Sage-Grouse dance on their sagebrush lek each spring in the high desert of Eastern Oregon.



Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse dancing on lek near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge



They gather in darkness, males on a mission.  Elaborately costumed, they begin to dance to an ancient inner song in a place that has remained a tradition for countless generations.  Spread out among the sagebrush, the males strut and puff out their chests in a show of virility and athletic prowess.  Their tail feathers fan out like those of a wild turkey.  These native Americans are the Greater Sage-Grouse, and this is their lek.


Karen and I shimmied out of our sleeping bags at 4:30 a.m., leaving our tent while stars still glowed in the endless high desert sky.  It was 22°F on this clear morning and there was no time to make coffee, so I substituted a Diet Coke to get my caffeine fix, hoping that adrenaline would also kick in upon seeing the Sage-Grouse.  We drove the 20 or so miles up to the lek, arriving at 5:30 a.m. as the sky was brightening.  We turned off the car engine, and began watching.


The Sage-Grouse wait for no human, so the display was well underway.  We counted 13 males, many strutting at once.  After an intense session of dancing, the tail feathers would fold and a male would take a break.  Then, if a nearby male started strutting, others in its vicinity would resume.


We have been to this lek perhaps seven times through the years, beginning about 15 years ago.  The numbers of birds and birders vary from time to time, but it is always unforgettable.  On our first morning this year we were the only humans at


Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,

Directly across the road from the lek


the lek.  We decided to go a second morning, and we were one of five cars.  Every birder was on their good behavior; nobody got out of their cars to try to get a closer look (unlike one year, when a loud trip leader gathered the birders around him outside the vehicles).  Grouse on a lek are sensitive to human disturbance, so it is important to minimize the threat to the birds.  Sometimes other creatures will show up; this year a lone Pronghorn walked nearby.  We have also seen Mule Deer and a Badger.


Some mornings we have seen a lot of chasing and jousting of aggressive males (you have to love that testosterone!).  One time we saw a female go from male to male, observing its display with a critical eye, then go on to the next, and so on–as if she was on a shopping trip.  Which, in a sense, she was.  From our readings, we understand that there are one or two males in a lek who occupy the most important location, and they are the ones who will most likely attract the female (it’s kind of like high school, with the football star and the prom queen likely to match up).  After the mating is done, the male is abandoned by the female; she goes to make a nest and he just keeps dancing.


The Sage-Grouse display is a blend of visual and auditory cues for the female; if you listen carefully you can hear strange pumping and flapping sounds that are part of the ritual.  Since the experience is so sensory, I will stop trying to describe it here and let the photographs speak for those wonderful mornings we spent in the sage.


Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lek

A sequence, facilitated by the camera’s motor drive, of the Greater Sage-Grouse mating dance


On our first morning this year, at about 8:30 a.m., the males collectively decided that the dawn dance was done.  One flew a beeline over the road toward a low ridge; one after another all the others quickly followed, leaving the lek quiet and lonely.  The next morning, we left before the grouse did.  On our way down, we saw a pair of Wild Horses.


Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,High desert sky above the sagebrush on the road to the Greater Sage-Grouse lek


If you go, stop at Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters for directions to the lek, which is on BLM land about ten miles up a sometimes rough gravel road to the west of the refuge.  The grouse are on the lek each morning from sometime in March until sometime in May.

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