Few climbing areas take hold of my imagination like Indian Creek.
Pros and cons
Its mention invokes the smell of sagebrush, images of red mud-caked on cars, and feelings of sore thumb muscles from jam after relentless jam in perfectly parallel oriented cracks that soar into the sky. Indian Creek also conjures up memories of waking in a creekside campsite filled with cottonwood trees and breakfast cooked on the Coleman two burner. Climbing here is about spending days at cliffs you’ve never been to and trying out a new crack size that you haven’t climbed. And repeat.
“The Creek,” as it’s known to most climbers, is the perfect place to get away and truly immerse yourself in its landscape. Out in the southern canyonlands of Utah, you won’t find any cell coverage and you won’t see the orange glow of the city lights on the horizon or smell the exhaust of passing cars. At the Creek, there isn’t any electricity or readily available water at the campsites. This is the kind of backcountry where your car is your backpack. I made my first visit in the fall of 2013.
Getting to “the Creek”
Indian Creek is situated 55 minutes south of Moab, UT, and about about 30 minutes north and west of Monticello. You’ll hear more about these two later!
From either town, take US HWY 191 to UT 211, the latter of which winds through ranchlands until it descends into the Bears Ears National Monument and the southern headwaters of Indian Creek. After dropping into the upper canyon you’ll pass Newspaper Rock, one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the country. I always stop to gaze at Anasazi, Ute and Fremont people’s mark on the landscape — it only heightens my appreciation of the area. Then, when you look around, you’ll see ever increasing cliffs on either side and the widening of the valley beyond. I always catch my line of sight drifting to the perfectly vertical splitter cracks where the sandstone begins to darken and the lines start to steepen.
The meetup spots – no frills and all!
The Creek has several popular meeting spots for climbers about to begin their day. At these locations, you’ll find a pit toilet, a message board (since there is no cell coverage) and parking spaces for adventure vehicles of all stripes.
The first area of interest when driving south into Indian Creek is the Supercrack Buttress parking lot. It’s paved and has a modern pit toilet thanks to a partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Friends of Indian Creek. The namesake crag parking lot is one of the most popular places for climbing and meeting. My friends and I usually meet here for an afternoon of warming up because it’s the first stop when we enter the Creek. It’s also home to some of the area’s most classic routes! More on that in a bit…
Next up is the Beef Basin Road junction. This stopping point is unpaved, but there’s parking enough to accommodate plenty of vehicles. There’s also a pit toilet, a map of the area and another message board. This is a great central location in the Creek.
The final popular meeting location is the Super Bowl campground, which is also one of the more popular, well-maintained campgrounds. There’s a fee of $15/night/site to stay here.
Camping at the Creek
One of the coolest parts about Indian Creek is the camping. You can pay $15 for campgrounds that have designated car/tent sites, a fire pit and a maintained pit toilet. The two most popular sites are Super Bowl and Creek Pasture. You can also stay for free on any BLM land that’s behind a gate, but it’s always best to check with folks first, as it’s poor form to camp in the climbing specific parking areas. Also, near the Beef Basin Road, close to the Way Rambo area, is another free area called the Cottonwood Campground – this one is definitely more out of the way. Cottonwood is primitive, but it has its own vibe and culture associated with it.
The final, most popular area is for adventurous spirits with the right vehicle (high clearance mandatory/4×4 preferred). The Bridger Jack Campground is located near the base of the Bridger Jack Mesa formation. Similar to Cottonwood, but with a rough vehicular approach, this campsite is “home” to the most devoted of Indian Creek’s climbing community! I’ve stayed at all of the sites, but I always return to Bridger Jack, which, at the time of writing, is still free of charge.
Remember, there are no facilities other than pit toilets and parking/camping spots here. You must bring your own water and food and you must pack out EVERYTHING. There are zero trash receptacles. See some trash? Pack it out with you! Keeping the climbing and camping areas clean goes a long way with the land managers and this way everyone benefits.
We start most days with a meet-up at the Beef Basin intersection. We usually set the meeting time the previous evening…remember, there is no cell service in the Creek! It’s here that climbers meet and finalize their planned area(s) for the day. Usually, some friends arrive, too, fresh from Moab, and our plan is always to pile into a single car (highly recommended and encouraged) and make our way to an area called Supercrack Buttress!
As far as getting one’s proverbial feet wet in Indian Creek’s legendary crack climbing, few areas are as well suited as Supercrack Buttress. Yes, it is popular and can be exceedingly crowded on weekends, but that’s part of the climbing in the Creek. With cracks ranging from corners, to straight-in cracks in the faces (called a splitter), to low angle to overhangs with sizes ranging from tips to offwidth, this area has it all.
The climbing itself is on Wingate Sandstone, which fractures into long, vertical crack systems. There is little to no “desert varnish” on the faces that can be used as holds, so most of the climbing requires pure crack techniques. For many, this is quite the task as it can be frustrating and painful when you first get started. I recommend finding a crack that fits your hand really well to allow for hand jamming, which, for most people, is the simplest technique for getting used to cracks.
Learn to make a tape glove prior to arrival, or better yet, purchase dedicated “crack gloves” from a local gear shop! I prefer steep, hand-sized cracks from thin to cupped hands. I get to know a crack size prior to climbing it by learning what size gear it accepts. Gear of choice in the area are Spring Loaded Camming Devices (SLCD or Cam). The two most popular are Wild Country “Friends” and Black Diamond “Camalots.” I find Black Diamond sizes most relatable: a perfect number 2 Camalot is equal to a perfect hand jam. A tight 4 or loose 3 is a fist jam and so on both up and down the range. Tape is also a very important piece of the Creek climber’s arsenal.
The nearby towns have all you need
The two towns closest to Indian Creek are Monticello (less touristy) and Moab (famous). Moab sits on the Colorado River in an incredibly colorful valley of red sandstone. Moab boasts a ton of restaurants, hotels, adventure outfitters and bars.
For the climber, the two gear stores that should have most of what you need are Pagan Mountaineering and Gearheads, the latter of which has a free water filling station. At these stores you can find all of the tape, extra cams, guidebooks, and information that you could ever want. In Moab, rest day activities include running, walking or mountain biking on an immaculate network of paved greenways. If it’s warm enough, you can float down the Colorado River, mountain bike, and even skydive!
Just south of Indian Creek is the small town of Monticello – it’s still up and coming and it’s far quieter and relaxed than Moab. The main draw for climbers here is Roam Industry, a gear shop that also hosts a slew of Tiny Homes for rent in the Abajos, the mountain range above town. Roam also has a coffee shop and they are building a host of showering opportunities and other creature comforts to attract climbers heading to Indian Creek!
Hire a guide!
If you are looking to dig in at Indian Creek, there’s no better way to get started than by hiring a guide. There’s two reputable and credentialed guiding services in the area: The Mountain Guides Moab (Jackson Hole Mountain Guides), and Red River Adventures. Because there’s so many guides who live, play and work in the area, they can show you the places where the crowds aren’t, and the climbing is out of this world! This way, you’ll maximize the pitches you choose and also gain valuable knowledge on the specific techniques required at The Creek – all in a short time frame!
Who should visit Indian Creek?
If you consider yourself a climber of any stripe and you’ve climbed outside a couple of times, you can go to the Creek and have a great time! For newcomers, the climbing is engaging and thought provoking, and it still is this way for me. You’ll also find that with some patience, a bit of encouragement and qualified instruction, that you’ll walk away feeling like a champ! Indian Creek is a must visit destination for climbers. It’s a special spot that will inspire many future generations of climbers, just as it has inspired the ones that came before!