When to go

Since the Mabeline Trail traverses both desert and mountain areas across the Colorado Plateau, with an overall elevation change of almost 4,500', the choice of when to hike this route is not exactly straightforward. Generally, April and May in the Spring, and September and October in the Fall could be considered the preferred months.

It should be borne in mind that desert areas, such as Lockhart Basin, and deep canyons such as Owl Creek can be very hot in late May. Equally, the higher elevations such as Elk Ridge and Dark Canyon Plateau could still have significant snow cover in early April.

The months of July and August are almost always too hot to consider hiking this route, and so these should be avoided.

 

 

 

For paper maps, the excellent National Geographic Trails Illustrated series is probably sufficient for this hike. Topo maps obviously provide more detail, but would likely be too cumbersome to carry. A GPS device (with plenty of spare batteries !) with Topo maps pre-loaded is therefore a very good option. The four Trails Ilustrated maps covering the Mabeline Trail are: Moab South, Needles, Manti-La Sal National Forest, and Grand Gulch. 

Maps

Water/Food

As with any hike in the South-West, be it a day-hike, or an extended backpacking adventure, the availability of water along the trail is a key component in trip planning. This is an extremely hot and dry area, and therefore it is of vital importance that sufficient water be carried and that good information is available on how to source water. In this guide, there are details on potential water sources throughout the length of the hike. It can't be stressed enough that there is no guarantee that any indicated source in the backcountry will have available water.

In addition, filtering water in a backcountry scenario is always recommended.

 

Given the importance of water availabilty, consideration should be given to placing water caches along, or close-by, the trail. There are several areas that are accessible by car, where water can be placed in advance.


Since the trail spans at least 2 weeks, it will probably also be necessary to also use food caches. As with water caching, there are several places where a food cache could be left, including at the Needles Outpost, where the friendly owners are happy to keep a cache for backcountry hikers.

Permits

One of the logistical challenges for anyone planning a long-distance hike is the necessity to obtain the appropriate backcountry permits, especially when traversing the National Parks. For example, for the Hayduke Trail, it is necessary to plan for hiking through Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Grand Canyon National Parks.

 

Most pertinently, a permit is required when camping in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Since the Mabeline Trail also crosses Needles via Salt Creek, then this needs to be taken into account when planning the hike. Details are available here.

 

In addition, any overnight hike in this part of Needles requires a hard-sided bear-canister to be carried. Details are available here:

"Campers at Salt Creek 1, 2, 3, and 4 campsites and the Salt/Horse Zone in The Needles must store all food, beverages, and associated containers, garbage, and all scented items in a hard-sided, park-approved animal-resistant food container, capable of preventing access by wildlife, at least 100 feet from camp.

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A permit is also required for an overnight stay in Owl/Fish Creek canyon:

"Twenty visitors are permitted to enter per trailhead per day. For entry dates during the high-use, spring and fall permit seasons (see Important Dates section), 12 visitor spaces are available to reserve from 90 to five days in advance of the entry date, while the remaining eight spaces are available by walk-in (first-come, first-served) only at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station (KGRS), starting at 8 a.m. on the morning of entry. All permits (including those reserved in advance) must be picked up at KGRS during the spring and fall permit seasons. "

More details can be obtained here

The Needles Conundrum !

Stages 5, 6 and 7 of the Mabeline Trail involve the route from Lockhart Basin to Beef Basin, across the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. 

 

The original route of the Hayduke Trail crosses Needles via an almost entirely dry trail. It traverses The Grabens and then follows Butler Wash, before finally arriving at Homewater Spring in Beef Basin, more than 30 miles from the previous water source. Most Hayduke hikers now opt to follow a route from Lockhart Basin via Salt Creek, reaching Stanley Spring in Beef Basin via the Bright Angel Trail. The advantage of this option is that there is reliable water available at Needles Outpost, Upper/Lower Jump, Kirk Spring, and most likely Peekaboo Spring. After leaving Kirk Spring, it is still over 15 miles to Stanley Spring.

As discussed, both the original and newer Hayduke Trail options require overnight backcountry permits to be obtained in advance, with the latter option also requiring a bear canister to be carried.

The map below illustrates the various options for reaching Beef Basin from Lockhart Basin, via the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

An Alternate Route

When researching the Mabeline Trail, I realized that there was the possibility of hiking through the Needles area without the requirement of a backcountry permit or a bear canister. This would, however, require crossing the National Park as a day-hike, rather than as part of an overnight hike. The problem is that there is no established trail through the park that could realistically be hiked in a single day.

 

However, there is a little-used route that traverses several small side canyons and exits the park via a steep rubble slope and high saddle. The hike is over 15 miles, but does offer the possibility of crossing this section of the National Park, without requiring a permit (in the trail guide, I haven't provided specific details of this route, but I can supply details for anyone, on request). Warning: this trail is in a remote area, where it is unlikely that help in an emergency situation would be readily available. In addition, the rubble slope described is steep and difficult, where a slip could lead to serious injury. An additional challenge of this route is the fact that there is over 22 miles between likely water at Peekaboo Spring in Salt Creek, and Stanley Spring in Beef Basin (27 miles from guaranteed water at Needles Outpost). This route should be taken at your own risk. 

 

It may therefore be preferable for many people hiking the Mabeline Trail to consider taking the southern Salt Creek alternate when crossing the Needles District. The disadvantage is that a backcountry permit will be required for the nights spent inside the National Park, and also that a bear canister must be carried. The advantage is the improved availability of water, and the chance to spend additional time exploring an incredibly beautiful canyon. It should also be noted that permits for the very popular Salt Creek area usually need to be obtained several months in advance.

The map below illustrates the various options for reaching Beef Basin from Lockhart Basin, via the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

An Alternate too far ?

To the south of the Needles District is the Butler Wash Wilderness Study Area. The original Hayduke Trail follows Butler Wash for several miles before entering Beef Basin from the east. When researching the Mabeline Trail, via Topo maps and Google Earth, I thought that there seemed to be another 'more exciting' option. Thus, rather than hiking along the sandy wash, it appeared feasible to exit the drainage and take a 'high route' across the open grasslands to reach the northern edge of Beef Basin.

 

This cross-country route from Butler Wash across the WSA towards Beef Basin is, however, not particularly straightforward, despite it appearing relatively benign on a Topo map. The problem is that much if the area comprises long, shallow, snaking drainages which one needs to drop into, and climb out of, on a very regular basis to make any forward progress. Trying to avoid any particular drainage just seems to result in having to cross another one soon after. Attempting to avoid these completely by taking a route across the nearby higher sandstone buttes is also problematic, since there are several large pour-offs that can’t easily be navigated. Even after traversing this area, it is still necessary to ascend a set of steep sandstone cliffs in order to reach the northern section of Beef Basin. 

 

In short, I wouldn't recommend this option for reaching Beef Basin. It would probably be preferable, and easier, to follow Butler Wash, and reach Stanley Spring from the east, as per the original Hayduke Trail. Alternatively, if taking the southern Salt Creek alternate then one avoids Butler Wash entirely.

The map below illustrates the various options for reaching Beef Basin from Lockhart Basin, via the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Warning !

The Mabeline Trail is a very challenging 2-3 week hike through a remote backcountry area, where water is very scarce. It should only be attempted by experienced desert hikers. A GPS-enabled emergency location device (such as inReach or ResQLink) should be carried at all times. Informing friends/family of your route and timetable is highly advised. The information provided here is only for advisory purposes. There is always a realistic possibility that water will not be flowing from an indicated source. Full responsibility for such a difficult hike lies solely with the individual.

The Needles Traverse

The map below illustrates the various options for reaching Beef Basin from Lockhart Basin, via the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Lockhart Basin

Butler

Wash

WSA

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