A Climber’s Guide to Creeksgiving

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The annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Indian Creek is fall's #1 gathering. Here's how to do it right.

There are plenty of holidays that don’t also share a weather window with perfect sending temps in the Utah desert. Mom and Dad will understand, right? Maybe, maybe not, but this is the rock season's last hurrah, and you’re better off spending this one doing the kind of suffering you actually enjoy.

"Creeksgiving" started small, a group of friends in the 90’s turned to the desert each year to give thanks. They’d spend the day thrashing up the perfect splitters and thunderbolt fractures that make Indian Creek’s Wingate sandstone world famous. And at night, they’d cook and plan first ascents at their Bridger Jack basecamp. All that was missing was the bird, some pie, and that catchy name.

Illustration courtesy of thestonemind.com

Much like the traditional Thanksgiving you're probably familiar with, Creeksgiving has a dichotomy of reverence and merrymaking. You'll spend the day on towering red rock, dangling from the world's finest cracks, running your hands over a mottled patina burnished by thousands of years of sun and rain. Climbing here on Cathedral-like walls is downright spiritual—you'll be thankful, indeed.

The view from Scarface Wall | Photo submitted by MP user Chris Dawson

On Thanksgiving Day, Superbowl Campground plays host to a potluck feast fit to feed an army, with costumed relay races, contests, and a dance party (replete with dance competition) to follow. For the past few years there’s also been a mustache contest, so plan accordingly.

Creeksgiving has become legend, the Burning Man of the climbing community, if you will. Dreams of quiet solitude are best realized on other weekends; this is the busiest time of the year. The classics have lines, the sand vibrates with bass, the dancing lasts all night, and the campgrounds take a beating. If you make your own pilgrimage, keep Leave No Trace ethics and the Golden Rule at the forefront. It will give this natural wonder and your fellow climbers one more thing to be thankful for.

The Plan

Drumstick Direct (5.10c/d)

[Camping] Superbowl and Creek Pasture ($5/site each) are the most popular campgrounds and at the heart of Creeksgiving’s wild pulse. As such, they fill up fast, usually by the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Day. Mountain Project forums even have anecdotes of surprise visits from the San Juan County Sheriff's department. If you’re rolling into town later, try Hamburger Rock ($10/site) or primitive camping in Cottonwood Canyon, which sometimes requires 4WD depending on the creek’s water level. Cottonwood isn’t equipped with pit toilets, so you’ll have to scout out the nearest one and schedule group bathroom runs. (Don’t poop at camp; things don’t decompose in the desert.) Cottonwood is a little more secluded and within walking distance to the Way Rambo wall, home to many of the classics.

9 Lives (5.11+) on IC's Cat Wall | Photo submitted by MP user Monty

[Climbing] The classics you might normally target? Avoid them, at least between Tuesday and Saturday of Thanksgiving week, if you want to spend more time climbing than waiting in line. The good news? With over 1,000 routes recorded and dozens of unclimbed cracks waiting on the far ends of the famous buttresses, there’s no shortage of climbing at Indian Creek, even at peak season, if you’re willing to explore the unsung routes. Stay off Incredible Hand Crack (5.10) and Supercrack of the Desert (5.10), and you should be just fine.

Climb 5.11 or harder, and you’ll have tons to choose from. Sparks Wall off Beef Basin Road is a hotspot for .11s, including its namesake classic Go Sparky Go (5.11+), a 70-foot splitter that arcs up and left, seeking sky. Amy DiMare, who’s spent the last 17 years living and climbing in Moab and now mans the register at Pagan Mountaineering, recommends the Cat Wall for crowded days as well as cold ones.

“It gets sun most of the day this time of year, and there are so many routes it doesn’t matter if there are other people there,” she says.

Crack climbing is meticulous and often slow-going; true splitters don’t come with convenient stopping points, so many of the climbs end wherever the first ascensionist’s rope did. That means 70 meters of very physical climbing, which takes a while—three or four pitches in the Creek is a full day.

“The desert has a way of humbling everybody and at all skill levels,” says DiMare. Most climbers will bring a crew, combine racks, and use their combined dozen #1 or #2 cams to put up a route for everyone to practice their crack technique on top rope. If you want a particular route, get there early to nab it first or get in line; parties typically take over for several hours at a time.

Castleton Tower | Photo submitted by MP user Dennis

[Taking a Break... From Cracks] The exhausting nature of crack climbing means almost everyone takes rest days, venturing to Castle Valley or Fischer Towers to climb Castleton Tower, Ancient Art, or any of the other twisted sandstone spires that call the area home. LNT tip: Careful where you walk; fragile cryptobiotic crusts, essential to the desert ecosystem, cling to the soil off-trail in many places.

Another popular activity: Trucking into Moab for fresh rolls of tape and water (none of the campgrounds are equipped with spickets). Pagan Mountaineering sells tape and specialty climbing gear, and Gearheads Outdoor Store offers free refills on water. Rule of thumb: Bring at least a gallon of water per person per day and two rolls of tape each.

The Packing List

Tape, water, and plenty of layers (temps vary wildly) are important, but they’re not the most vital Creeksgiving-specific must-haves on your packing list. That, obviously, is the feast. Climbers have been known to bring coolers full of turkeys, dig pits in the ground, line them with hot coals, and slow-cook the birds for half a day. Others make do with Stovetop stuffing, canned cranberry sauce, and dumpster-salvaged pumpkin pie.

The wisest option is probably something in between: a chicken or Cornish game hen cooked with onions and veggies in a Dutch oven over campfire coals (bring your own wood as well as some charcoal for a more even, lasting heat). You can cook a turkey the same way, but it’ll take longer—about three hours for an eight to 12-pound bird. Get some instant mashed potatoes with butter going on a camp stove or throw foil-wrapped sweet potatoes into the coals, turning them often, for about 40 minutes. Other goodies: instant gravy, steamed green beans, bacon-wrapped dates (use toothpicks and pan-roast over a fire until browned), and buttered brown sugar campfire apples.

Cooking Knowledge: If you feel like going big, our friends at our sister site, Hiking Project, have recipes to do all the traditional fixings over a fire.

The Beta

A friendly reminder: Pack everything out. The goal: repairing the damage the 2012 party inflicted on Moab climbers’ reputations and reducing impact on the desert’s delicate ecosystem. Plus, getting a good foot forward will give climbers more of a say in protecting Indian Creek as part of the proposed Bear’s Ears National Monument.

“In those discussions, there’s a lot of interplay between the government, user groups, and the Intertribal Coalition. It’s important that we all make a good impression to make sure climbing has a seat at the table,” says Moab Desert Adventures’ owner and guide Nate Snydor. Familiarize yourself with BLM policy on dogs (leashes not required but constitute good manners), fires (go for it in provided grates), petroglyphs (don’t touch), etc. Follow posted signs, be courteous to fellow climbers, campers, and hikers, and respect the environment, and (fingers crossed) securing access should be a no-brainer.

Learn more about "the scene" here.

5 More Thanksgiving Crags 

Drumstick Direct (5.10c/d) | Photo submitted by MP user Trask

Turkey Rocks

Duh. And the puns don’t stop there. With area names like Turkey Tail and Leftovers and routes like Dark Meat (5.8), Gobble Up (5.8), Turkey Shoot (5.9), and Drumstick Direct (5.10 c/d), you won’t be hurting for clever Instagram captions. Try the latter two for a taste of the area’s primo multipitch crack climbing or area classic Steppenwolf (5.9) if you want to get your off-width on. Snag a spot at the free primitive Forest Service campsites along the road to the main parking area. Fair warning: Making it down that road will likely prove itself the crux of the trip; four-wheel drive highly recommended.

Sinks Canyon

With a high concentration of well-bolted sport routes in pocketed limestone, Sinks Canyon, 10 minutes outside of Lander, Wyoming, has something to offer Turkey Day craggers of every ability. And even when there’s snow on the ground, the south-facing Main Wall gets enough sun to keep you climbing sleeveless. Looking for moderates? Head to the Scud Area to get the most bang for your buck. Classics elsewhere include More Funky than Gunky (5.9), Achin for Bootie (5.11d), Addiction (5.12c), and Samsara (5.13b). Set up basecamp at the Sinks Canyon Campground right across the road from the approach trail. Bonus: Sites are free throughout the month of November.

The Tennessee Wall

Climb bulletproof sandstone in the balmy southeast just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. The flawless corner climb Passages (5.8), the full sample platter Infinite Pursuit (5.10c), and the roof-hopping crack line Sugar in the Raw (5.11a) are among the highlights, though there are more than a half-dozen four-star routes to choose from if you climb 5.12 or harder. Peak season here runs October through February with late November holding the sweet spot. Pitch a tent at the primitive campsites beside the parking turn-off or at paid camping further down the road.

Stone Mountain

On a rock known to melt shoe rubber in the summer, winter is the time to climb. The smooth granite dome bears a proud history of bold, stiff, runout NC climbing and isn’t for the faint of heart. Run up the Great Arch (5.5) for one of the best protected trad routes in the area before venturing on to 3-pitch moderate Great White Way (5.9), singing your praises at The Pulpit (5.8), or remind yourself how to breathe on sparingly bolted Bombay Groove aka Yankee Go Home (5.10a R). Camp throughout the park at over 90 designated pay sites and consider slipping out for some famous North Carolina barbecue in lieu of turkey dinner.

Red Rock

Nothing tells your family you love them like skipping out to Vegas for the holidays. “Red Rocksgiving” denotes peak season, though no official celebration, at this 2,000-route sandstone wonderland. Set aside a day to scale the 13 pitches of ultra-classic Epinephrine (5.9) in Black Velvet Canyon or spend a morning following cracks though mottled sandstone on 6-pitch Triassic Sands (5.10). Getting vertigo? Head to Calico Basin for single-pitch sport or spend a day bouldering at Kraft or the less-crowded Red Spring. Camp at Red Rock Canyon for $15 per night or head into town if you’ve got cash to spare.

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