After a failed trip to Coyote Gulch in September due to floods, my buddy Derek and I decided we had better give Utah another go this backpacking season. While Coyote Gulch is still on the radar, we wanted to go somewhere closer and less visited. There are few places that match that criteria better than Dark Canyon, at least that I know of. Dark Canyon is administrated by both the USFS and BLM. On the BLM side, the west side or downstream, the area is part of the larger Dark Canyon Wilderness Study Area. On the USFS side, upriver or the east side, the area is part of the Federally designated Dark Canyon Wilderness Area. Whichever side you approach from, reports show me the entire canyon is rugged and tough hiking while providing incredible views, frustrating bushwacking, endless swimming holes, and very sketchy stretches (Like 3 foot wide trails perched next to 60+ foot drops). It’s an area that you want to be mentally sharp throughout the hike to stay safe. One thing you definitely don’t have to worry about is water.
The weather had been very cold in Dolores (home) for the days leading up to the trip which prompted me to keep revisiting my gear and making changes to my gear list. One advantage of the way we did this trip was that night one was spent next to the car at the trail head, so I was able to bring extra layers and “test” out my more limited selection I hoped to actually bring on the first night. As it turned out, we had practically perfect weather. After the first night I decided to leave the heavy wool beanie, long johns, and other heavy warmer gear in the car in exchange for my normal high country gear plus a lightweight balaclava, midweight pants which was my only layer south of the waist, and a lightweight fleece. I ended up using the fleece only as a pillow. With the additional layers, my base weight for the trip was just shy of 10 pounds. The days ended up being in the 60s and the nights were probably in the high 30s. We didn’t see a single cloud in the sky until the last day and then just wispy clouds here and there. To this east coaster, 60 degrees in Utah still feels hot as all hell. The sun is just so powerful out here. The hike was split into breaking into instant sweats the second I was in the sun and then cooling off instantly in the shade. In a canyon like Dark Canyon, it’s not that hard to find shade and even when fully exposed there are plenty of trees and high cliffs to escape the sun – a very important thing to me. My pale ass hates the sun.
Overall, the trip was great and what I would definitely call just an appetizer portion of a trail I will absolutely be revisiting. Not including the 3 mile approach to the drop off, I think we walked approximately 6-8 miles into the canyon, out-and-back. I really have no idea how far we actually walked because there are few markers and no junctions to judge by. I know we didn’t make it to the junction where the BLM hits the USFS area as I had hoped but I’ll save that for next time. We took our time and took many breaks to enjoy the views and relax in the early afternoons. Luckily, other than some folks at the very beginning of the trail we had the canyon to ourselves.
There are many ways into dark canyon and the trail we decided to use, the Sundance Trail, accesses the canyon bottom by walking down what I believe is an old rock slide. In 1 mile you drop approximately 1,600 feet. It is steep! From the bottom you can either walk west towards Lake Powell or east upriver. We headed east. This trip was also my first opportunity to use my new 16 ounce 20 degree sleeping bag/quilt from Zpacks. It performed brilliantly and I look forward to using it for many years to come. Nights were difficult as it was a full moon and it was practically day time at night. It was the brightest moon I have ever experienced camping.
I’ll let the photos and captions do the rest of the talking as there wasn’t much variation in the trail to talk about. It’s a stunning walk with no turns involved. You just follow the creek, climb above the creek, bushwhack next to the creek, try to pretend you are on a trail next to the creek, and often backtrack to the creek when the “trail” you are in turns into a 60 foot drop with no way around. The sheer immensity of the cliffs above our heads the entire time was overwhelming and awe-inspring from the moment we hit the sandy bottom of the canyon to the last moment as we walked out of the canyon. This is a special place.
Before the photos, I’d like to share a quote I pulled from another hiking website, utahtrails.com. I share the same sentiments but would fail at expressing them so eloquently, “One can hardly visit this remarkable canyon without wondering about the dozens of other similar tributaries of Glen Canyon that were flooded by Lake Powell in 1964. Dark Canyon is more than 200 river miles upstream from Glen Canyon Dam, and consequently it was spared most of the destruction of the lower canyons. What were the other canyons like before they were filled with water? What geological, biological, and archeological treasures did we loose? And what gems of natural beauty are now gone forever? A few of the canyons were photographed and studied before the man-made flood occurred, but many of them had never been visited by more than a few hundred people before they were erased from our maps and replaced with jagged blue lines. We cannot know how much we have lost, but if Dark Canyon is any clue the loss was substantial.”
My three favorite photos from the trip: