A bit of the adventure that first day was my drive to the trailhead. Road tripping the backcountry desert roads of the Colorado Plateau should be on everyone’s list.
I opted to wait until the day of my dive into Dark Canyon, to drive from my home in Colorado to the Sundance trailhead in southeast Utah. By 4:00 am I was on the pavement at cruising speed in order to make it to my start point somewhere around 10:00. The sunrise near Moab and the loneliness of HWY 95 between Blanding and the Colorado River was spectacular. Upon my arrival to the dirt road, I took my cute little four-banger on a maze of minimum maintenance roads to reach Sundance.
I was a bit surprised by the amount of vehicles already parked at the remote start. I barely saw another vehicle on HWY 95, let alone the dirt. I stepped out from the car and inhaled the crisp, cool spring air; not a soul or sound around.
Hiking my way via a sand trap to the rim of Dark Canyon
It wasn’t until recently that I became aware of, and interested in the Dark Canyon Wilderness as a potential area to consider when planning another spring pilgrimage to the desert. I had heard about it previously, but I tend to become easily distracted by the vast amount of options here and procrastinate my trip planning from time to time.
From left to right: Lean-to Canyon, Dark Canyon, Lost Canyon
The dry, dusty rim of the canyon through pinyon and juniper eventually gave way to a gigantic craggy hole in the earth. I peered deep down below my feet and could see the shimmer of a watery oasis lined with cottonwoods.
There are previous writings that detail the plunge into the canyon one must conquer in order to hit the floor. A 50 degree pitch, 1,120 vertical foot drop in less than a mile. With metrics like those, some people simply avoid this place altogether. The biggest frustration, I thought, is choosing your footing carefully on talus and boulder placed on top of sand for soil. The earth slips from under you. The view of the route from across the canyon looked a little intimidating – standing at the top cairn as I looked down, the route looked a bit overhyped, perhaps to keep people away. Nothing I hadn’t done on a similar slope before.
Head east to aqua
I stopped upon my arrival to the perennial stream to quench my thirst. The first cottonwood stand I came to belonged to group of campers on the sand wash banks of the stream. They looked over-heated and bored. I aimed to move up Dark Canyon and begin a journey to see where all this water had come from.
I saw two other small groups of hikers and exchanged short pleasantries. Once I passed the confluence of Lost Canyon however, I was all alone.
I made pretty poor time making my way through the canyon. I couldn’t help but stop continuously to take in the full spectrum view and take photos. I eventually began to feel tired of walking, more deprived of sleep than stamina. While on the search for camp, I came around a canyon bend and spotted a large cottonwood in a small shaded alcove. Perfect.
While inside my tarptent stretching out my back and legs, I heard a loud thump pound the ground. Ignoring it at first, I carried on. Two more consecutive thumps and I began to question the conspicuous sound. In no particular urgency, I stuck my head out the fly of my shelter and looked around. Nothing and no one in sight. Back to the quads. Later finished with my post hike routine, I laced up my trail shoes and stepped outside. A rock the size of a baseball pounced the ground right where my noggin could have easily been. I looked up to the cliff above my campsite.
A group of ewes looking down at me long before I saw them
The following morning I left camp and decided to hike further upstream in search of Youngs Canyon.
There’s sightly geologic diversity everywhere here.
I continued on upstream while anxiously waiting what type of side canyon, water feature or rock formation was around the next corner.
Side canyon trickle spring that plunged into a deep and stagnant pool
I was disappointed that I never did reach Youngs Canyon, but it makes for a very valid excuse to come back and explore more here at a later time. I never gave myself a reasonable allotted time to stay in this beautiful place. I turned around and headed back downstream and towards my shaded cottonwood camp.
Swim holes deep and numerous
I returned to my camp and finished another chapter out of Desert Solitaire in between soaking myself and drying off in the bright beam of sun. I felt more like being leisure. Miles didn’t seem to matter much here. Eventually, at some point during that afternoon I began to hike again.
I later found camp near the mouth of Lean-to. I spoke to a young woman near the canyon-rim plunge who planned to be here for five more days; “envy”, I said. After eating dinner, I took a short walk farther down into Dark Canyon. The walls towered and the scenery just as different as anything I had seen the days prior. I will be back here again.
The route back up to the rim in center frame