Dark Canyon, near the junction with
Distance: 16.0 miles (with side trips)
day 1: 5 hours
day 2: 5 hours
Elevations: 2,000 ft. loss/gain
• Sundance Trailhead (start): 5,600 ft.
• Dark Canyon Creek: 4,000 ft.
• Lake Powell: 3,600 ft.
Trail: The Sundance Trail into Dark Canyon is a slickrock trail, well marked by rock cairns. From the rim of the canyon to the bottom is a very steep descent, but little or no scrambling is necessary. Some scrambling is necessary to reach Lake Powell, but the route is not technically difficult.
Season: Spring, summer, fall. The unpaved road to the trailhead is normally closed during the winter and after heavy rains. For current conditions call the San Juan Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, in Monticello at (801) 587-2141.
Vicinity: Near the Hite Marina on Lake Powell
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.
The hike described here touches only a few miles of Dark Canyon_the section just above Lake Powell. In my opinion, however, this is the most beautiful part of the canyon. There is a reliable stream here, and the greenery contrasts sharply with the pink sandstone and shale in the canyon walls. Near the bottom of the canyon is a fascinating layer of Honaker Trail limestone that is chock full of well preserved 300-million-year-old fossils. Beneath that the picturesque creek flows for several miles across a layer of smooth limestone, adorned with a series of idyllic swimming holes and water slides.
Dark Canyon is over thirty miles long, and there are many other hiking opportunities along its length. The upper part of the canyon is part of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and since 1984 it has been protected as the Dark Canyon Wilderness Area. The lower part, unfortunately, is on BLM land and is not within the boundaries of the wilderness area. Another interesting hike through Dark Canyon begins in the wilderness area at Woodenshoe Canyon, near Natural Bridges National Monument, and exits 31 miles later on the Sundance Trail described here. Unfortunately, however, the two trailheads are 63 miles apart.
The Sundance Trail is not really a trail at all, but rather a well marked route into Dark Canyon. From the car parking area just walk across the earthen dam below the cattle tank and look for the first rock cairn on your left. After you have spotted the first cairn you should have no trouble following the rest. The trail meanders northward across the slickrock for about a mile before you begin to notice the presence of a deep side canyon on your right. It then skirts around the northern edge of this side canyon, bearing east for another mile until it reaches the rim of Dark Canyon. It will take you about an hour to walk from the trailhead to the canyon rim.
The view from the rim of Dark Canyon is awesome. The canyon is 1,280 feet deep at this point, and the sensation is not unlike the feeling one gets when looking into the Grand Canyon: a feeling of grandeur, a feeling of immensity, and most of all a feeling of personal insignificance. It is also abundantly clear from this vantage point that the climb down is going to be a steep one. The canyon bottom is only 1750 horizontal feet from the rim, and 1280 vertical feet. If the trail had no switchbacks it would have to descend at an angle of nearly 40 degrees. Of course there are switchbacks, and the route down is about a mile long. Nevertheless it is a knee breaker, especially if you are carrying a heavy pack.
After the trail leaves the rim it drops slightly and then traverses west a short distance to a place where an ancient landslide has made it possible to get below the cliffs of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. It then follows the rubble slope down, all the way to the bottom of the small side canyon, and finally emerges from a sandy wash to meet Dark Canyon Creek.
Once you reach the creek the next order of business is choosing a suitable campsite. There are a few nice sites in the area where you first meet the water, and more sites upstream over the next mile. Beyond the confluence with Lost Canyon, however, there are fewer campsites. After a camp is established you will probably want to do some exploring. As discussed below, there is plenty to see both up and down canyon.
Plan on 2 1/2 hours to climb back up the Sundance Trail and walk to your car. But before you leave be sure to take some time to look around. Many people spend four or five days enjoying the quiet beauty of Dark Canyon, but you should be able to see most of the highlights on a two-day trip.
The Sundance Trail meets Dark Canyon Creek in a section where three major canyons come together, so there are many opportunities for exploration in the area. Lean-to Canyon joins Dark Canyon 0.2 mile downstream from where the trail ends, and the junction with Lost Canyon is 0.9 mile upstream. Both of these side canyons are dry; hence few visitors bother to go very far into them. But if what you are looking for is solitude they might be just your thing.
The bottom of Dark Canyon above the confluence with Lost Canyon is particularly interesting. Here the creek flows over long stretches of hard, blue-gray limestone which has strange intrusions of chert imbedded in it. Occasionally another layer of limestone is also exposed just above the intruded layer that is a treasure-trove of marine fossils. Youngs Canyon, a beautiful canyon with a stream and a waterfall at its mouth, is about 6.0 miles upstream from the Sundance Trail. The creek in the bottom of Dark Canyon ends about a mile above Youngs Canyon, so if you plan to continue beyond that point you will have to carry your own water.
The most popular side trip in lower Dark Canyon is the hike downstream to Lake Powell. The round trip from the Sundance Trail requires only about 3 hours, but some minor scrambling is necessary. For the first half hour it is an easy walk along the bottom of Dark Canyon. Several stream crossings are necessary, but there are no serious obstacles to impede the way. After about a half hour, however, you will encounter a series of pouroffs in the canyon that are increasingly difficult to get around. When you reach a point where you can no longer stay in the bottom of the canyon you will have to scramble up to a ledge about 15 feet above the right (east) side of the streambed. If you can’t find a way up, just backtrack a ways until you see an easy way to climb to the ledge.
Once you reach the ledge you will see a fairly distinct trail that continues downstream above the creek. This trail continues for the next mile, climbing as high as 150 feet above the water. Finally you will come to a point where another large side canyon comes into Dark Canyon from the east, and it is here that the trail again descends to the canyon floor. Once the trail gets back to the floor of Dark Canyon just continue downstream for another 1.1 miles. After a half hour the stream becomes stagnant and the bottom of the canyon is covered with a thick, gooey mud that gets deeper and deeper as you proceed. This is the beginning of the lake. Unless the lake level is low, the last mile of Dark Canyon will be flooded, making it impossible to get to Cataract Canyon and the Colorado River without a boat.
Content provided by David Day of utahtrails.com. Click here to order his book Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails.