Dark Canyon Wilderness Trip
Overview: The Dark Canyon Wilderness, south of Canyonlands National Park, offers beautiful forest and desert scenery, Indian ruins, and peace and solitude.
**This five- to seven-day trip is only for experienced backpackers. Visitors to Designated Wilderness are asked to Leave No Trace.**
Start: The trailhead at the end of Woodenshoe Road.
Distance: 40-mile loop backpack.
Difficulty: Moderately difficult. Map-reading skills are required.
Trail surface: Wash bottom.
Seasons: Late spring to early summer, and fall.
Land status: Wilderness area.
Nearest town: Blanding.
Fees and permits: No fees or permits are required. Hikers are encouraged to inquire about current weather and water conditions before starting, and to sign in at the trailhead registers.
Maps: USGS Woodenshoe Buttes, Poison Canyon, Warren Canyon, and Black Steer Canyon quads; National Geographic Trails Illustrated Manti-LaSal National Forest Map.
Finding the trailhead: Follow UT 95 west from the US 191/UT 95 junction (3 miles south of Blanding) for 30.1 miles, or east from the Hite Marina turnoff on UT 95 for 42.5 miles, to northbound UT 275, prominently signed Natural Bridges National Monument and Manti–La Sal National Forest — Elk Ridge Access.
This generally good road, usually passable to cars in dry weather, ascends to Maverick Point via two steep switchbacks. Once on the gentler terrace of the point, you enter the Manti–La Sal National Forest after 3.2 miles, where the road becomes FR 88, next steadily ascend to 8,508-foot Bears Ears Pass, a prominent notch that separates the brick red Bears Ears buttes at 6.1 miles.
From the pass the road descends into the rich grasslands and cool conifer forests of South Elk Ridge for 1.8 miles to a signed junction. Turn left at the junction onto FR 108/San Juan County Road 256, signed Woodenshoe–6. Follow FR 108 west, passing the signed Peavine Trailhead after 1.9 miles. A short distance beyond is a large corral and cattle guard. After crossing the cattle guard, continue straight ahead on FR 181 at the signed junction with northbound FR 108.
After driving 3.7 miles from FR 88, turn right onto a narrow dirt road signed Woodenshoe Canyon and Trail 165. This road, rough and rocky in places, gradually descends the headwaters drainage of Woodenshoe Canyon for 0.9 mile to a left-branching spur road that leads 100 yards to the signed trailhead.
Hikers arriving late in the day will find many undeveloped campsites on Maverick Point and South Elk Ridge. DeLorme: Utah Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 22 A1.
Trailhead GPS (approximate): 37.683738, -109.919035
This loop hike in the canyons surrounding Dry Mesa — Woodenshoe, Dark, and Peavine — measures about 40 map miles, but with side excursions it can easily be extended to twice that. The Dark Canyon area is rich in biological, geological, archaeological, and historical perspectives and remains in a relatively pristine state. The Dark Canyon Wilderness, designated in 1984, encompasses 45,000 acres. The lower portion of Dark Canyon is part of the 62,000-acre BLM Dark Canyon Primitive Area.
Hikers in Dark Canyon should be experienced in map reading and able to carry at least a full day’s water supply (one gallon or more per person), in addition to food and equipment for a five- to seven-day trip. Water may be available from springs, seeps, and intermittent streams, but you should not count on it. (Be sure to treat any water you do find.) The hike is a relatively dry one and can be stressful for persons unaccustomed to desert hiking and summer temperatures that can reach one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Fall daytime temperatures can be in the mid- to low nineties, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the forties.
Although the hike does not require technical climbing equipment, the route is rugged and undeveloped. Beginning at about 8,000 feet on the plateau and rimrocks of Cedar Mesa sandstone, you descend 2,200 feet to the sandy, dry streambed in the calcareous layers of the Hermosa formation.
Spring is the best time to attempt this route, although hikers make the trip throughout the year. Thunderstorms occur in summer and early fall, but the canyon bottoms are relatively broad, so flash-flood danger is not as severe as elsewhere in canyon country. However, there have been flooding problems in early spring. Some snow accumulates on the plateau in winter but does not present any problems in the canyon, although access to the Dark Canyon area is limited when winter moisture arrives.
From the parking area, follow the trail into Woodenshoe Canyon through the hiker maze in the fence. The trail is fairly well established and marked with cairns. The hiking is relatively easy, descending gradually along the canyon bottom.
About 4 miles from the trailhead, Cherry Canyon enters from the right (southeast). There is good camping here, and water is plentiful a short distance up Cherry. Unfortunately, a summer 2003 fire involving more than 3,000 acres burned nearly the entire drainage, causing sedimentation problems and an increase of flash-flood runoff. Still, hiking among the small pools in the streambed is fascinating.
You can find cliff dwellings about a mile down Woodenshoe beyond the mouth of Cherry Canyon. Three well-preserved petroglyphs are on the walls above the dwellings. Remember that these remnants of ancient culture are nonrenewable resources, which are protected by federal law. Please make sure that your exploration results in minimum impact.
In another mile, an unnamed canyon enters from the east. Look for an arch shaped like a keyhole.
The tracks of wildlife mix with traces of ancient civilizations. The sandy streambeds reveal tracks of cougar, bear, deer, raccoon, and ringtail cat, along with smaller tracks of rodents. More than sixty species of mammals are present in the area. Brilliantly colored lizards sun themselves on rocks, and a variety of birds find an ideal habitat in these canyons.
From “Keyhole Arch Canyon,” the sandy streambed continues northwest with occasional large rocks in wash areas. The canyon walls become steeper and higher. About 2.5 miles farther down the canyon is a small seep, and approximately 3 miles farther you’ll see Wates Pond, an excellent camping spot.
The canyon leads due north from Wates Pond. You descend stream-worn steps of bedrock with embedded fossils. Occasionally the trail wanders away from the streambed through scrub oak and juniper. The area is strewn with brilliant lithic chips of chert and agate.
About a mile before Woodenshoe Canyon meets Dark Canyon, a spring trickles down from the east canyon wall. This is a good water source known as Hanging Garden. Just beyond, Dark Canyon descends to the left (west) toward the Colorado River. An old sign marks the junction. That route, however, is for another trip. To complete this loop, turn right (east) into upper Dark Canyon.
From the junction at about 5,800 feet, you climb gradually to the next good campsite — 6 miles up the canyon, just 1 mile beyond the spot where Trail Canyon and Warren Canyon enter from the north and south, respectively. Lithic chips, pottery shards, sand dunes, and water make for an interesting and comfortable camp.
For the next several miles, you traverse sagebrush flats. At the point where Rig Canyon enters Dark Canyon — about 5 miles from Trail Canyon — human intrusions (lumber, fences, a road, and a corral) begin to appear. There are signs and an old corral at this junction. (Note: About 2 miles up Rig Canyon is a spring and old oil drilling camp.)
Continue southeast past Rig Canyon another mile to Peavine Canyon. Leave upper Dark Canyon here and head south on Forest Road 089 into Peavine. In about 5 miles the road jogs to the southeast into Kigalia Canyon. Bear right (southwest) onto the Peavine Canyon Trail. Peavine Canyon is beautiful, with lush vegetation because of its good water supply in the upper canyon.
Hike south on the Peavine Canyon Trail for about 5 miles to the trailhead along FR 081. If you spotted a car here, your hike is over. Otherwise, you must hike the 3 miles back to the trailhead.
This canyon loop around Dry Mesa offers rugged terrain, beautiful scenery, and solitude. Shorter trips in the area are possible, but a week in this splendid backcountry is time not soon forgotten.
Miles and Directions
0.0 Start at the trailhead at the end of Woodenshoe Road.
4.0 Pass Cherry Canyon on the right. Continue northwest.
6.0 Pass “Keyhole Arch Canyon.” Continue northwest.
11.5 Wates Pond.
15.0 Hanging Garden spring.
16.0 Junction of Woodenshoe Canyon and Dark Canyon. Turn right (east).
21.0 Pass Trail Canyon on the left and Warren Canyon on the right.
26.0 Pass Rig Canyon on the right.
27.0 Turn right onto FR 089 into Peavine Canyon.
32.0 Junction with Kigalia Canyon. Bear right onto the Peavine Canyon Trail.
37.0 Arrive at Peavine Trailhead along FR 081.
40.0 Arrive back at the trailhead at the end of Woodenshoe Road