Sunday-June 14-19, 1998: Dark Canyon Wilderness Area, Utah

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein. -- With help from Kathy Glatz.
Last update: April 22, 2009

Contents:

Preface:

Kathy and I decided we'd go have us an adventure while both of our teenage daughters were out of town. We could squeeze in a week away, and we wanted to include her two medium-size, well-mannered dogs. So, where should we go? South Dakota? Montana? New Mexico? Utah?

A week before the trip, Kathy recalled that she had for several years wanted to backpack through Dark Canyon in Utah. "Sounds like fun," I said, "But where the heck is it, and, won't it be hot?" Being a master of guidebooks and maps, Kathy quickly placed before me a written description and not one, but at least three different maps!

Hmm... The elevation ranged from 8000' down to 6100'. The round trip distance was 37 miles, plus supposedly four more miles between trailheads to retrieve the car. This would be a record backpacking trip for all four of us (including the dogs), but it felt right... I'd never backpacked with dogs before (couldn't be worse than llamas), but they'd be part of the adventure... We agreed, planned, and prepared. (The next day we spread out stuff to study on two tables at Golden Corral...)

Context:

Dark Canyon is north of Natural Bridges National Monument. It drains west into the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon between Canyonlands and Lake Powell. It was a huge blank spot on my mental map.

The recommended route was north down Woodenshoe Canyon, about 14 miles to its confluence with Dark Canyon, then up east and southeast 11 miles to Peavine Canyon (five to Warren/Trail, five more to Rig, and one to Peavine). Add five more miles south in Peavine to the confluence with Kigalia Canyon, and stay in Peavine another five miles south to its trailhead, nearly closing a long slanted ellipse to be traversed clockwise. The trail sections described in Dave Hall's "The Hiker's Guide to Utah" (Falcon Press, 1991) only added up to 35 miles, but the authors indicated the total distance was 37 miles... Whatever.

The wilderness area included pretty much the entire hike -- all areas below the canyon rims. It also included, strangely enough, a section of jeep road running north down Kigalia, along Peavine, and then turning west into Rig Canyon about a mile north of the mouth of Peavine. This road was apparently a "cherry stem" exception to the wilderness area.

On our way:

I got caught up working late Friday afternoon, so we didn't leave Denver until Saturday morning (June 13). We took the scenic route south from Glenwood Springs over McClure Pass and through Delta and Montrose, with a long sidetrip into the Marble area for lunch and sightseeing. Alas, the famous Crystal Mill required 4WD to reach, and the marble quarry itself was back in operation and thus off-limits, so we didn't quite get to either one.

Rather late, we found an excellent restaurant (MD Ranch Cookhouse) in Monticello, Utah for a leisurely dinner. Then we drove a ways further south and west to find perfect primitive camping in Comb Wash, a little south of the paved road. It was a calm, starry night, nice and warm for sleeping out in the desert due to the relatively low elevation, though we didn't get to bed until near midnight. The waning gibbous moon rose before we fell asleep.

June 14: Are We Really Going to Do This?

Awake too soon. "Are we really going to do this? I guess so." Down the road we availed ourselves of the facilities (toilet, phone, weather report) at Natural Bridges National Monument. Then we returned to the turnoff to the Bears Ears road 0.7 miles up the Natural Bridges road from Utah 95. We headed north on the unpaved but good Bears Ears road with a chilly stop for breakfast near Maverick Point at about 8000'.

The road went right up through the Ears, a pair of high, isolated buttes, to a T at about 8.1 miles. We drove west 2.0 miles to the Peavine trailhead past various cattle features (fences and corrals). "Yup, there's where we'll be in six days if we succeed." Now to clock the open jaw of the loop... 1.9 miles further west to a marked turn north, and only 0.9 miles beyond that to the signed Woodenshoe trailhead... Not too bad. And we saw just one other vehicle in the area.

We spent an astonishing amount of time in a grassy patch finishing assembling our backpacks -- nearly two hours. The dogs (Princess and Buddy, two genuine 55-pound mutts) were happy and eager to be under way, saddle packs and all. I moved the car 0.6 miles to before a muddy spot so we wouldn't be stuck if it rained later in the week. Then I raced back in 15 minutes and told Kathy I would be half a mile ahead of her all week.

At 12:33, staggering under ridiculously heavy loads of produce and other excess foods, we went through the wire gate and started down the narrow, sandy, primitive trail. The weather was cool, breezy, and partly cloudy, much as it would be all week (with one exception).

At this elevation we were in a rather lush ponderosa pine forest, slowly descending northwest into Woodenshoe near its head. Not far down the trail we entered the wilderness area and crossed a small running creek, which immediately pleased the dogs.

After two miles the streambed went dry. After four miles and four hours, with rest stops every 30 minutes or so, at 4:28 pm we reached the marked junction of Cherry Canyon merging from the southeast... More water here.

It seemed both foolish and wise to stop for the day at this point. The author had described three nice campsites, and this was the first one. (It wasn't really anything special, not as pretty as three of our other four nights.) Given our heavy loads and lack of pre-trip workout hikes, it made sense to stop short the first day, do some side hiking, and save our bodies for the rest of the week.

This turned out to be a fateful decision that affected us until the last night of the trip. Every one of the remaining four nights, we had to hike beyond where we'd have liked to stop, looking for water so we would have plenty for the dogs. Later I realized we could trace this "behindness" all the way back to the couple of hours I was late leaving work Friday evening. We might have started hiking sooner on Sunday, and gone further downstream that day after a long rest at Cherry... Oh well.

Anyway, after that much-needed long rest, we just took a leisurely stroll a mile or so up Cherry Canyon. Lots of water pools here, but only boring sandstone rocks. I'd already started to see nice agates, petrified wood, and red chert in the main drainage. I had to force myself not to pick up very much because of the huge hike ahead of us! I kidded Kathy that this was both Rockhound Heaven and Rockhound Hell.

Kathy and the dogs returned to our camp northeast of the creek junction while I tried to reach a high saddle on the ridge between Cherry and Woodenshoe. The top was too cliffy... I got back to camp about 7:45 pm, 1:45 out exploring, and still an hour before sunset. We slept out that night without a tent.

June 15: Fearlessly Further Down

The morning dawned cold! A thermometer read 25 degrees, there was some frost, and the dogs shivered despite sweaters until the sun warmed us. We resolved to, and did, use Kathy's nice new three-man tent for the remaining nights... Seven more pounds I was carrying, so we might as well!

We discovered it took about 2.5 hours each evening and morning to do "camp chores", including dinner or breakfast, and pumping water for a party of four. I was surprised at that amount of time. We finally started walking at about 10:30 the second morning. The trail continued to be primitive, but usually easy to find, throughout the trip.

Around one mile downstream (north), we saw the first of just two Anasazi ruins we sighted during the hike. We expected this one, dropped our packs at a trail junction, and went a short way up east to study it. Kathy waited with the dogs while I frictioned up a steep bit of slickrock to visit the ruin. Then it was her turn, and the dogs demonstrated that they could get up and down the terrain about as well as we could, thank you very much! We "spotted" them down the slope, but they were fearless and really didn't need our help.

Both ruins we saw were typically small. No signs of tools, pottery, or corn cobs (as existed in Grand Gulch), but they had original roof materials still in place after 700 years.

About another mile downstream, we found shade under a huge ponderosa tree at the mouth of an unnamed canyon. We took a short side hike east up it looking for alleged ruins. We found some water trickling down a pretty pouroff, but needing to cover 7.5 miles that day, we didn't have time to get very far... No ruins seen. It didn't help that the guidebook described a "keyhole arch" neither of us could locate, so we weren't even sure (until later) that we were in the right place.

The sky turned a bit cirrusy... Hmm, wet weather approaching?

After lunch we picked up the trail north again. Soon we encountered the only other party we met in the entire six day hike: A couple of men going the opposite way. They gave us some good but still fuzzy advice about water availability ahead. The main point was that it was surprisingly dry, and we had at least one five-mile stretch without water. (It turned out there were four sections of 4-5 dry miles! Starting with the stretch immediately before us and behind them.)

The afternoon wore on as we slogged and rested and tried to keep our bearings from maps and side canyons. Our goal was Wates Pond, mentioned in the book but not shown on the map. After a bending more northwest, leaving ponderosa behind for juniper and cactus, we came upon a beautiful limestone pouroff of about 15' with a big green pool and sand below. "Must be it," we thought. Even if not, it was getting late (7:10 pm), so we decided to stop there for the night, and not chance continuing into another long dry section.

We set up the tent on a flat ledge of rough limestone east of and overlooking the pool, just wide enough for the purpose. It was a lovely spot. We pumped (filtered) water, bathed, had dinner, swatted (blessedly few) mosquitos, etc. and were in bed in the tent by dark.

June 16: Soreness Settles, Confluence Reached

The third day; and we could really feel it in our muscles and joints. Vitamin I (ibuprofen) was very helpful. Due to waking up at about 7 am, we got the earliest start of the trip, at 9:33. "We're really going to keep walking further and further from the car?" We knew we had some dry distance ahead today. We hoped to cover 8.5 miles to reach the third "nice campsite."

Before long, we reached a section where the canyon ran more directly north. We realized we'd probably stopped short of Wates Pond. There were at least two other large pour-off ponds, also pretty, and some moderate stretches of running water. At the end of one of these we pumped our bottles full... Which turned out to be about a mile and an hour premature. The trail continued through some lovely blue limestone narrows occasionally decorated with reddish shell fossils.

The last of the pouroff pools required some slow, tough climbing to get around on the east side. Possibly we missed a better trail on the west side. We rested by the pool and enjoyed it, but unfortunately the water and air were too cold for a bath.

We weren't very fast that day. Eventually we found a small spring, marked on the map, and were pretty sure it was the last water for a long time.

We continued walking on down to the confluence with Dark Canyon. We discovered it to be one large cliffy wall further ahead than we guessed, and we didn't get there until 1:15 pm. Did we really hike 3.5 miles already? Not sure, we expected it to be just 2.5, but it took us nearly four hours. Regardless, it was exciting to finally reach Dark Canyon itself.

The walls were high and colorful, but not dark, due to the wide canyon floor between the walls. It must have been named by a Colorado River explorer who passed its mouth, many miles downstream to the west. A nearly hidden sign pointed left to Lake Powell, but we turned right to continue our loop.

Near the confluence we took a long lunch and didn't get going again until 2:30. The dogs were starting to be rather less rambunctious, at least during breaks. They still explored a lot while we hiked, but they rested in the shade whenever we stopped, and then comically resisted having their packs put back on. As the trip continued, they seized nearly every free moment to lay down and nap.

Hiking up Dark Canyon, now easterly, the pattern was simple. The wide, rocky streambed would meander, and the trail would shortcut across the bottoms. Up, up, up on soft sand, sometimes more than 50' up, then along through the brush and junipers, and then back down to cross the dry creek again.

Sometimes I walked with Kath on the trail. Other times when it seemed easier I followed the streambed instead, and met her at the next junction. I found a few nice rocks this way, agates and petrified wood, but kept a bare minimum... They had to fit in my T shirt pocket.

It was hot and we moved slowly. We hoped to make six more miles that day, but it wasn't gonna happen. Probably just 2.5 miles past the confluence, at ten minutes past 6 pm, I found a small pool with algae and tadpoles, hidden in the streambed across from the trail. There were no good campsites nearby, but also no more water within ten more minutes up the canyon. (The next morning we found it was about another mile to the next puddle.)

Although we had nominally hiked just five miles (or was it six?) in over seven hours (excluding lunch), we decided it was time to stop for the day, pump water, bathe, and carry some water to our camp. We found an acceptable flat spot in trees few minutes ahead, north of the streambed, just east of a smaller ravine descending from an unnamed side canyon.

At this point I'll digress to exclaim the wonders of multi-purpose backpacking utensils. A plastic gallon jug with the top cut off (leaving the handle) has at least four uses in the desert:

  1. Scooping water from a pool for filtering it comfortably and without too much sediment.
  2. Pouring water over someone who's bathing.
  3. Tied outside a backpack carrying extra food (or later, trash bags).
  4. Carrying about 3/4 gallon of untreated water into camp for the dogs overnight.

The last tended to keep the dogs in camp with us while not in the tent, so they didn't go drink from puddles, wet their feet further, and drag mud into the tent.

So maybe you can picture me bouldering over big rocks in the streambed, wearing a full pack and holding a walking stick, carrying an open jug of water and trying not to spill too much of it on the way to our camp...

That evening while mulling the multi-use wonders of the gallon jug, I realized that a sturdy wooden walking stick is even more versatile. I used mine at least seven ways:

  1. Much-appreciated balance while walking downhill or on rough ground.
  2. Propping up my backpack while it was on the ground.
  3. Flipping over stones to examine them.
  4. Holding back brush or knocking dead twigs out of my path.
  5. Pointing directions.
  6. Nudging the dogs when they stopped in front of me (or accidentally bopping them when they tailgated).
  7. Scratching my back and levering rock-shaped bumps inside my backpack away from my spine.

Anyway, there we were Tuesday evening, the middle night of the trip, about 3.5 miles short of our goal for the evening, not quite to the halfway point milewise (but having gained some elevation), tired and sore, bummed about our slow pace and the continued lack of water.

Then it clouded up and started to rain a little before we finished dinner. By bedtime it was coming down outside the tent. Well at least we had eaten heartily so far, and consumed most of our heavy fresh foods. That night we cooked a hot meal (over sterno) for the first time.

June 17: Onwards, Upwards

It rained on and off all night. We hoped that would at least mean lots of water in the streambed the next day.

About 7:30 am I went out to "commune with nature". It was overcast, windy, and rainy... Ugh. Our tarp held puddles, the gear underneath was a bit damp, but the streambed was dry. We decided to nap inside a while longer. We plotted how to keep the dogs dry while doing most of the packing in the tent. Our mood was gloomy and our bodies ached.

Soon after, Kath went out to discover blue sky approaching from the west as the clouds blew east. It must have been a fast-moving cold front! The rain was a blessing in disguise. We got everything dried out in the sun and left camp by 10:50. The day was cool and comfortable and the sand was wet, which made walking much easier. Also there were a few small rainwater pools on the rocks when we most needed water later that day.

We made good progress. Hoofing along the streambed, I found a spectacular stone, and immediately knew I was doomed... It was worth carrying out 17 miles (!), so I did. This semi-cylindrical three-pound chunk was colorful gemmy agate on one ragged, water-tumbled side, and brown, poorly silicified wood on the other side. Colors in the agate included white, blue, black, red, and a little yellow/orange.

"You know you're really a rockhound when your backpack weighs more at the end of a trip than it does at the beginning." Not exactly, but I did bring home a total of about eight pounds of agate and wood pieces, mostly tumbling material... A negligible fraction of the tons of nice rocks in the canyons, unless you have to lug it on your back!

We found the second Anasazi ruin, unexpected, about half a mile before (west of) Warren Canyon, north of the streambed, and explored it. Soon after, we found more water, and passed Warren and then Trail Canyons at about 1:10. We started watching for the third "nice camp spot" with water and sand dunes about a mile beyond the junction.

The authors were a little off. The copious running water ended far less than a mile east as the canyon floor became much sandier. We thought there might still be water ahead, so we pushed on past 2 pm; "twenty minutes, and if not, we'll come back." Twenty minutes later there was only wet sand, but we decided to keep moving forward, both feeling stronger and faster today. It wasn't worth taking an hour (we thought) for me to go back with a daypack and pump our bottles full.

We kept hiking and looking for water. We deferred lunch until 4 pm. Still no water, but I needed a rest, so we stopped to eat in a wide, dry section of the canyon. As we did several times, we shared filtered water from our packs with the dogs. (They carried their own collapsible food/water bowls, four days worth of dog food, sweaters, and in Princess's case a chain, because she was known to chew through the webbing leashes Kath wore around her waist...)

After resuming from the long late lunch, we found a few small rainwater pools just five minutes further upstream... We took more time to chain the dogs so they wouldn't stir up these little puddles, then to pump out what we needed. I found I could disconnect the water filter's hand pump from the filter and use it to suck a puddle nearly dry, about 3/4 gallon into the plastic jug, and then filter the water from there. My filter (First Need) was acting a little clogged (again), so I backflushed the prefilter, which was doing its job, and that helped.

We pushed on southeast looking for a campsite and more water. We passed Poison Canyon sooner than I expected at 7:15, but it was still getting late. We turned south and started to see ponderosa pines again, and then an old spur jeep road and some fence posts.

Soon Kath found a lovely "cowboy campsite" under tall trees, with a stone bench and a fire ring, west of the dry creek. No water though, just wet sand to tease us. Did they bring water in on horses? (Lots of old horseshoe tracks on the trail.) Did they camp during wetter times? We explored sideways 10-15 minutes in opposite directions... Dry terrain.

Discouraged, we reshouldered our packs and continued up the trail at about 7:45. And 200 yards later there was a pool in the streambed! At first we thought it was a mirage. We turned around and went back to that nice campsite for the night. We'd covered about seven miles in nine hours, and were feeling better than previous evenings.

I enjoyed the orange sunset glow on the cliffs east of our camp while bathing and pumping water down at the puddle. (Of course one is careful to carry one's bath water away from the precious water source!)

June 18: Half a Rest Day

A nice morning to sleep in. We must have both needed the long rest, for we didn't awake until after 8 am. After packing we pumped up more water. Then I took Kath to see a short, cute, steep, overgrown, but dry little side gully I'd found the previous evening.

We didn't leave the area until 12:15. I knew there was no way we would reach the trailhead that evening, but with only 11.5 miles left, it seemed very close! It was hard to believe, or consider, that we would unpack later and camp out another night.

How much water should we carry? Not sure... It weighed a lot. Several times we ended up wishing we'd departed the previous water hole with more, but we never went thirsty either.

The creek continued for a long way as we quickly passed Rig Canyon. Then there was a little confusion about which way to go at a wire gate in a fence. Usually there were no signs and it was hard to "read" our location from the surroundings. Still, just one fast mile further south, and still walking along a wet creekbed, we saw a huge arch high to the east, a major landmark. Soon after, we left Dark Canyon at 1:30 pm and continued south up Peavine Canyon.

At this point my reliable 15-year-old Pentax camera stopped firing the shutter correctly... No more pictures for me.

The jeep road was surprisingly trash-free, and it looked like at least several days since the last vehicle drove on it. We made very good time, well-rested, with lighter packs and easier walking. We continued five miles south toward the mouth of Kigalia in a rather open valley with occasional shady stands of trees. There were some gorgeous green meadows and high, complex sandstone cliffs east of us. After a while the canyon got more overgrown, and (what's new) the water ended again 2-3 miles up from Dark Canyon.

Careful map reading and exploring confirmed when we passed the hidden Brushy Basin trail turn-off going west, and then reached the Kigalia/Peavine fork at 6 pm -- five miles in 4.5 hours including a long lunch break. The jeep road went left, southeast up Kigalia, while our narrow trail, marked only by a cairn, stayed south up Peavine. Now past the jeep road, we were ready to stop for the night at the next opportunity.

We'd read that "upper Peavine" was lush with lots of running water. Yes it was lush, but alas, there was no water in it for at least two more miles. (You'd think guidebook authors could use a more specific term than "upper"...) Anyway, we pushed on and on. I explored the narrow, deep streambed for both rocks and water wherever it didn't meander too much. I had to crawl under several log "bridges".

At about 7 pm, discouraged, we realized Peavine might be dry all the way out. If so, we'd give up looking for a campsite after sunset and hike out "dry" that evening, recover the car (and its water), and camp at the trailhead. I thought that was OK... At least I'd be back in Denver by midnight Friday to meet my daughter at the airport upon her return from a big trip to the British Isles.

Well we found water at 7:20 pm, after walking about nine miles total that day. Suddenly it was much more attractive to camp another night than to keep hiking!

Our last night's campsite was lovely again, a small grassy flat patch surrounded by bushes and trees, west of the creek in the narrow, steep, overgrown valley. Some limestone cliffs showed through the greenery. Because of the previous two high-mileage days, we were just about where we'd hoped to be the last night, after all.

June 19: Closing the Loop

A pretty morning; no rush to get going. It was bittersweet, being ready to finish the trip, but having to leave behind our very simple and basic backpacking lifestyle. Our packs were much lighter (except for my silly rocks) and we felt good. We were on our way at 11:10 am, and thought it might take three hours to cover the 2-3 miles to the trailhead.

We must have camped further up than I'd guessed the night before, because we were "out" in under 2.5 hours, at 1:35. The last part of the trail was wet and green, and in places, very steep! I remember seeing one large "round" of typical Chinle petrified wood mostly buried in dirt next to the base of a living tree. The trail went on longer in distance than we would have guessed, but finally we were at the road, full of jubilation.

At the trailhead, we saw just one vehicle passing by, but going the wrong way to catch a ride. Kath and the dogs waited and rested (and saw one other car) while I walked and jogged back to her car... 2.2 miles in just 37 minutes. I could still move pretty fast without the backpack. My few blisters weren't too bad.

At the Woodenshoe trailhead, just two parties had signed in since we left, neither of them going down for more than two days... Wow.

I figure we averaged only 0.9 mph walking from camp to camp, including breaks, lunch, and pumping water, over the six days. We probably gained at least 3000' elevation with the ups and downs along the trail.

I happily retrieved Kathy and the dogs at the Peavine trailhead. We drove east on the scenic but sandy Bears Ears road to Blanding for telephone and showers. All being well in the outside world during our absence, we enjoyed the long drive home. By 9:15 pm we were soaking in Orvis Hot Springs, Colorado, watching twilight fade. We camped that night at Ridgway State Park. Saturday we drove over Grand Mesa and through Collbran before cruising towards Denver... The dogs mostly slept.

What I remember most about this outing is the incredible, vast, quiet remoteness of the route; how we covered many miles one slow step at a time, even with overly heavy packs; all the beautiful rocks I couldn't take home; and how well Kath and I got along even though we were often tired and concerned.