16.0 miles (with side trips)
Canyon, near the junction with
day 1: 5 hours
day 2: 5 hours
2,000 ft. loss/gain
Sundance Trailhead (start): 5,600 ft.
Dark Canyon Creek: 4,000 ft.
Lake Powell: 3,600 ft.
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.
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.
Near the Hite Marina on Lake Powell
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
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
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
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 cant 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.
provided by David
Day of utahtrails.com. Click here to order
his book Utah's
Favorite Hiking Trails.