3-Minute Read: Backpacking Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness

By Michael Lanza

About five miles down Woodenshoe Canyon, in southeast Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness, David stops on the trail ahead of me and points to a barely distinguishable feature in the cliffs above us. We drop our backpacks and follow a faint path in the sand and up onto sandstone slabs, scrambling and zigzagging our way up onto a wide ledge below an overhanging cliff face. In the shaded alcove below that overhang, we stop before the ruins of a tiny, one-room stone structure perhaps large enough for two people to lie down inside, built centuries before Columbus arrived in the New World.

With Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument in the news so much, I decided to finally get to a corner of that new monument—designated by President Barack Obama last December, and now the target of efforts by some politicians eager to see that designation revoked by President Donald Trump—that I’ve long wanted to explore: the Dark Canyon Wilderness. So in May, my friend David Gordon and I backpacked a 40-mile loop down Woodenshoe Canyon, up a stretch of Dark Canyon, and returning up Peavine Canyon.

As you’ll see in the photo gallery below, we found some of what we expected to see there as well as some surprises. We got close-up looks at a couple of ruins of stone dwellings constructed by Ancestral Puebloan people several hundred years ago. We saw natural arches eroded into soaring, castellated walls of Cedar Mesa sandstone, and hanging gardens where water seeped from cracks in those walls. Starting and finishing our hike at over 8,000 feet in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, we hiked through beautiful aspen groves that stretched for miles and forests of thick, old-growth ponderosa pines that contrasted against the red canyon walls.

Over the course of three sunny, pleasant days of backpacking during a peak season for hiking in this remote, sparsely populated corner of Utah, we encountered just nine other people in the Dark Canyon Wilderness, which protects more than 45,000 acres of the 1.35 million acres comprising the Bears Ears National Monument.

One of those people happened to be the wilderness manager for the Manti-La Sal National Forest, out doing field work with a volunteer and a mule team. We spoke for a bit, mostly listening to him gush about the wonders and beauty of this place. “We keep discovering new archeological sites that aren’t catalogued yet,” he told us.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter, or enter your email address in the box in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this story. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Youtube.


See my feature-length story about our backpacking trip in the Dark Canyon Wilderness, “Ancient and Modern Folly: Backpacking Utah’s Dark Canyon.”


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