Ancient and Modern Folly: Backpacking Utah’s Dark Canyon

By Michael Lanza

About five miles down Woodenshoe Canyon, under a blazing sun in southeast Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness, David stops on the sandy trail ahead of me and points to a barely distinguishable feature in the cliffs above us. We set our backpacks on the ground and follow a faint path up onto slabs below the cliffs. Scrambling and zigzagging our way upward, we reach a wide ledge below the overhanging cliff face.

In the shaded alcove below that breaking tsunami of sandstone, we stand quietly before the ruins of a small, one-room stone structure barely large enough for two people to lie down inside—a tiny home built centuries before Columbus arrived in the New World.

A backpacker on the Woodenshoe Canyon Trail, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah.
David Gordon backpacking the Woodenshoe Canyon Trail.

We poke around the ruins, peering in through a window but not actually venturing inside it for fear of causing damage. On the cliff face outside the ruins, a petroglyph depicts horned, four-legged animals—an ancient artist’s representation of the bighorn sheep that wander these canyons.

It’s late May—early spring on the plateau at well over 8,000 feet where we began this hike, which received a fresh snowfall a couple of days ago—and my friend David Gordon and I are just two hours into a backpacking trip through Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness.

Over the next three days, we’ll hike a 40-mile loop down Woodenshoe Canyon, up a stretch of Dark Canyon, and finishing up Peavine Canyon. Our route will range more than 2,000 vertical feet from cool, verdant forests of ponderosa pine and aspen at higher elevations to the sunbaked sagebrush flats and dry, sandy bottoms of broad, redrock canyons.

Tucked deep within the remote canyon country, badlands, and high plateaus between Canyonlands National Park to the north, Glen Canyon to the west, Natural Bridges National Monument, Grand Gulch, and Cedar Mesa to the south, and the towns of Monticello and Blanding to the east, Dark Canyon lies relatively hidden in one of the least-populated corners of the country. But the hike we’re taking has many of the same qualities as the canyons of Cedar Mesa—which themselves are renowned for hundreds and perhaps thousands of archaeological sites dating back to the Ancestral Puebloan people, or Anasazi.

Many centuries after those people came and mysteriously left, the rock art and stone structures they left behind—and these canyons—remain relatively pristine. Land managers and archeologists don’t even fully know how many archeological sites exist throughout the Cedar Mesa region.

We’ll see a few of them today and tomorrow.


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Laying Ruin to Bears Ears National Monument

My interest in taking this trip in May 2017 was not entirely coincidental. Not long before it, President Donald Trump had directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to examine more than two dozen national monuments created since 1996, to consider removing protections from them. Several months after our May 2017 visit, in December 2017, Trump announced he was gutting two Utah monuments: slashing the area of the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante in half, and reducing Bears Ears by 85 percent. In doing so, he removed a total of two million acres of federal lands, which belong to us all, from protections against oil and gas drilling and mining, for the primary benefit of those industries, as the New York Times subsequently reported.

The Dark Canyon Wilderness was within the Bears Ears monument, which had encompassed 1.35 million acres of remote plateaus and canyons in the Cedar Mesa region that are known to contain more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites. Experts describe it as the most significant unprotected archaeological area in the United States. (The Bears Ears formations are a pair of red buttes at nearly 9,000 feet in elevation, landmarks prominently visible from a distance. The dirt road to the trailheads for this hike goes over Bears Ears Pass, cleaving those buttes, with hundred-mile views of the canyons to the south.)

Dark Canyon did not lose its federal wilderness protection. But with Trump’s decision, we confront the real possibility of losing much of the natural beauty and rich human history of this region.

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Inside an Ancestral Puebloan ruins, Woodenshoe Canyon, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah.
Inside an Ancestral Puebloan ruins, Woodenshoe Canyon, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah.

I have explored and written about places before they received protections that enjoyed wide public support, such as backpacking with my young son and taking an ultra-dayhike in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains a couple of years prior to President Barack Obama and Congress designating that beautiful range as federal wilderness in 2015. I have also had the good fortune to be among the first people to dive deeply into a place shortly after it received protected status, kayaking eight days down the upper Owhyee River just weeks after President Obama signed the law creating wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers in that remote corner of southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon.

But I have never set out to wander through a wild land because I thought it would imminently see its protected status reduced by presidential decree.

That’s because we have never had a president so willing to cave in to the interests of a handful of corporations despite the overwhelming opinion of the public in favor of preserving our public lands.

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Woodenshoe Canyon

In upper Woodenshoe, the deep green of thick, old-growth ponderosa pines strikes a sharp contrast against the burnt-red canyon walls. But as we descend Woodenshoe, the height of the trees and the forest coverage gradually shrink, and the canyon walls and temperature slowly creep higher. Brilliant wildflowers erupt incongruously from the desiccated, sandy earth. Lizards dart away at our approach.

There’s almost no shade. We pass no water save for a few stagnant puddles too murky to consider trying to filter, given that we are nowhere near desperate for it—we’re carrying enough to see us through the day. But with each sip, I can taste my water getting warmer. Despite gulping it frequently, I feel my mouth growing drier.

Pools of water in lower Woodenshoe Canyon, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah.
Pools of water in lower Woodenshoe Canyon, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah.

Incised into the sandstone and limestone layers that form the high, forested Dry Mesa, Dark Canyon’s topography goes from 8,800 feet on Elk Ridge to 3,700 feet where the canyon mouth opens into the Colorado River in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. While the lower stretch of Dark Canyon, managed as the 62,000-acre Dark Canyon Primitive Area by the Bureau of Land Management, is known for waterfalls and plunge pools, the upper canyon that we’re exploring is broad, almost completely unshaded, and mostly dry. It falls within the 45,000-acre Dark Canyon Wilderness, managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

After 15 miles of walking on our first day, with the early-evening shade of tall canyon walls giving us a reprieve from the sun, we reach our intended campsite by the so-called Hanging Garden in lower Woodenshoe Canyon. A thin curtain of clear, cold water drips from a short rock wall overhanging a rocky creek bottom, where small pools of water have collected. David and I fill bottles and drink like sailors before scouting our surroundings for a place to sleep.

With a forecast for dry weather, we decided against bringing a tent—a decision I begin to question when dark clouds start rumbling overhead. But the gray sky ushers in nothing more than an hour of strong gusts and some harmless raindrops before the clouds break up, and we pass a quiet night under a black sky riddled with stars.

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Dark Canyon

By noon on our second day, the sun’s heat feels relentless—even in late May at 6,000 feet. We’re hiking through sagebrush flats in a broad stretch of Dark Canyon with only occasional postage-stamp patches of spotty shade beneath widely spaced, scrawny trees. It seems like a different planet from the near-freezing temperatures we awoke to at our campsite at around 8,500 feet near the Bears Ears yesterday morning, before starting this hike.

Early this morning, we reached the bottom of Woodenshoe Canyon and turned up Dark Canyon, walking between distant cliffs of mostly gray Elephant Canyon Formation limestone that preserve fossils of marine creatures like brachiopods and crinoids.

Now, slogging along the sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky, always dry creek bottom, we spot the distinctive appearance of stones stacked by people on a small ledge beneath an overhanging cliff face—in what looks like the only piece of solid shade within sight.

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David Gordon backpacking up Utah's Dark Canyon.
David Gordon backpacking up Utah’s Dark Canyon.

Scrambling up easy slabs to the ledge, I peer into the pair of ruins, both remarkably intact centuries after they were abandoned to the elements. Then I sit on the pleasantly shaded ledge separately the two little structures, taking in the view that their builders had of Dark Canyon.

From up here, the canyon appears greener and more thickly forested than it feels when walking through the solar oven of the canyon bottom. One can imagine someone sitting here and believing this existence could continue forever—that nothing changes. That a shifting climate or the decisions and actions of other people could never affect your life.

The first inhabitants of these canyons are believed to have been early Puebloan people, often called the Anasazi, who formed small farming villages in the upper canyons around A.D. 600. Many of the remaining stone structures date back to the 1200s. But by 1300, the people living here had inexplicably abandoned the area, apparently migrating south.

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Ancestral Puebloan ruins, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah.
Ancestral Puebloan ruins, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah.

What happened to those people? Why did they leave? No one completely understands what or why. It could have been that the climate eventually made farming impossible, or it may have been conflicts between tribal groups, or any combination of reasons.

But looking at these ruins, I can’t help but contemplate whether the overexploitation of limited natural resources at least helped precipitate their decision to leave—a human folly that has been repeated by so many civilizations throughout history.

The same folly might be seen in a president reversing protections on public lands to benefit the oil, gas, and mining industries—the same industries upon which we have built a civilization now in desperate need of growing a more sustainable energy foundation, before its impacts on the climate make human existence largely unsustainable on much of the planet. All of this speaks to the human tendency to construct systems based on assumptions that threaten to turn all that we’ve built into ruins. We might wonder whether our demise will begin with the failure to appreciate what we have.

There may be lessons for us in these ruins.

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