With narrow, steep walls that block the light in the morning and late afternoon, Dark Canyon Wilderness is aptly named. Once home to a small segment of the widespread Anasazi Indians (Ancestral Puebloan), the canyons included in the area (Dark and Woodenshoe Canyons, and their tributaries) make up the roughly horseshoe-shaped Dark Canyon Wilderness. This is an extraordinarily beautiful and remote section of the Colorado Plateau where sculpted and colored walls of Cedar Mesa sandstone rise above the canyon floors. You may see evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan culture in the form of structures, rock art, or artifacts. Remember, it is against the law to remove or disturb any archaeological resources you may encounter. Please leave things as you have found them for future study and so those that come after you may experience this unique resource as well. The Dark Canyon Wilderness is located in southeast Utah near the town of Blanding. To reach the ten different trailheads that provide access to the Wilderness, visitors must ascend roads to the top of the Elk Ridge Highlands which may be snowdrifted into early summer in heavy snow years. From these trailheads, you descend into the canyons that comprise the Dark Canyon Wilderness. The Utah Wilderness Act of 1984 created Dark Canyon Wilderness, representing the first major Colorado Plateau Canyon terrain to be protected in the National Wilderness Preservation System. This diverse canyon country contains arches, old-growth Ponderosa Pine stands, meadows, springs, seeps and hanging gardens. Due to years of drought, some seeps and springs have disappeared making water very scarce. Plan to carry all the water you may need with you and/or contact those with local knowledge for the location of the very few water sources. Check the Dark Canyon Wilderness Blog at wilderness.net for updates on water and trail conditions. Life zones range from ponderosa pine and aspen-covered high country to more arid desert vegetation in the bottom of Dark Canyon at the Wilderness boundary. High red rock canyons dwarf visitors with terraced castle-like walls towering 3,000 feet above the canyon floors. Wildlife species are diverse and include mule deer, elk, turkey, some cougar, black bear, and bighorn sheep. All the trails dropping into the canyons are moderate, but they are often difficult, if not impossible, to find and follow. Be sure to carry a good, detailed map and a compass. Once you're on the floor of Dark Canyon itself, however, you'll have no trouble following Dark Canyon due to the canyon walls, through the length of the canyon. At the junction of Dark Canyon and Woodenshoe Canyon, you may ascend the Woodenshoe trail out of the Dark Canyon Wilderness or continue past the western Wilderness boundary into the BLM-managed Dark Canyon Primitive Area and on down to the Colorado River or upper end of Lake Powell when the reservoir is full.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Dark Canyon Wilderness.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Utah Wilderness Act of 1984 - Public law 98-428 (9/28/1984) To designate certain national forest system lands in the state of Utah for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System to release other forest lands for multiple use management, and for other purposes
One of the biggest concerns with backpacking on the Colorado Plateau, including the Dark Canyon Wilderness is the lack of water.
Always treat water by filtering, boiling or chemical treatment before using any water in the backcountry.
Below are the general descriptions for water in the Wilderness and the lower canyon. Remember conditions change this is wild country always pack enough water to make it several days in case your next water source turns out to be dry.
Four miles down the trail you will run into Cherry Canyon coming in from the right (looking down canyon). In the spring there is usually water coming out of Cherry Canyon and running for a mile or more downstream. In the fall it stops running down canyon, but I have never seen the spring in Cherry Canyon dry up completley, although I have seen it running pretty low and muddy. The next water source is approximatley 7 miles downstream (although in the spring it is not unusual to find water in other locations as well) at an area known as Wates Pond. There is a large pothole and spring that usually holds water year round. Approximatley 1 mile below Wates Pond you will come to the Hanging Garden Spring, that flows out of the canyon wall on the right and usually has a pool beneath it.
If you are coming from the Notch Trailhead, you will usually run into water around the mouth of Drift Trail Canyon. There is also water coming out of the pipe near the Scorup Cabin at the mouth of Horse Pasture Canyon, although this water has a pretty bad taste. In the spring the water often flows from here to the junction with Dark Canyon and then all the way to Rig Canyon and beyond in good water years. In the fall most of this water dries up or gets fouled by livestock and the next possibility for water in Dark Canyon is approximatley 5.5 miles down stream near the junction with Trail Canyon. There are springs in the vicinity that usually run, however we have received reports in the fall of the Trail Canyon Springs being completely dry. Water has been found in Trail Canyon and Warren Canyon as well but don't count on it. Below there Dark Canyon is dry until about two miles down canyon of the Black Steer Canyon junction in the Dark Canyon Primtive Area (WSA) on BLM managed lands.
Peavine Canyon often runs with water in the spring but drys up pretty quick in the summer. The only water in Peavine Canyon later in the year is usually located in a cattle trough about 3.5 miles below the Peavine Canyon Trailhead.
Lower Canyon (Dark Canyon Primitive Area)
Usually about two miles below Black Steer Canyon the stream starts flowing year round.
Safety and Current Conditions
Please check the Manti La Sal Facebook Page for current conditions for the Dark Canyon Wilderness.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.