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Exploring Dark Canyon

Posted in Events on July 18, 2002 Comment (0)
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I came across the road by accident. It was so long ago now that I don't even remember exactly what I was looking for when I found it. I was probably poring over maps of southern Utah, as I often do, looking for possible forays deep into the backcountry. There, smack in the middle of a large area shown as Dark Canyon Wilderness was a cherry-stemmed, motorized route -- a mysterious, inexplicable, and totally intriguing road deep into a canyon that had long ago been limited to foot traffic. The very name, Dark Canyon, held allure.

I did some checking around, but no one seemed to know anything about it. A few had seen it on the map, but no one had ever actually been there. That did it. I promptly put the motorized corridor into Dark Canyon on the list for the next annual spring trip.

That was five years ago. Never has a route been so obviously available and so seemingly unattainable. In spite of a concerted effort to visit Dark Canyon, it remained just out of reach. Spring mud from heavy snows, a freak spring snowstorm, vehicle breakdowns, and even a funeral conspired year after year to keep me from satisfying my curiosity about the place.

I was determined to keep trying. Only one companion vehicle, piloted by Dr. Robert Telepak, was to accompany me. Dr. Bob is a part-time radiologist and a full-time activist working to keep Southern Utah's motorized routes open. He was nearly as intrigued by the route as I was. We gave ourselves three full days to explore Dark Canyon and the surrounding areas so we would have the flexibility to accommodate changes, upset plans, and any unforeseen difficulties.

We met in Blanding, Utah, and headed west on Highway 95 with our gas tanks topped off and loaded down with several extra cans of fuel. We're never sure just where we will emerge from the backcountry, and there aren't convenience stores on any nearby corners. In order to make the weekend as off-pavement as possible, we turned off the highway at Cottonwood Wash and proceeded north and then west to intersect with Elk Ridge Road.

The map that had started this whole obsession had shown the trailhead into Dark Canyon off of Elk Ridge through a side canyon. We had carefully programmed our GPS units with the Kigalia Canyon trailhead location, but we need not have bothered. The trailhead was clear enough, complete with a parking area, a new concrete pit toilet, and huge Forest Service signs declaring the Dark Canyon route a motorized corridor.

Somehow, I doubted that all these improvements were just for the benefit of us motorized types. Dark Canyon is a popular hiking destination, and the Kigalia Canyon trailhead is evidently one of the major access points to the upper end of the canyon.

The trailhead is not typical of what you envision when you are talking about a Southern Utah road. No red rock, no desert. Instead, you find a lush, green corridor through tall pines, aspen, and scrub oak. A cold front had pushed through the day before and even the weather was atypical for June in Utah with temperatures in the mid-70s at the trailhead elevation of 8,500 feet.

The first section of the road is a long shelf cut into the side of Kigalia Canyon. This is an easy route, especially if you aren't bothered by heights. There are a few rocky spots, but the road into the canyon could easily be traversed with a stock SUV if the driver knows what he's doing. Eventually, the road reaches the bottom of the canyon and follows first Kigalia and then Peavine canyons. It is a total of eight miles from the trailhead to the junction with Dark Canyon itself.

Dark Canyon is a total misnomer for the canyon at this point. The bottom is green, the canyon considerably wide, and the walls relatively shallow. The cliffs overhead, while red, pink, and white sandstone, are bordered top and bottom by tall, green pines.

At the junction, we decided to turn to the right and head up the canyon. The map showed the road continuing as far as something labeled Scorup Cabin, and we were curious as to what we would find. The road winds up the valley, running adjacent to, and occasionally crossing, the watercourse. The road also wanders through some of the largest sagebrush that I have ever seen. Don't take this route if you are fussy about your paint, because the overgrown trail is narrow enough to brush both sides of the Jeep. At the place indicated on the map as the end of the motorized route, we encountered a small split-rail fence and a sign informing us of the same. We hopped out and continued up the canyon on foot, looking for the cabin. Just beyond the end of the road we found the very well-preserved structure.

The cabin's purpose? We surmise that this was, at one time, a line camp for the huge cattle operations Al Scorup ran in this part of Utah years ago. We fully examined the well-furnished, two-room cabin and other buildings. Marveling at the plushness of accommodations that rated a wood stove for each room, we turned the Jeeps around and headed back down the canyon to the other road terminus.

The map showed the road following the main canyon for a mile or so and then turning up a side canyon called Rig Canyon. The name implied some kind of mining or mineral exploration and we were curious as to what relics we might find. We were disappointed. The road ends in Rig Canyon at a site that was obviously the scene of something, but there wasn't enough left to really get a good feel as to what the activity might have been.

The only identifiable relic was a huge capstan, leading us to wonder if the mining might have been further up the canyon walls.

We retraced our route to the main junction and found an ideal campsite as the sun started sinking behind the walls of the canyon. Since this was a June trip to canyon country, we had expected heat, but it got downright chilly as the sun went down. The unusually cool temperatures and elevation in Dark Canyon had us enjoying the warmth of the small fire we built. After a night made uncomfortable in our lightweight summer bags, we rose the next morning to find a pan of water frozen clear to the bottom. How often does that happen in Utah in mid-June?

We retraced our route back up Peavine and Kigalia canyons to the trailhead. With the Dark Canyon route finally logged and only the first day of our three-day time slot spent, we pulled out the maps and planned to investigate the area we so love to explore. We headed north and then turned west on the North Long Point road. We had noticed an observation point high on the north rim of Dark Canyon and set that as our first destination. The road traverses a high and very green, wooded mesa before finally dropping back down to an elevation on Dark Canyon Plateau that allows the more normal pinyon and juniper forest. We found the two-track junction to the lookout and parked the Jeeps at the end of the road. We hiked the mile or so out to a spectacular lookout point on a narrow fin jutting out into the complex and labyrinthine wonder that is Dark Canyon.

The canyon twisted all around us and disappeared far to the west on its meandering path to the Colorado River. The five peaks of the Henry Mountains dominated the western horizon behind the long Wingate cliffs of Big Ridge across the river.

On returning to our Jeeps, we decided to follow the road as far west across Middle Point as we could go just to see what we might find. What we found was a very unusual view of the Maze District of Canyonlands from east of the river.

With the length of North Long Point and Middle Point roads having passed under our tires by late afternoon, we discussed our options. Bob suggested Imperial Valley and Impossible Hill as excellent items to hit on our way back to Moab via the dirt. Having never seen the area between Bobby's Hole and the river and having heard much about the challenging hill separating Bobby's Hole from Imperial Valley, it was any easy choice and we were on our way.

North to Beef Basin and then west through Ruin Park, we found the junction to Imperial Valley and bounced our way slowly toward our campsite destination for the night.

The late afternoon light made the trip a wonder of ever-shifting shades of orange and patterns of light on the canyon walls, spires, and fins. We reached our campsite just as the sun was preparing to slide down behind the high cliffs across the river -- what a change from the previous evening. Typical of June trips to canyon country, it was hot, with no breeze whatsoever, and every biting fly was hungry. The campfire for the night was not for warmth but to help keep our skin from being perforated.

The next morning started off with a true archeological gem. Just beyond our campsite, located on a large rock in the low cliff line, was the ruin known as the Indian Fort. A round, low tower carefully constructed of fitted rock stands guard over this portion of Imperial Valley. Access would be difficult, if not impossible, without a ladder. The defensive position, if that was indeed its purpose, would be almost impregnable. Was it a fortified location? Was it an observatory or some religious structure? Or did one of the early inhabitants have a yearning for housing of a different shape with a great view? We may never know. It is a very unique structure, and being this far into the backcountry, it is rarely visited.

We broke camp and headed toward Bobby's Hole with only one obstacle in our way: Impossible Hill. While not really impossible in a well-built vehicle, it is still very difficult. In a stock SUV, Impossible Hill is an entirely appropriate name, at least going uphill. A narrow dugway filled with large and extremely mobile rocks separates the upper end of Imperial Valley and Cross Canyon from the much more traveled road in Bobby's Hole.

I can only assume that this dugway was put in place as a stock driveway or to get mineral search equipment down into the valley below. The grade and location would make it difficult to traverse even if the road bed were in better shape. I managed to pick a very off-camber and steep location on the climb approaching the hill only to run out of fuel, at which point I stopped to dump in one of the spare cans of gas. We examined the various options for scaling the hill and then, each in turn, struggled mightily to get to the top. Impossible Hill is tough.

Once past the climb, it is an easy jaunt over to the graben known as Bobby's Hole. The hole is really the back door to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Having traveled the route many times, it is still one of my all-time favorites for fantastic scenery. We crossed the park boundary and headed into the spire-filled wonderland of Chesler Park. Elephant Hill, while not as challenging as it once was due to the NPS filling in ledges and holes with asphalt, is still an interesting 4WD route for a national park.

We topped Elephant Hill and met the first group of vehicles we had seen since leaving the pavement west of Blanding three days before. We filled our tanks at Needles Outpost just outside the park and turned north for Moab. Our beds for the evening were a long 60 miles to the north via Lockhart Basin, but that is another story.

I had finally fulfilled my longstanding intention of driving down into Dark Canyon, and in the process I had made another long, discovery-filled trip across the Utah outback. The wonder of this most spectacular countryside, the companionship around a fire deep in red rock country, the view from a remote viewpoint, the growl of the gears on a steep dugway -- these are the very essence of exploring Utah's backcountry. These are the reasons why I continue to visit this most superlative of places.

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