Home > Desert & Canyon > Dark Canyon  
  Dark Canyon Wilderness Loop Hike

Total Loop Distance:42 miles (shorten it by 2.5 miles if you have a car shuttle).
Time Needed: 4-6 days
Rating: Moderate to Difficult
Starting Point:: 8,400 feet
Lowest Point 5,500 feet
Maps: USGS 7.5" Kigalia Point, Woodenshoe Buttes, Warren Canyon, and Poison Canyon. (and a small portion on Black Steer Canyon map).


This hike is mostly contained in the Dark Canyon Wilderness Area, a rugged group of seldom-visited desert canyons in the extreme southeastern corner of Utah. It's certainly deserving of its wilderness status -- a few of the highlights I saw were pristine indian ruins hidden in the canyon walls (corn cobs, pottery and all), wild turkeys, and wild cat and bear tracks perfectly imprinted in the desert sand.
Directions to Trailhead

Access is via State Highway 95. The turnoff to Hwy 95 is approximately 5 miles south of Blanding on State Highway 163.

Very soon after getting on Hwy 95 (maybe a mile), you'll see signs pointing toward Natural Bridges National Monument. After about a mile on the Natural Bridges road, turn right and follow a graded road to the top of Bears Ears Pass.

About 2 miles beyond the Bears Ears, turn left at a junction. Another 2 miles beyond this junction, you'll reach a large meadow with a corral on your left, and the turnoff to Twin Springs. You should see a trailhead sign somewhere at or before this area. This trailhead is the end of the loop hike, near the head of Peavine Canyon. If you have two cars, leave one here.

To reach the beginning of the hike, drive straight ahead (past the corrals, and past the Twin Springs turnoff). In about 1 3/4 miles, turn right (there'll probably be signs pointing to Woodeshoe Canyon Trailhead, or maybe Dark Canyon). Just under a mile later, you'll reach the Trailhead, with a parking area and a sign. This is a relatively new trailhead -- older guidebooks mention scrambling down a steep slope to reach the trail, but this is no longer necessary.

Route/Trail Notes

The trail is fairly clear through most of this route. However, figuring out exactly where you are inside the canyons can get tricky so you ought to have good map skills. Since this is a long hike in a desert canyon I'll focus on where to find water.

The trail begins at the top of Woodenshoe Canyon and drops in elevation fairly quickly, through aspens and firs. About 5 miles down the trail, Cherry Canyon enters from the east. This canyon contains your first water source. Good camping and water is available for the first 3/4 mile up Cherry Canyon (some small pools, one portion was running just a smidge). There was an old sign propped against the tree that marked the entrance but I wouldn't count on it being there next time.

Continuing down Woodenshoe, about a mile after Cherry Canyon, there are some ruins on the east side of the canyon wall, and a mile after that "Keyhole Arch Canyon" joins from the east (this canyon not named on the map, but it has a keyhole-shaped arch about 1.5 miles up-canyon). About 1/2 mile up Keyhole Arch Canyon is a very small spring-fed waterfall (more like a cluster of drips). There are several smaller canyons that come in before Keyhole Arch Canyon so watch your map closely.

After Keyhole Arch Canyon, hike another 5.5 miles down Woodenshoe Canyon and you'll reach the Wates Pond area with water and decent camping. You'll first pass a scummy deep pool, after which the water becomes more and more abundant, even running a bit. Wates Pond is the last and deepest pool, with willows, a small sand bar on one side, and a short fall at the inlet. The water disappears quickly after Wates Pond. Water skeeters, water snakes and toads love to hang out here. You may even see some resident Blue Collared Lizards.

Only a mile later there is another water source: a spring running down the east canyon wall. It's indicated on the left edge of the Warren Canyon map near the elevation point marked 6832. It creates a "drip waterfall" that you probably will hear, but keep a eye on the canyon wall anyway. Some well-used campsites are nearby.

A mile after the "drip waterfall" spring, Dark Canyon merges with Woodenshoe Canyon. Turn right and begin hiking easterly up Dark Canyon. About 4 to 4.5 miles up Dark Canyon, inside a horseshoe bend, there is a spring marked on the map that was all but dry (had maybe a cup or two of water in a tiny pool someone had dug out!). About 3/4 of a mile later there are some good ruins on the north wall.

The next spring is approximately 1.5 miles after the ruins. The entrance of Warren and Trail Canyons from the south and north, respectively, herald the beginning of this spring. It's also marked on the map and has plentiful water (relatively speaking), a healthy community of toads, and good campsites on a small hilltop near the head/beginning of the spring.

About 4.5 miles after this spring, you'll pass by Poison Canyon, entering from the northeast. It's a major canyon with a trail so don't take it by mistake. Instead continue due south and in 3/4 mile you'll reach Rig Canyon, the next water stop. It's marked by an obvious corral and wilderness boundary sign. Go up the Rig Canyon road and in a mile or so you'll come to some old rusted-metal drilling machinery and wood pieces. You'll see some stagnant water here in the canyon bottom, but further up, maybe half a mile is slightly better water. We had to dig out a pool and even then it wasn't stellar quality.

As an alternative water source, keep on going up Dark Canyon instead of going up Rig Canyon. In just over a mile past Rig Canyon, as you come close to the entrance of Peavine Canyon, you'll find more water seeping out of the creekbed. This might be a better water source than Rig Canyon.

Turn right into Peavine Canyon on a 4WD road. Don't miss it; watch your map.

About 6 miles up Peavine, the canyon splits. Take the trail going up the south canyon. There are other trail junctions in this area, so here's how get the right trail: hike along the road until you reach an old corral sitting a few feet off road (can't miss it...it's also marked on the map) . When you reach this corral, backtrack a few minutes and you'll see a trail headed up the south canyon.

Several miles from the corral, in upper Peavine Canyon, you'll again see water. As you hike it develops into quite a healthy little stream; the best water of the hike, but certainly no pools large enough for a dip like our guide book suggests. About 5 miles from the corral you'll find a great camping area: small aspen-lined meadows with good water (complete with many large cow pies to enhance your experience -- anyone else want to get these stupid animals out of the wilderness?).

Continue up the trail from these meadows and just over a mile later you'll reach the Peavine Trailhead. If you didn't leave a car here you'll have a 2.5 mile hike back to the Woodenshoe Trailhead along the same roads you used on the drive in.

Other Tips/Notes

We went in early June and it was already too hot for daytime enjoyment (had to hike in early morning and hang out in the shade in the afternoon). Spring or late Fall is the best time of year to do this hike as it can get very hot lower in the canyon. If you go during the winter months, you'll have problems with snow on the drive in, especially over Bears Ears Pass.

Springs in the canyon bottoms are available for water about every 5 miles. But you do need some sort of water purification system, and the ability to carry a full day's supply between sources. See description for locations of water.

For more details, we recommend the guidebook Hiker's Guide to Utah" by Dave Hall

Although guidebooks agree water is readily available throughout this hike, the quantity apparently varies year to year, and most certainly will vary seasonally. For instance, the guidebook we used mentions "abundant water" and swimming holes many times but only the Wates Pond area seemed to come close to that description.

A "natural" and inspiring side destination after or before your hike is Natural Bridges National Monument. It's literally minutes away, and even if you only have a few hours, you can see some incredible views of the best Bridges from the loop road. A couple more hours and you could do several short hikes to down to the Bridges.

by Steve Allen

This guide deals with specific hikes/backpacks in the San Rafael Swell. It's probably the most accurate Utah trail guide around. We have now done well over 20 of the trips in this guide, and the trail descriptions were right on every time. It is well-written, clear, and concise.

>>Click here see the book at Amazon.com

>>View pages from Canyoneering

>>More books about Utah's Canyon Country

 Site Categories
 To Do

High Uintas Guidebook
Click For Info

A Guide to Climbing the 13,000-Foot Peaks of the High Uintas