Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Heart of Darkness

No, not the Joseph Conrad novel, rather the large and remote Dark Canyon plateau. I had wondered for years about this region, seeing it as a mysterious blank spot on the map, where it bears the ominous name of Dark Canyon Primitive Area. My travels in the region always skirted the unknown, leaving this terra incognita to the imagination as an island of questions. As far as I knew, dinosaurs and cannibalistic pygmies made their home there, and wild amazon women ruled from elaborately constructed treehouses.

O.K., I'm being more than a little dramatic here, but in truth the area is little known outside the local community despite being stunningly wild and beautiful. I finally made a commitment to visit last fall, and I am happy to report there is much to enjoy about the region, and little to fear. I will definitely make a point of going back in the future.

On this trip I approached from the south over Cedar Mesa. There are only two "major" roads that bisect the plateau, one running roughly north/south and the other trending east/west. I took the northern route, which is called Elk Ridge Road. The turnoff is located just above the junction of Utah Highway 95 and State Route 275, which leads to Natural Bridges National Monument.

As you approach the plateau from the south, you are greeted by prominent and recognizable landmarks shown in the photo above. The two ragged buttes on the horizon are called appropriately enough the Bears' Ears. Rising above the edge of the elevated mesa, they are visible across a large part of southeastern Utah, and they serve as the gateway for Elk Ridge road as it climbs onto the plateau.

As is the case with many Utah landscapes in the southern part of the state, the predominant vegetation at the lower elevations is juniper and pinon pine. These dense forests of "dwarf" trees mantle the terrain, disguising the rugged contours of canyons and mesas.

Elk Ridge road (also signed as County Road 268 and Forest Service Road 092) rises steadily until it reaches the mean elevation of the plateau.

Gradually the pinons and junipers give way to trees more suited to cooler and wetter conditions, and ponderosa and aspen groves soon form the road boundary.
The region encompassing the plateau is part of the Manti-LaSal National Forest, and the area surrounding it is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. These public lands offer an wide array of recreation, and encompass an astonishing variety of wildlife. I saw more wild turkey and deer during my visit here than just about anywhere else I had been this last year, and I probably would have seen elk had hunting season not been in full swing.

The funny thing about Dark Canyon is that the canyon incised into the plateau is not dark at all. In fact the layers of sedimentary rock exposed here are white and buff sandstone which appears all the more striking due to the blanket of conifers that drape the slopes.

There are many side roads off Elk Ridge that lead to canyon vistas, but almost no way for full sized vehicles to access the canyon itself. The chasm of Dark Canyon is protected as a wilderness except for a narrow route to the bottom called the Peavine Corridor. I had wanted to explore this 4 wheel drive trail into the depths, but the scant information I had at my disposal and the overgrown nature of the upper trail ultimately dissuaded me. There is also a network of ATV trails in the area, and perhaps a future trip will include an offroad excursion with a fourwheeler instead of my truck.

As it contours around the edges of the surrounding canyons Elk Ridge road negotiates a variety of terrain including a narrow neck between defiles called the Notch. The road leading to and from this scenic feature is narrow and steep, and drivers should be prepared for the possibility of being unable to turn around or pull off when oncoming traffic approaches. In addition these backroads like so many others in Utah become impassable during heavy rains - you've been warned!

The other significant road across the expanse of the plateau is encountered near the northern end of the plateau. On maps it is referred to as Gooseberry Road, and it includes a section called the Causeway which contours around the southern exposure of the Abajo Mountains - named the "Blues" by locals. Rising even higher above the surrounding area, this laccolithic range is blanketed with maple and oak trees. During my visit I was fortunate enough to see an explosion of autumnal color unlike the typical golden aspen display found in the southwest.

There is an abundance of hiking trails throughout the area. Some descend into the canyon while others climb the lofty heights of the Blues. I did some of each, although I barely scratched the surface on this trip.

There is still a lot to discover here on the Dark Canyon plateau. My next post will continue to unravel the mystery of this beautiful and wild area.

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