Friday, May 6, 2011

Walking in The Dark - Part I

If you're like me, the best way to really experience a place is on foot. And because there is so much to see, that means it could take a while. My first encounter with Dark Canyon barely scratched the surface, and last fall I returned to expand my knowledge of the area. Once again I managed to see just enough to realize that I'll have to visit many times to become familiar with more accessible parts of the region, let alone the wilder and more remote places.

Encompassing a variety of Forest Service and BLM lands in southeastern Utah, Dark Canyon offers a relatively unique environment for those accustomed to canyons found to the west and north. Where many high desert landscapes are characterized by stark, angular walls of naked rock sparsely populated with pinon and juniper, Dark Canyon presents a visually softer picture. Here the sharp relief of sheer sandstone walls are mantled in conifer forests, almost but not quite disguising the vertical nature of the topography.

That's not to say that the shins and elbows of the plateau don't poke out. There's no mistaking the classic Four Corners topography, but high altitude and extensive tree cover make this a great place to visit when summer temperatures in lower elevations are better suited to mad dogs and englishmen.

Trails off the high terrain drop down in both directions - outward to the flanks of the plateau, or inward towards Dark Canyon proper. Outer edge paths tend to follow ridgelines, while those descending to the center follow tributary canyons to the main stem. The trail in this post is named Horse Pasture Canyon and leads to the latter.

The remote location of Dark Canyon means few visitors. I can see from the trail head register that it has been nearly a week since others were here, and during the entire hike I'll have the place to myself. Only the occasional breeze rustling leaves and sporadic birdsong interrupt my reverie - the peace and solitude are amazing.

The trail initially contours along the rim for a mile or more before beginning to drop gradually through the trees. The upper section has a very moderate grade, meaning there will be a steeper pitch ahead in order to descend to the canyon bottom.

The walking is easy and the path is well shaded, only occasionally breaking out of the trees long enough to catch a glimpse of what lies ahead.

The intersection of red shales and sandstones with the white and buff colored Permian rocks of the Cutler formation below marks where the trail begins a swifter drop to the canyon floor.

This gate along a chokepoint indicates the name of the canyon is appropriate. Like much of the public land out West the surrounding forest was and still is used extensively for grazing cattle.

The canyon bottom is reached after a series of steep and loose switchbacks. Although still heavily treed, gaps appear revealing walls of sandstone bearing vertical streaks of oxidized minerals from above.

Once on level ground, the trail heads down canyon, all the while opening up into a spacious vault of stone framing glorious blue sky.

The canyon floor does offer ideal pasture for grazing stock, with built-in fences in the form of sheer stone walls and plenty of forage. From here the path continues towards the main stem of Dark Canyon and the Woodenshoe trail, which allows for a wide variety of multi-day hiking options.

I have a different idea. There is no hurry. I've got all day and no place better to be. The shade of an early fall cottonwood tree and a patch of inviting grass beneath it beckons me to stay and enjoy the absolute stillness. It almost makes me wish I were a horse.

1 comment: