Dark Canyon – Sundance Trail

Dark Canyon

My husband and I have been wanting to hike in Dark Canyon almost ever since we moved to San Juan County.  It’s been on our ‘list’ for quite a while now, but it seems like there is always some kind of factor that makes us not end up going; too hot, rain in the forecast, holiday weekend and we think there will be too many people down there, etc.

We had been planning to go the weekend before, which was Memorial Day weekend, but my husband had answered so many calls at work (he works at the Monticello BLM) in the week leading up to it from people who were  planning to go down there over the weekend, that we decided not to go.  The trail that we wanted to access Dark Canyon from, the Sundance Trail, is one of the lower elevation trailheads and it can be extremely hot in the summer.  We knew that it was closing in on the time of year that it would be too hot to go, but we decided that we’d rather wait and try to get down there when there would be less people.

All last week we were checking the weather several times each day hoping that it would be nice for the weekend.  On Thursday the weather forecast still looked like it was going to be nice, so we decided that we would pack everything that night and load it into the car so that we could leave right after work on Friday.

We made it out of Monticello just after 5:00pm and drove about 110 miles (the last 15 was on an unpaved road) to the trailhead near Hite.  Our plan was to hike down into Dark Canyon before it got dark, but as we started down the trail we realized that that might not be possible.  It was getting dark pretty fast, and the last mile of the trail down into the canyon is a 40-50 degree talus slope that drops about 1,120 vertical feet in less than a mile.

The Last Mile of the Sundance Trail

I didn’t know about this part of the trail until we had just left the parking area and my husband pointed to an area that looked like a rock slide and said, ‘That’s probably where we go down, I’ve heard it’s really steep and rocky’.  I’m actually kind of glad that I didn’t know about it ahead of time, I may not have wanted to go if I had!  But once we were there and I saw the canyon at sunset with all the pinks and purples in the sky and in the walls of the canyon, I couldn’t wait to get down to the bottom!  I don’t know if it was intentional, but if it was, it was a good plan on my husband’s part!

Hiking to Dark Canyon at Sunset

We made it to the tip of the rim where the really steep part of the trail starts and decided that we should probably camp there for the night.  We were really wanting to hike in the evening to avoid the heat, but we knew that it would be really bad to get stuck on that steep slope in the dark, so we stopped there and set up camp.  It was already mostly dark and we were wanting to get up early to finish the hike to the bottom before it got too hot, so we set up the tent and turned in for the night.

Our Camp on the Rim of Dark Canyon

We woke up at about 6:00 the next morning and started packing up right away so that we could get back on the trail.  To save time, we decided to just eat some granola, and then we’d make coffee and eat the rest of our breakfast once we got to the bottom of the canyon.

Now it was time for the hard part of the hike.  Actually, I don’t think you can really call this part of the Sundance Trail a ‘hike’- it was more like a scramble (or a climb on the way back up).  It was a really difficult section of the trail, made even more difficult by the heavy backpacks we were carrying.  The night before we had seen lights down in the canyon, and we passed that group who was on their way up the trail as we were on our way down.

I think we were only about half way down when my knees started to quiver every time I’d try to take another step down- not a good sign!

Hiking into Dark Canyon at Sunrise

The Last Mile on the Sundance Trail

We hike in the canyons around here quite a bit, so the elevation loss/gain wasn’t something that we’re not used to, it’s the trail itself that’s difficult.  One of our hiking guides describes it like this,’ The Sundance Trail is not really a trail at all, but rather a well marked route into Dark Canyon.’

We finally made it to the bottom an hour and a half after we started.  Whew!  An hour and a half to go a mile?!  That should show how difficult that last part of the trail is!

Once we were at the bottom we couldn’t wait to get to the water!  In my opinion, one of the best things about Dark Canyon is that there is a perennial stream that flows through it.  I have never put so much thought into water as I have since we moved here and started hiking in the desert!

We decided to set up our camp right were the trail intersects the stream.  The area is big enough for several tents, but not knowing the canyon, we really didn’t know how far it would be to another camp.  Now we know that there are quite a few nice spots in either direction, so we’ll probably go for a different one next time and leave that area for a larger group.

Once we set up our tent we made coffee and ate some more, (and drank a TON of water!) and headed down the canyon to explore.

Our Camp in Dark Canyon

Right away, I was really impressed with the hike down the canyon- it was absolutely beautiful!  Within about 30 minutes of hiking down the canyon you start to see some deep pools that almost beg to be swam in!  On the way down my husband jumped in a couple different pools, and yes, they were more than deep enough to actually ‘jump’ into!  From the point where the Sundance trail connects with Dark Canyon, it’s only 3 miles to Lake Powell, but we didn’t go quite that far.  I’d say we went about 2 miles or so, but we were also wanting to explore up the canyon so we decided that we’d better turn around.  On the way back to camp I couldn’t resist it anymore, I had to jump in the water!  It felt so good- when water isn’t a given like it is in so many other places, you really appreciate it when it’s there!

Just Down Canyon From the Sundance Trail Junction

Our Favorite Swimming Hole!

Jumping into a Deep Pool

Heading Down the Canyon

Narrow Part of the Trail

Looking Down Canyon Toward Lake Powell

Rocks in Dark Canyon

We got back to camp and made lunch- Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles.  I really love Mountain House’s dehydrated meals.  And not just because I’m camping and I’m starving either, they’re really good!  When my husband and I started hiking and camping together, I don’t think he had ever had one and really didn’t want to try them either.  It took a lot of convincing, but I finally got him to try one, and that’s all it took, he was hooked too!

I remember when I was a kid and my dad would take us backpacking and we would always get to go and pick out our meals before we went.  I ALWAYS got the same meal- Spaghetti w/Meat Sauce, and I think either my dad or my sister would get Beef Stew, but I really don’t remember there being any other choices.  Now they have so many different meals to choose from; Sweet & Sour Pork w/Rice, Jamaican Style Chicken & Rice, and Lasagna w/Meat Sauce are a few of my favorites.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that when we got back to camp and I went to get the stove and the food, I noticed that there was a large hole ripped in the front corner of the tent and some of our stuff was sticking out of it.  We could see right away that the gallon Ziploc that we were using as a trash bag had been chewed on, but it wasn’t until about 3 hours later that I realized that the two bananas that we had brought for breakfast the next morning were also gone!  I think it was a raven, but who knows?  Luckily our tent was a very cheap (but incredibly reliable!) one that was on its last leg anyway.

My husband paid $30 for it at Walmart about 5 years ago and it has been all over the Western US with us.  It really proved itself one night when we were rafting down the San Juan River and the wind was blowing so hard that it was almost flattening it.  The stakes weren’t enough to hold it, so we had to bring large rocks into the tent and line the whole side that the wind was coming from with them.  It poured all night, and the wind was so bad that we barely slept, but we stayed dry!  It was a great tent, and for $30 it had long outlived what we had expected, but it was still sad to see it go like that!

After we got lunch going we decided we should probably filter some water and refill our water bottles that were almost empty by that point.  I think we carried about 1.5 gallons down into the canyon with us and we also brought a water filter, so it was nice to know that even though we were only carrying a little bit of water, we had and endless supply!

After refilling our water bottles we took our lunch down to the stream and sat and ate with our feet in the water.  By that point it was really hot so we decided to just sit in the shade by the water until it started to cool off and we could explore up the canyon a little.

Once it was starting to cool off we made another meal (Chicken Teriyaki- also delicious!) and then headed off up the canyon.  My husband had heard from some of his co-workers that heading up the canyon from where the Sundance Trail comes in is the nicer part, and it only took about 20 minutes before we got to an area with deep pools similar to what we had seen down the canyon.  We ran into a family of 5 who were camping about 1/3 of a mile up the canyon from us, but other than that, we didn’t see any other people while we were down in the canyon, which was nice.

Hiking up the Canyon

Once we had gone as far as we were going to hike, we found a nice pool and my husband took one last soak while I sat in the shade nearby.  The sun was setting and it was starting to cool off, so we just relaxed and hung out there for a while- there’s no rush to go back to camp when you’re in a place like that!

Up the Canyon

One Last Soak…

Hiking Back to Camp

Sunset in Dark Canyon

We finally made our way back to camp and made our last meal, (Spaghetti w/Meat Sauce) filtered more water so that we’d be all ready to go first thing in the morning, and just relaxed around camp until it got dark.  Both nights we were camping were completely clear and it was amazing how many stars you could see!  Dark Canyon is located just about 25 miles (as the crow flies) from Natural Bridges National Monument, which was designated by the International Dark Sky Association as the world’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2007.  During the summer, Natural Bridges has Dark Sky programs led by astronomy rangers that are free to the public.  If you’re planning a trip through the area, be sure to call ahead for their current schedule- it’s a great program that you don’t want to miss!

We woke up just before 6:00am, ate a quick breakfast, had a ‘memorial service’ for our tent as we packed it up for the last time, and got on the trail as fast as we could to get the grueling part of the hike done before it got hot.  While we were coming down the steep, rocky part the day before, we had said that it would probably be much easier to come back up, but in hindsight, I don’t think there’s ANYTHING easy about the Sundance Trail!  The combination of soreness from the day before, heavy backpacks, and just the trail itself made the climb out incredibly difficult.  It was really frustrating each time I’d look up and see how far we still had to go.  I’d try to wait as long as I could before I’d look up again, but then when I would, it would look exactly the same as it had the last time!  I finally found that looking down at how far we’d come was much better for morale!

It was a great feeling to reach the top where we had camped the first night!  But our celebration was short lived since we still had a few miles to hike back to the car and it was already starting to get hot.  When we were about a mile from the trailhead, we passed a group of four who were on their way in.  This brought the total number of groups of people we had seen up to just three, and only one had been down in the canyon itself.  Looks like waiting until after Memorial Day had paid off!

Distance from Hite to lodging in San Juan County, Utah:


Please visit the Monticello BLM website for directions and a printable brochure and map.

This entry was posted in Camping, Hiking, Things to do for FREE!, Travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Dark Canyon – Sundance Trail

  1. John says:

    Thanks informative post, helps my trip.

  2. Terri Schleiss says:

    Thank you!!! I live in Oregon where it is a different beauty.

  3. Vonnie says:

    It is really a great and useful piece of information.
    I am satisfied that you simply shared this
    useful info with us. Please stay us up to date like this.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I certainly enjoyed reading it, you
    are a great author.I will remember to bookmark your blog and may come back sometime soon. I want to encourage one to continue your great posts,
    have a nice holiday weekend!

  5. Pingback: Designation of Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, UT | Utah's Canyon Country Blog

  6. harwood egan says:

    Has anyone been down the trail more recently?

    • Allison says:

      I haven’t been down the trail again since I wrote that post in 2011. My husband hiked all the way through Dark Canyon last fall starting in the Abajo Mts., but he didn’t come out on the Sundance Trail- he was with a group and they had a boat pick them up at the Colorado River. If you’d like to talk to someone who has been down the Sundance Trail more recently, I’d recommend contacting the Forest Service office in Monticello at 435-587-2041.


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