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Hiking Story of Bear's Ears' "Dark Canyon"

August 29, 2017


Well, it's been about two weekends since my attempted trip down the Bear's Ears' "Dark Canyon". I had originally planned on visiting the Fish Creek - Owl Canyon area but my 27-year-old son who was accompanying me convinced me that Dark Canyon was a better choice. Unfortunately, it didn't come up that way. After driving almost 900 miles straight through with only about four hours of sleeping somewhere in northern Utah, we arrived at the Sundance Trail head of Dark Canyon after a bit of trouble locating at the dirt road to the trail head. It's not specially well marked on the highway. Nevertheless, we did find our way and arrived at the Sundance Trail head at around 3:30 p.m. After some final arrangements to our packs and gear, we started our trip on the trail, which for the first two miles is a really a level old jeep trail. At the two mile point, we veered off the jeep route onto the trail which perhaps was about a mile and half from the canyon rim. It was pretty easy going with just a few rock shelves I had to butt scoop down but it was no problem even for an old man like me. However, when we got to the real canyon rim, things started to turn downhill both figuratively and literally. The trail ended and there was only a vague route down the canyon wall marked sporadically by few occasional cairns. By the time we paced to this point on the canyon rim it was about 5:30 p.m. It did appear a bit daunting but after going up all this way. We should have camped then and there on the rim but it was quite cold and the wind was really howling so we went down hoping for better conditions on the canyon floor.. That turned out to be a larger mistake.


After cautiously making our way down for about one third of a mile, I suddenly found myself somersaulting down the canyon wall at an alarmingly increasing rate. I have no idea what happened to me. I didn't remember tripping or stumbling, just somersaulting down for about a hundred foot sheer drop-off. For a moment I really thought that was the end. Then, miraculously, my backpack caught between some rocks and I came to an abrupt stop. I think I must have lost consciousness briefly because the next thing I remember was my pretty worried son standing over me. After a quick perusal of things, I found that no serious damage was done other than a few superficial cuts on my forehead, an extremely sore shoulder and ribs and a significant gash on the palm of my hand which hurt quite a bit and was bleeding heavily. It took about half an hour to gather my wits and we both determined that I was not in good shape to continue the hike. At that point, my son looked me in the eye and said the rather frustrating words, "Dad, I don't think you can do this kind of stuff anymore". It's a bitter realization that he may be right.


Anyway, by now darkness was rapidly approaching and we had to trace back up. I was still pretty wobbly so Matt carried both our packs to the rim of the canyon and even though I was unencumbered by a pack I very weakly made my way up. By the time we reached the rim it was dark but I had regained enough of my composure that I was able to shoulder my pack and got back to my own pace. Of course, by now it was pretty dark so out came the headlamps and we continued on the trail in the dark for the next 3 miles or so. We finally arrived at the truck sometime around 9:00 pm. Totally exhausted, we opted to spend the night in the trucks' camping shell and head out early the next morning. That night the wind blew crazily hard keeping us awake much of the night and there was some snow on the ground in the morning.  Not a lot but enough that I wondered about the 14-mile drive out over the plateau on a dirt and slippery road in a two wheel drive pickup.


Then, in the next morning, when I went to start the truck, the battery was out of service. I had somehow neglected to turn off the accessory switch on the ignition, something I've never done before since I always check very carefully for stuff like that before I get off for a hike. Nonetheless, the battery was totally dead and there we were miles from the highway at one of the most isolated trailheads I've been visited. There was only one other car at the trailhead and we didn't know how long it had been there and when they would be out. Could be days. To make matters worse, it was a Monday we couldn't expect any weekend cars. That was the only car we had seen since leaving the highway the day before and I had visions of being stranded at the trailhead for days before someone showed up to offer us a jump. Needless to say, both of us was unhappy. In fact, I was furious with myself for being so careless as to leave the accessory switch on. But there was nothing to do but sit and wait. Fortunately, the weather turned out to be good and the little snow melted without much effect and the wind slowed down somewhat. Then, low and behold, after four hours, two gentlemen from Flagstaff pulled up in their Tacoma and gave us a jump and we were going out. We did take a longer drive during the way out on the dirt road over the plateau and with the canyon country and the snowcapped Henry Mountains in the background, it was, indeed gorgeous. Certainly deserving of national monument status.

Anyway, that's the report. Sometimes things just come up other than how you planned. It could have been worse - a lot worse - and I guess I've got to reassess just what I can physically do in the future. I'm still a little sore but my hand has healed nicely and other than that and a nearly two thousand mile trip that ended near disaster, that's all I have to report. 

We really didn't plan things so well. We left my son's place in Bozeman at about 4:40 p.m. and drove nearly straight through without rest. Didn't eat dinner before staring the hike and left far too late in that afternoon. It would have been much better to just have camped at the trail head, eaten a decent meal and started early that next morning. Doing the trip a month later in warmer weather in warmer months might have been wise as well. Oh well, live and learn although at my age one would think I'm out of that stage.

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