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Dark Canyon, Utah

If someone called you and asked if you wanted to go on a kayak trip to Hite, Utah you’d most likely have no idea where this town falls on a map. After a quick google search of the location and upon seeing the satellite imagery displaying a completely red and orange moonscape, any sane paddler would most certainly turn down the strange offer. Fortunately for me, I have a few friends that love the mission just as much as the kayaking. After a few phone calls I was able to convince my good friend Phil to drive 15 hours from California into the heart of the southwest. To maybe go kayaking.

Dark Canyon cuts an impressive gorge through Bears Ears National Monument and empties into the Colorado River as it slows to a halt in the stagnant reservoir Powell. The canyon, which rivals the nearby Grand Canyon in size and scale is so remote and difficult to access that few people aside from some avid backpackers and hikers even know of its existence.

This canyon originally sparked my interest after passing the Abajo Mountains countless times driving out to the desert from Durango, Colorado for weekend trips. Knowing that the creek had a headwaters of around 8000 feet, I figured it had to run from snow melt in big snow years. The only problem is that there is no gauge and the canyon is so infrequently visited because of its remote location it would take tremendous effort to go get a visual of the flow. It was a complete guessing game as to when this stream would run or if it would run at all.

After a dry and dusty winter in 2018, the winter of 2019 provided much needed snow and rain to the parched and sunbaked southwest. Southeastern Utah had a snowpack of just under 200% going into March. Suddenly, the Dark Canyon idea was reignited and I began scheming. Unfortunately, midwinter I had left southern Colorado and was now living 16 hours from Dark Canyon. It was early April and temperatures in Hite had made a quick shift from cool to hot. With a small window of time I started the long drive to a little known canyon in southern Utah.

After a midnight rendezvous with Phil and our friend Josh who was visiting from the UK we loaded up and headed out into the red rock landscape to get a flow check. Using a telephoto lens on my camera I zoomed in down towards the river which flowed a few thousand feet below us. There was water!

With a tight time frame we quickly canned our original plan of accessing the canyon above the top gorge which would have taken at least a day or more to get to the river. We quickly crafted a new plan and began our hike into the canyon on the only known route into the lower portion of Dark Canyon. 

Making the final push into the canyon just before sundown. Photo: Josh Burke

We awoke at the bottom of the canyon and were happy to see the water had only risen since the night before. Parting ways with Josh, Phil and I pushed off and started making downstream progress.

Amazing canyon. Photo: Phillip Schoenhoff

After only a few bends, we began scouting and running bedrock slides and rapids. A short portage around a waterfall with a dangerous cave put us above a very tight section with overhanging walls and significant drops. An extended scout revealed the gorge was good to go and we dropped in.

Hard to see whats down there! Photo: Phillip Schoenhoff
Phil locked in. Dark Side of the Moon Gorge. Photo: PR

We had already run more great rapids than expected and moving around at river level was turning out to be easier than we initially thought. Making good progress, we arrived at the best section of whitewater in the whole canyon. The river pinched to a width of 10 ft for over a quarter mile creating a trough of fun and unique features.

One of the most unique sections of whitewater. So good we walked up for a second lap.
Photo: Phillip Schoenhoff
Phil probing. Photo: PR
Nearing the confluence with the Colorado. Photo: PR

The river kept dishing out great sections of whitewater paired with calm pools, giving us a chance to soak in the canyon walls towering over us. Happy that we had been able to descend through such an incredible canyon, we hit the confluence of the Colorado and began the flat water paddle out.

Chasing desert rivers can have its highs and lows. The possibilities of getting skunked are high and the possibilities of marginal whitewater is even higher. But, when the stars align and you are able to catch a brief moment of flow propelling you through a canyon usually absent of the sound of water. The experience is nothing short of magical.

Paul Ramseth

Fight For Bears Ears

It should be noted that Bears Ears National Monument has seen a great reduction in size since the Trump administration drastically reduced the land previously protected by the Obama administration. With these new boundaries, Dark Canyon and the surrounding lands are no longer protected and could be subject to a variety of threats. For more information about the current state of Bears Ears visit: