Sunday, April 9th, 2023, 0650-1915
Youngs Canyon mm 45 to Sundance Trailhead, then #vanlife to Hite Marina (about 11 road miles skipped)
12 miles and 23 river crossings, elevation 4000′
Craig Childs roamed the desert for years then wrote a fantastic book about his discoveries in The Secret Knowledge of Water. His smaller cover header reads: There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning. I knew this to be true, just never expected both threats to come into play in the same day.
When the Hayduke hands you one of the hardest days, get ready because there is probably more to come. A big surprise was waiting for us in Dark Canyon, but thankfully we’d remained in Youngs, enjoying the peaceful dribble of water next to our campsite. What a beautiful night and morning. The stars were epic, framed by the towering canyon walls. I left one of my tent flaps open for the first time this hike, just to be able to see the show. I was still toasty all night and the morning felt almost balmy (but was still in the 40’s). The Thumb stood as sentinel, watching over us and making for nice pictures in the morning. The phrase “Under the Thumb” went through my mind over and over for some reason. It sounded ominous and made me think of the Handmaid’s Tale. But instead, we were free and having fun.
We relished our last mile in Youngs canyon, admiring how the small creek poured over the rocks. We didn’t gather much water, figuring there would be plenty all day. It was pretty easy going, with just some minor bushwhacking, no more major bypasses except for one small climb going over a hill to meet the confluence with Dark Canyon. There we gazed down on our surprise for the day: a torrent of chocolate brown and red water gushing down canyon, complete with rapids and waterfalls. Most would classify it as a river but it was more the size of a large stream….a very angry looking one.
This was a complete shocker, to say the least. Everything I’d read and seen about Dark Canyon was that there was reliable water in the form of large emerald pools (tinajas) and often a small rivulet of a stream between them. It’s supposed to be an easy going meander, with some decent bits of trail and no major bypasses. Quite a few day hikers and backpackers travel it regularly, since it’s such a beautiful canyon but not too terribly difficult.
But not this time. Days before when we were in Needles, Mac had mentioned something about the first river crossing at Youngs and Dark confluence. The report said if it was difficult, then to turn around because the crossings would only get harder. I was certain that either Mac or the reporter meant the Dirty Devil river. Because Dark Canyon does not have a river, it barely has a creek. I studied all the information and I knew the deal. Now looking down on this river, I swallowed my certainty and pride, along with a big lump of dread about our upcoming 7 miles.
When there’s record snowfall for the year and the high temps go from the 40s to the 70s and 80s in just a few days, you get a river in Dark Canyon. Looking at the first crossing, I knew it was going to be a long day. But we wanted to at least give it a go. We were able to go upstream to a wider spot and I was surprised that the water wasn’t too deep and pretty easy to cross. But oh so cold! My legs and feet ached after the first few crossings. But it quickly warmed up.
Most of the rest of the crossings were easy enough too, but we really had to study the river closely. We were pretty certain we could make it down the whole way because we’d met a couple of backpackers at the confluence who had come from the Sundance trail the day before. The thing we didn’t know was that the water had already risen 2 feet since then. The BLM ranger that we met at the end of the canyon confirmed this.
Besides being a little disappointed that I couldn’t take my first dip in clear, calm water, I was also uneasy all day, wondering if the rushing water might become too much at some point. Our deepest crossing came up over my thighs and the current was pretty strong… enough to make my trekking poles vibrate. I’d crossed much worse in New Zealand, but most of that water had been clear, so easier to tell the depth. The angry red\ brown water here was the trickiest thing. We had to really feel our way along…thank goodness for trekking poles!
Speaking of which, on lucky crossing #13, I dropped a pole in the river. Proper river crossing technique holds that one should remove their straps, in case they go down in the water. But this resulted in my pole not being secure. I stood frozen in disbelief for a few seconds as I watched it go bobbing along, then realized that it was floating well and very visible by the handle and strap, so maybe I could track it down the river. Stellar beat me to the punch, dropping his pack and running to a good spot to wait for it. I positioned myself downstream of him but he was able to grab it on the first try. Whew! Crisis averted. For the remainder of the day, I left my straps on.
We tried doing as few crossing as possible but ended up with a whooping 23! Quite a few were definitely unnecessary. It was hard to tell if the ledges we were walking along the river might end around each bend. Most times they went through but they got pretty skinny at times. Drops of 20 feet or more into the raging torrent were common. This while skirting a tilted 2 foot terrace. We wanted to avoid backtracking but it was inevitable at times. We’d have to go back a ways to where the river was best to cross. This added a lot of time and distance to the day.
Our other issue was drinking water. The muddy water was unpalatable and I’d started the day with only 1 liter. Fortunately other backpackers had told us of a clear spring about 2 miles before the exit. We broke for lunch there, though I was still nervous about the river rising and didn’t want to sit for long. We ran into a group of 5 NOLS instructors mid way and near the very end, a couple who looked very out of their element. The lady had on a tank top, shorts, no hat and a tiny day pack; the guy was shirtless (gotta show off the muscles). They were on the other side and trying to cross where the river was very narrow…this usually means it’s deep. The guy was just sliding into the water from the steep bank while grabbing for the women’s hand, to pull her along. She looked very reluctant. She had a pair of trekking poles but was just holding them at her side. I didn’t watch to see the outcome, we just kept moving. The lack of any protective sun gear told me all I needed to know. Hope the worst thing that happened to them all day was only a sunburn.
It was very hot by the time we reached the exit…89 degrees at 2 pm! What a perfect time of the day for a hellacious climb. I would’ve loved to have gone for a dip, but who wants to willingly immerse in that kind of water? We met the very friendly BLM ranger Gordy and told him about our experience. He said the water had only come up in the last 3 days and he expected it to go much higher. We all wondered about the 9 or so people we’d seen up the canyon, out on backpacking and day trips. With the river rising a few feet each day, things were already at the limit of being safe.
Dark Canyon was very lovely, with its amazing high walls, rock slab terraces, deep chutes carved into the rock, and funky inclusions…geologic wonders. I’d love to go back and have more time to appreciate its beauty. This day, we appreciated its rugged power in the force of the rapids, violent waterfalls and spinning holes. These things sent a clear message to me…get out while you can! I also didn’t get to take as many pictures as I wanted to, since I kept my phone in a dry bag most of the time. So we did get out, up a giant 1500′ climb of the canyon wall. The Sundance trail was deceivingly nice for the brief transition from the river to the slope, then it went straight up a scree and boulder field, unrelenting. I dug out my mp3 player so I could at least have some motivational music.
Gordy caught up to us by the rim, but then we still needed to walk several miles to the car park, ascending more layers of canyon. We were able to talk and walk with him, learning a whole lot about the area. I must admit, I had additional motives in that I hoped to yogi some water from his truck. I hadn’t wanted to carry much up the steep climb and now realized that the 11 mile HOT road walk to Hite was going to suck with only 1.5 liters. In our conversation, we stumbled across the fact that Gordy works with Heidi, who was the ranger we’d tried so hard to get ahold of for permission to go through Aravaipa canyon 2 years prior, when we were hiking the GET. At the time, she’d just been transferred to Gordy’s office. Small world.
Finally at the trailhead, we quickly gravitated to 3 guys who had lots of extra water in their van, plus a few beers. Sorry Gordy…it was great to meet him but we dropped him like a hot potato for beer. He needed to take off quickly anyway…on the clock and all. Allan, Jeff and John were all from Durango, CO and preparing giants packs for their most ambitious adventure. They’d heard tell of the RIVER running and were set to RUN it in their packrafts down to the Colorado river! I’d just asked Gordy if he’d ever seen anybody raft or kayak Dark Canyon when it was flooding and he said he hadn’t. Now here were 3 intrepid and daring guys, from CO of course, going to do it.
I showed them some of my pictures and video and they got really excited. The falls and holes that gave me dread made them most happy. They’d been following conditions in this canyon for years and it was finally go time! They asked about our next plans and we told them we were on our way to Hite. Bells went off and Allan asked “how would you like to do that segment in air conditioning?” I can blame it on the weakness I felt from multiple hard days of hiking, the stress over the river crossings, and the oppressive heat, but I caved to this idea without hesitation. So did Stellar. In exchange for an easy ride to Hite, we’d be doing them a service by delivering their van to their take-out. We’d already not connected our footsteps on this route, so skipping the road walk was a pretty easy decision. I try to do most road walks, like on the PNT, but I also pay attention to when serendipity is throwing me a bone.
We worked out all the logistics, exchanged phone numbers, etc. It’s a lot of trust to hand a stranger your keys, hoping they’ll do the right thing. Of course we were most happy and thunderstruck that we suddenly had wheels but by the next morning, couldn’t wait to ditch them and be back on foot. We’re the last people that would want to take off with their car. We bid the guys farewell and hoped we’d hear from them again. They seemed to really know what they were doing. I noticed Allan had a fire and rescue badge in his truck. Pros.
Spoiler alert, as I was finally writing this blog days later, I heard from the guys that they were ok and they shared these incredible photos! They’re from the lower canyon but that’s the same water that we crossed 23 times, only much higher just a day or two later. Incredible! Disclaimer: These pictures are their property and copyrighted, I got their permission to post them here but they should not be reposted anywhere else.
We enjoyed our drive to Hite, down the same road we would have otherwise walked, so we got to see the same sights. We went slow, babying the AWD van on the 4WD road. We got to Hite just in time to see Sky and Leah walking the HWY. We’d last seen them in Moab. We were able to take their trash and give them the other 2 beers that the guys said we could have. It was nice to share in the spoils, helping our fellow thru hikers that had suffered through the long road walk. We all took a short side trip to the Dirty Devil bridge crossing, just to see if that river was running high too. It wasn’t at all, which gave us confidence for the next 2 days. We’d need to travel up river about 6 miles on our route.
Stellar and I dropped the other 2 back at their footsteps and drove to the Hite outpost to retrieve our cache and some water. The ranger station bathrooms were open and the outlets working, so we decided to post up right there. Stellar slept on the bed in the van (careful to lay his pad down to keep some distance between it and his hiker funk:). I slept on top the picnic table and it was great. The night was pretty warm and I heard hoots from a spotted owl. No one bothered us all night and we left at 6 am the next morning. What an amazing day!