Into the heart of Bears Ears National Monument

Since about December 28th I’ve been looking forward to this day: walking into the center of the newly designated (but not safely protected yet… drat politics) Bears Ears National Monument!

We have skirted in and around Bears Ears for the last 70 miles, but today we dropped into Dark Canyon; deep into the wild roadless part of this special place.

Another cold morning with a touch of ice in our water bottles. We started moving before the sun rose above the wall of Ruin Canyon. Weaving cattle trails through tall sage brush, we spotted the ridge of Sweet Alice Hills we’d ascend to the TH of Trail Canyon.

Looking up the ridge we saw (another!) kiva. So beautiful. There is SO MUCH history in this spectacular place. I think, thank goodness people have advocated for extra protection. In my mind, I draft thank you postcards to Sally Jewell and the many, many people who dedicated so much to protect thsee lands. Thank you! 

Back to the route at hand, skirting the cryotobiotic soil is time consuming as we work our way to the ridge. It’s about one mile per hour through an area that looks like it should be hands in our pockets walking. Eventually we make it up to our breakfast ridge and the views are worth the effort and wait. 

Ready for the next leg, up we go scrambling the ridge. Some parts are fun second and third class. There is probably a little easier way to go, but we were mostly having fun with oor route. A few moves, however, were on loose, crumbly sandstone. Check every hold and try to keep the mountain together. 

Over the ridge, we find sandstone benches that make for good (cryotobiotic soil-free) walking. Our pace speeds up. But then slows for interesting plants and bonus water (water you didn’t expect and don’t have to carry) in potholes. There are patches of snow on the north facing dlopes. But the high point of the route is snow free.

After about five hours and six miles, we drop into Dark Canyon Wilderness and the center of Bears Ears. The Cedar Mesa sandstone a swirl of red and white formations and walls that drop 2,000 feet down. Our trail into Trail Canyon winds down the sandstone with Ponderosa, Douglas-fir, greenleaf manzanita, scrub oak, Oregon grape, boxwood, and a parsley (tbi). We take a break sitting in shade with conifer duff!

Down the trail we go. Beautiful forest. Easy walking to the confluence of Trail and Dark Canyon. The trail following the creek bed as it meanders by cliff dwellings. As the canyon deepens, the trail goes up and over the meanders rolling along. We are now ~2,000 feet below the rim. 

The bottom of the canyon has juniper and pinyon woodland, with grassy bends, prickly pear cactus, and phlox. Nearing 7 pm, our general time to look for camp, we look at our maps and realize that the canyon ahead has steep terrain for a few miles. Best find home for the night. A bend later, we see a cluster of junipers with nice duff, free of cryptobiotic soil and only a few cactus. 

Cowboy under the juniper. We set up camp and then had dinner on the edge of the wash, looking up at the moon and towering walls of Dark Canyon. It feels good to be in the heart of Bears Ears NM.

Day 9: 15.2 miles; 147.0 miles total. Ruin Canyon to about a mile west of Woodenshoe Canyon.

GPS: not needed; people sighted: Our first day with no people!; roads: less than a mile, otherwise cross country, cattle path, or genuine trail.

Walking up Ruin Canyon in tall sage brush.


Hi Mom! Chilly morning. Happy to have warm clothes.

Daybreaker, Gabriel and ponderosa. Seeing DB’s track makes me smile.

Kiva and juniper. Which was there first?

A peak inside… while being careful not to touch anything.

Found outside the entrance.

Gabriel looks out on our breakfast time view of Bears Ears NM.

Looking north toward Ruin Canyon and beyond.

Gabriel and a nice interpretive sign. Oh how I love a good interpretive sign!

Who is happy to enter the Dark Canyon Wilderness!?

The TH register. Playing the hiker game of who was here before us. Daybreaker and Runaway are the closest two Hayduke hikers around, others are several weeks ahead.

Greenleaf manzanita! Ponderosa and Douglas-fir in the background.

Lovely forest and trail. Some pines are greater than two feet in diameter!

More bonus water! This is what happy hour looks like on the Hayduke.

Gabriel enjoying some afternoon bonus water.

Nice grasses in Dark Canyon. Makes me think of friends Kevin and Lynne who love golden grass.

Onward toward the Colorado River we go.

Dinner time view of Dark Canyon and the moon. 

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