LOCATION: Northeast of Natural Bridges National Monument, in Manti-La Sal National Forest and Dark Canyon Wilderness.
HIGHLIGHTS: For those seeking a more rugged wilderness experience, this tour provides access to a deep, beautiful and forested sandstone canyon on a legal 4WD vehicle corridor through Dark Canyon Wilderness. It’s a great place to mix hiking and backcountry driving. You will see an arch and terraced cliffs, and you can hike to a historic cowboy cabin and oil drilling site. It’s best from June to October.
DIFFICULTY: Easy to Little Notch; moderate to difficult in the Peavine Corridor on an unmaintained 4WD road. There are many wash crossings and possibly some washed-out sections.
TIME & DISTANCE: 6 hours; 62.5 miles round-trip from S.R. 95; or 2.5–3 hours and 17 miles round-trip from Elk Ridge Road (Tour 50). I stop at Dark Canyon, where road 089 splits.
MAPS: URRA, pp. 78 (G–H, 4) and 86 (A–B, 3–4). Manti-La Sal National Forest’s Moab and Monticello Ranger Districts (B–E, 8–10). National Geographic/Trails Illustrated’s Manti-La Sal National Forest, Dark Canyon Wilderness Area & Natural Bridges National Monument (703). Canyonlands Natural History Association’s Dark Canyon Trail Guide.
INFORMATION: Moab and Monticello Ranger District, Monticello Office.
SPECIAL NOTE: In the wilderness area, mechanized travel is restricted to the designated corridor, which extends 66 feet from the center of the road.
GETTING THERE: Follow the Elk Ridge Road directions (Tour 50) to Little Notch, or from S.R. 95 about 6.3 miles west of the S.R. 95/U.S. 191 junction, take county road 228 to forest road 092, then Elk Ridge Road, No. 088, to Little Notch. I start at S.R. 95 [N37°33.757' W109°35.013'].
REST STOPS: There are primitive campsites in the canyon. Natural Bridges National Monument has developed campsites and other facilities.
THE DRIVE: Bear right at a Y junction at mile 0.9 [N37°34.496' W109°35.515'], where Elk Mountain Road (county road 228; forest road 088) becomes dirt and gravel. You will see Elk Ridge to the west and north. At mile 11.3, in the national forest, the road narrows and becomes rougher. As you make the 3,000-foot climb to Elk Ridge, trading pinyon-juniper woodland for pine forest, the Colorado Rockies will rise to the east. Keep right at the Y at mile 19.8 [N37°40.564' W109°47.835'], taking county road 224/forest road 088 toward Big Notch, a.k.a. The Notch. About 2 miles farther, at Little Notch [N37°41.652' W109°48.665'], road 089 branches left. Take it, and you will soon see a sign-in box.
Descend 1,300 feet in 2 miles along Kigalia Canyon on a narrow, rocky road to Peavine Canyon, amid Dark Canyon Wilderness’s mix of ponderosa pines, oaks, cottonwoods, and white and pink sandstone cliffs dotted with pinyons and junipers. At the canyon bottom the route crosses the wash often. At 30.6 [N37°47.074' W109°51.514'], the route splits at Dark Canyon. Stop and scan the cliffs ahead for a large arch. I end the drive here, but you have two choices for easy hikes. Ahead, the old, brushy road to the left [N37°47.927' W109°52.094'] goes 1.2 miles up Rig Canyon, to a late 1920s oil drilling site. The narrow track to the right, which can be too eroded in places to drive on, goes almost 2 miles to Scorup Cabin, a historic cowboy cabin that was moved from Rig Canyon when drilling for oil there ended in 1930.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication