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Wilderness Volunteers

Dark Canyon, Manti LaSal National Forest, UT (Sep 23rd - Sep 29th 2017)

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The Dark Canyon Wilderness is a spectacular canyon wilderness in southeastern Utah that was the ancestral home of puebloan peoples for 5,000 years. Dark Canyon is rich in biological, geological, archaeological, and historical significance, and is also one of the most colorful canyon systems on the Colorado Plateau. Dark Canyon begins on Elk Ridge at an elevation of 8,800 feet then cuts through Cedar Mesa sandstone formations dramatically framed amidst a forest of ponderosa pine on its 5,000-foot descent to the upper reaches of Lake Powell. It is remote, harsh, and spectacularly beautiful. At various times residents of the canyon hunted on the mesa tops, grew maize, squash and beans on canyon terraces, gathered pinyon nuts on the plateaus, and hunted turkey and deer in the high ponderosa pine forests. They built cliff-dwellings and grain storage warehouses, made pottery in a variety of styles, and fashioned tools from the mineral resources of the canyon - accomplishments we moderns would be challenged to match.

Our ongoing service project with Manti-La Sal National Forest archaeologists is to survey remote parts of the Dark Canyon system for artifacts and ancestral sites. We will split into small teams, each led by an archaeologist, and slowly walk the canyon looking for stone tools and flakes, projectile points, pot sherds and the remains of ancient structures. This is off-trail, bushwacking, frequently through dense pinyon-juniper forest. Participants should be comfortable in these situations, and feel confident in their orienteering skills. While the details of our site this year are still being determined we expect to survey a lower section of Dark Canyon, in the vicinity of Trail Canyon. Forest Service staff will provide us with training on how stone tools and artifacts were made, the different styles of tools and pottery used, and how to find artifacts and document the sites where they are found. The training includes a demonstration of the art of "flint knapping" - the fabrication of tools and projectile points from stone - that will give you insight into the things to look for and the types of tools that can be made from stone.

Although it may seem like looking for a needle in a haystack, the area is rich with artifacts. You will develop a "feel" for where artifacts are likely to be found and how to recognize them. Nobody knows what we will find, but volunteers have found dozens of artifacts including pot sherds, projectile points and stone tools, as well as previously undocumented cliff dwellings. We'll likely backpack down Trail Canyon about 4-5 miles and set up camp near to access with water. The Forest Service will provide pack animal support to carry group gear and food, although volunteers will be asked to carry food and gear that we'll use in the first two days. On our free day we will explore the canyon and hike to ruins, and on the way home there are other prehistoric sites and museums to visit.

This project is rated as a strenuous project.

Check out more photos of last year's Dark Canyon project in our gallery.


Sep 23rd - Sep 29th 2017

Service Project

Survey remote parts of the Dark Canyon system for artifacts and ancestral sites

Agency logo

Free Days

Hiking to scenic vistas, photography, explore rock art & ruins, wildlife viewing


Backpack camping with possible pack support

Project Difficulty

Strenuous : 4-5 mile backpack on a steep trail, digging, bending, lifting, sawing. Pack animal supported.


Lee Cooper
Norm Feaster

Equipment List