Dark Canyon
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
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    Distance: 13.6 miles
       (plus 14.3 miles by shuttle car)

    Walking time: 8 1/2 hours
    : 1260 ft. gain, 3360 ft. loss
       Horse Ranch Park Trailhead (start): 8,920 ft.
       top of Devils Stairway: 8,200 ft.
       Erickson Springs Trailhead: 6,820 ft.

    Trail: Generally well marked and easy to follow.

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The upper parts of the trail are usually covered with snow from mid-November through early July.

    Vicinity: near Crested Butte

    Dark CanyonDark Canyon


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    Dark Canyon is often explored as a short day hike from the Erickson Springs Trailhead. From there the trail follows along the north side of Anthracite Creek, entering almost immediately into one of the most scenic parts of Dark Canyon. Anthracite Creek is a fast-flowing stream that is very popular with fly fishermen, and Erickson Springs Campground is conveniently located just a few hundred feet from the trailhead. The walk up Anthracite Creek makes a fine alternative to the hike described below if a shuttle to the Horse Ranch Park Trailhead cannot be arranged. If a shuttle can be arranged, however, I recommend beginning your hike at Horse Ranch Park. The total distance between the two trailheads is 13.6 miles, which may be too long for some, but the trail is an easy, mostly downhill path. Furthermore you probably wonít see anyone else until you reach Anthracite Creek.

    Another alternative is to begin the hike at the Ruby Anthracite Trailhead instead of at Horse Ranch Park. The 5-mile-long Ruby Anthracite Trail meets the Horse Ranch Park Trail at a well marked junction 8.5 miles north of Horse Ranch Park, so if you choose this route the hike will be 3.5 miles shorter. The disadvantage is that the trail crosses Ruby Anthracite Creek, necessitating a 760-foot climb out of the canyon to meet the Horse Ranch Park Trail. Furthermore this trail is not as well used and may be harder to follow. The Ruby Anthracite Trailhead, however, is easy to find. It is located on the Kebler Pass Road 7.3 miles from the Erickson Springs turnoff going toward Crested Butte. The trailhead is clearly marked by a highway sign on the left side of the road.

    From Horse Ranch Park the trail immediately enters a dense forest of aspen trees as it meanders up a gentle grade in a northerly direction. There are several ponds of water along the left side of the path, and after a half-hour the trail passes through a swampy meadow that contains at least three large beaver dams. Beavers are very shy animals and it rare to see them, but the fresh mud and newly cut aspen sticks on their dams prove their presence.

    For the first hour the trail seldom breaks out of the trees, so your views of the surrounding countryside will be limited. But after 1.7 miles the trail crosses a low ridge with a fine view of Marcellina Mountain and Ruby Anthracite Canyon to the west. At 9,400 feet this ridge represents the highest point on the Dark Canyon Trail.

    Ten minutes after leaving the ridge you will come to a trail junction where an old, weathered sign marks the trail to O-Be-Joyful Pass on the right. Bear left at the junction and in another 0.2 mile you will come to Dyke Creek. Dyke Creek usually contains little more than a small trickle of water-you will have no trouble getting across it with dry feet-but it does mark the boundary of the Raggeds Wilderness Area. The remainder of the hike will be within the confines of the wilderness area.

    Over the next 5.6 miles the trail crosses three more named drainages, Gold Creek, Sardine Creek, and Silver Creek, as well as several unnamed ones. All flow westward, down the slopes into Ruby Anthracite Creek, but most of them carry very little water. Silver Creek stands out as the exception. Not only does Silver Creek have a respectable flow rate, but it is also quite pretty. The stream is shaded by a large grove of blue spruce trees, and there are several nice campsites in the area. If you plan to make this hike an overnight excursion and want more solitude than Anthracite Creek can offer this would be a fine place to make camp. At 6.5 miles from the beginning trailhead it is also almost exactly midway along the route.

    2.0 miles after leaving Silver Creek the path comes to another junction where another weathered wooden sign marks the trail down to Ruby Anthracite Creek. Bear right here toward Erickson Springs. Soon after the junction the character of this hike begins to change. Over the next 0.9 mile the trail looses 850 feet of elevation as it works its way down the Devils Stairway to Middle Anthracite Creek. Devils Stairway is the whimsical name given to the switchbacks that descend into the canyon, but despite the name the trail is excellent and the descent is relatively easy. The drop finally ends at the south shore of the fast-running Middle Anthracite Creek, where a footbridge crosses to the continuation of the trail on the other side.

    Shortly after crossing Middle Anthracite the trail comes to another bridge across North Anthracite Creek, and it then follows the north side of Anthracite Creek for the remainder of the hike. As you proceed you will begin to realize why this gorge is called Dark Canyon. The canyon walls are at times nearly vertical, and the volcanic cliffs limit the amount of sunshine penetrating into the gorge. For the most part the trail stays near the water, but at times the rubble near the creek forces it higher up the north side of the canyon, and the views down into the chasm can be dramatic. One particularly fine view is above the confluence with Ruby Anthracite Creek 0.8 mile below the North Anthracite bridge. The steep walls surrounding the confluence are impressive.

    As mentioned before Anthracite Creek is a favorite among fly fishermen. Below the Ruby Anthracite confluence you are likely to see many of the sportsmen, so donít expect too much solitude. The scenery, however, continues to the very end. 3.0 miles below the confluence the trail comes to the last footbridge where it crosses to the south side of the creek, and from there it is only a few minutes more to the trailhead.

    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Dark Canyon area
    we recommend:
    Kebler Pass  (Trails Illustrated, map #133)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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