ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SOUTHWEST
Hike B4. Black Hole of White Canyon
- Hiking time: 5.2 hours plus 40 minutes back along road
- Estimated hiking distance: 5 miles plus 2 miles back along road
- Elevation gain: 350 feet plus 320 feet back along road
- USGS Topo Map: Copper Point
- Difficulties: Long swims in a narrow slot, some downclimbing
- Special equipment: 60 feet of webbing or rope, wetsuit and dry bags
- ACA Rating: 3B II
The descriptions and ratings listed here refer to the conditions prior to the year 2004. A major flash flood in the White Canyon has now radically altered the conditions in the Black Hole, depositing very large quantities of wood and creating large woodpiles that make travel through the Black Hole much more difficult and dangerous than suggested in this account. The new, revised ACA Rating is 4BR/X III.
White Canyon in southeastern Utah begins high on Cedar Mesa a short distance west of the town of Blanding and flows west for about 40mi through some of the most remote wilderness in the contiguous United States. Eventually it empties into Lake Powell near the Hite marina. This is a parched land of tortured rock, crenelated and crevassed by the movement of the earth, the wind and the water. Baked dry by the scorching summer sun, it nevertheless sees downpours from summer storms and winter rains. And when that happens, the catchment area of White Canyon is so large that great flash floods crash through the canyon, eroding through the layers of rock and creating a great gorge over 300ft deep in places. Because of the nature of the rock, in one place not far from its terminus, the eroded gorge is particularly narrow and the water-filled slot within it is a dark and forbidding place known as the Black Hole of White Canyon. This adventure descends through this section of the canyon. To do so it is necessary to swim several hundred yards down narrow water-filled slots in which the sun is almost blocked out by the black, overhanging cliffs. It is an awesome experience, likened to entering a cave. But one which should be taken with great care for to be caught in the Black Hole during a flash flood could and has meant death for some hikers. Even a rainstorm far away can funnel down and cause a flash flood in this lower section of the canyon. Consequently, this adventure should not be undertaken if there is any sign of rain anywhere within sight or any sign of flowing water in the canyon where you descend to the gravel floor.
The hike is best undertaken in the summer when the danger is less and when the water through which you must swim has been heated to a pleasant temperature.
The trailhead for the Black Hole is about 8mi southeast of the Hite marina on Lake Powell or 14mi northwest of the Fry Canyon Lodge on Highway 95 in southeastern Utah. Park in the dirt clearing on the north side of the road just north of milepost 57 on highway 95 (37o47.93'N 110o18.31'W). If you wish to leave a car or bicycle at the exit point on highway 95, then drive northwest to milepost 55 where there is another dirt clearance on the north side of the road (37o48.67'N 110o20.26'W). This will save you the two mile hike back along the road.
Looking down entrance gully into White Canyon
From the parking area (37o47.93'N 110o18.31'W and elevation 4605ft) walk about 150yds northeast along a well-trodden and ducked trail to the head of a side canyon (37o48.04'N 110o18.19'W) that leads down into White Canyon. Descending this you should find yourself in the main streambed of White Canyon just 20min from the start. The sand and gravel floor of White Canyon (elevation 4250ft) should be completely dry at this point. For the reasons given above, if there is even a hint of water flow, you should abandon the hike and return to your vehicle.
Turning left and hiking downstream, the going is initially very easy in the gravel bottom of White Canyon. After about 20min the canyon begins to close in, the walls being eroded into great black bread loaves. About 40min from the trailhead there is a notable black chamber in the right wall. A little later you come to the first awkward boulder obstacle 60min from the start and the first wade about 5min later.
The first of the two downclimbing challenges in this adventure occurs roughly 1.5hr from the start. The drop is about 15ft from a broad, flat ledge on the canyon right onto a sloping rock shelf. Look for the shallow chimney that has good hand and foot holds and provides the best route for descent.
There are several large boulders just above the chimney that you could wrap with webbing if you wish to set up a rappel. But the best method of descent is probably to use a short piece of rope or webbing as a belay or handline for all but the last (and best) climber and then to spot that person from below. Immediately below this first downclimb you may choose to descend about 6ft into a narrow slot; however you will soon climb back out again to the left to avoid a stinky pool beneath the boulders.
Start of the Black Hole
A short distance downstream you come to the entrance to the Black Hole (37o48.71'N 110o18.39'W). This is a good spot at which to prepare for the swimming ahead by donning your wetsuit and making sure your belongings are sealed in your dry bag. From a ledge on the left many young people jump across to a small depression in the rock on the right side of the canyon and, from there, downclimb into the slot itself. The jump is about 3ft. Those averse to jumping (like the author) should slide/downclimb in a very narrow crack on the left side of the canyon just upstream of the jumping point. This drop of about 8ft (the second of the two downclimbs in the Black Hole) deposits you into a pothole with deep water. Swim 8ft across the pothole to a broader vertical crack on the canyon right and climb 6ft up to the landing point for the jump. Whichever route you take to this point you should now downclimb into the water and begin swimming through
the narrow cave-like slot. Initially you cannot discern the end of the swim for you round corners only to encounter yet another stretch of waterway. In two spots you swim under chockstones just a few feet above the water. And, in several places, there are tree and branch debris piles high overhead that indicate the depth of the flash floods that barrel through this canyon. There are, in fact, several substantial swims interspersed with beaches and small downclimbs, but the longest swim is probably no more than about 40yds.
In the Black Hole
Eventually you emerge onto a more substantial gravel beach and the canyon broadens somewhat and resumes its gravel-lined floor. You should come to this lower end of the Black Hole about 2hr 45min from the start of the hike. Do not, however, take off your wetsuit just yet for there are several more short swims and a number of deep wades yet to come. However another 45min of hiking brings you (3.5hr from the start) to a spot with green benches on both sides of the canyon. This pretty place marks the end of the water and you can shed the wetsuit and start to dry out. The next section of canyon is lovely and the easy going provides you with time to relax.
About another 1hr of easy hiking brings you near the exit point at an elevation of 3930ft and 4.5hr from the start. Look for the unmistakable narrow canyon that enters on the left at the canyon floor level; there is none other like it. Pass this and continue down White Canyon for another 200yds. You should see a large cylindrical column about 100ft up on the left side of the canyon. Start your ascent out of the canyon at 37o48.97'N 110o20.24'W by traversing back and forth up ledges to the left of the column until you are at the level of its base. Then follow the trail around the base of the column (proceeding downstream) and continue on around a small outcropping to where the trail climbs up a broken gully. Follow the well-ducked trail up this gully, climbing and traversing up to the left. The trail enters another small gully that takes you up to the canyon rim. The road is now just 8min from here. Follow the trail heading due south to the parking lot (37o48.67'N 110o20.26'W and elevation 4280ft) where you parked the return vehicle. You should reach this point a little over 5hr after setting out. If you have no car shuttle, the 2mi hike back alng the road should take about 40min.
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Last updated 6/28/03.
Christopher E. Brennen