I devised this hike last October while visiting Cloudcroft. The name Dark Canyon, although it is used all over the west, intrigued me. I was imagining another tucked away place where the beautiful big tooth maples could flourish. Well, I'm glad I checked it out before October. Dark Canyon is neither dark, nor very canyon-like( although "canyon" is more a generic term in New Mexico for a low place between two higher places). It is a long, mostly wide, and at times very open valley sporting a nice shaggy springtime growth of grasses, wildflowers and weeds, bordered by second growth firs, pines and spruces with occasional aspens and oaks thrown in. It was nice to see the Sacramentos greened up early this year compared to the deadly dry and hot spell that preceded the monsoons last year. Anyway,after taking FR 223 ( Benson Ridge Road) almost to its end ,we turned down a shorter, rougher road that accesses the FT 5700( Dark Canyon Trail) and parked just before a locked gate( bicycles, motorcycles, ATVs , horses and hikers can go around the gate. Trucks and jeeps can not and should not.
Instead of continuing on the road/trail we headed jauntily northeast, down into the canyon itself. Hitting the main valley shortly after crossing a road( FR 223 A), we turned to the east where another old unused road comes in( FR 5596 A, I believe). It was little warm even at 9200 feet, and after passing a dry stock tank, I began to worry if the springs indicated on maps would be running. Well, I needn't have. The first one was doing fine, gushing out of pipe into a long ago rusted away drinking trough and then down to a murky little tank. Seamus drank and cooled himself and then we moved on. The second spring( Bird Spring) was flowing as well- emerging from hole beneath tree roots tucked away on the wooded edge of side canyon.
From this point on, the canyon narrowed, more springs appeared, and the central trough of the valley was a mushy, deep green wet meadow. Seamus enjoyed the cooling amenities, but was surprised several times when he unexpectedly sank in. I stayed above on the cow trail, which eventually became the remnant of an old two track. A short ways below Wilmeth Canyon's entrance on the south,where a large oak tree took center stage in the now leveled out valley, I could see a few buildings in the not too distant distance and knew we were coming to private property and our turnaround point.
On the way back up I noticed, how, if one weren't being too careful one could easily walk up Wilmeth which is equal in size to Dark Canyon perhaps without noticing until several landmarks would fail to appear. Then I realized going up Wilmeth would make for excellent loop hike with only about a mile of road walking to get back to the truck. I didn't take it this time however, even though maps indicate springs in Wilmeth as well, it had been a warm day in the sun for my pup and myself, so I went for the sure water and shorter distance.
These two larger canyons are an oddity in the Sacramentos. They are without official roads or trails and there weren't any unofficial ones either.They weren't even any cows, although cows,elk, deer and bears surely created the path we trod on. We saw abundant elk sign , brilliant blue stellars jays, a red headed western tanager, chipmunks, and a brilliant yellow and black bird that I only caught a glimpse of flitting about in some of the very few clumps of willow trees. The whole place had almost a real wilderness feel- which got me to thinking. Would it possible to have a few pocket wilderness areas in the Sacramento District of the Lincoln NF? I'm now looking at some other possibilities for off trail hikes like this one.
It was a Friday afternoon. We saw no one until getting back to our truck, where two slow going ATVers went around us- out to conquer the Dark Canyon Trail no doubt. In fact I only saw one camping trailer on our return drive, which had me wondering if more would arrive as the evening wore on, or is this sometimes popular place( Benson Ridge) really pretty sleepy most of the time, even on summer weekends?