Willow Gulch is a beautiful Escalante canyon located off of the lower end of Hole-in-The-Rock-Road. Most people hike to Willow Gulch to see the magnificent Broken Bow Arch, but the canyon itself is an excellent destination for a day hike or an overnight backpacking trip, especially when combined with Fortymile Gulch.
The Willow Gulch Trailhead (37.32481,-111.022905) is located just off of Hole-in-the-Rock Road, approximately 48 miles south of Escalante, Utah. In perfect conditions, you may be able to drive a regular passenger car here, but the condition of Hole-in-the-Rock Road varies wildly between storms and a high clearance 4WD vehicle may be required. The last 1.5 miles to the trailhead is on a side road that can have soft sand and ruts which may not be suitable for cars. Contact the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center at 435-826-5499 for the most up to date road conditions.
To access the trailhead, drive south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road for approximately 42 miles to the unsigned spur road at 37.322255,-111.0451. Continue on the spur road approximately 1.5 miles where it dead ends at the Willow Gulch Trailhead. There is a trail register and usually self-serve overnight permits available here.
If you don't have a GPS with you, the trailhead can also be located by driving south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road past Dance Hall Rock and Carcass Wash. Shortly after exiting Carcass Wash (signed), the road passes through Sooner Rocks as it crosses the head of Sooner Wash which is also signed. If you plan to hike the Fortymile Gulch and Willow Gulch loop, this is the start to that hike. If not, this can be used to navigate to the correct Willow Gulch Trailhead. From Sooner Wash, simply continue south until the first spur road on the left, approximately 1 mile further. This is the spur road that leads directly to the Willow Gulch Trailhead.
From the trailhead, follow the well-worn path into the drainage to the northeast. There is a small steep section to get down in but after that it is pretty easy going. Follow the trail down canyon to a 4-way canyon junction. You can continue straight or turn left here, either path will get you further down Willow Gulch and to Broken Bow Arch. The path to the left is more open with less overgrowth, but involves more climbing and descending. See the map tab to see how the routes reconnect on the other side of a large dome.
Further down canyon, the trail settles into the wash bottom where water will start to appear, first in small pools and then flowing. Continue down canyon until Broken Bow Arch (37.328485,-110.999878) comes into view approximately 2.25 miles from the trailhead.
There is an interesting alcove directly across the canyon from Broken Bow Arch that offers a shady break from the heat and an interesting side exploration. It is the largest alcove I have ever seen in my travels and offers a great view of the arch across the canyon. There are remains of rock structures up high in the alcove but I am not sure if they are from ancient inhabitants or more recent.
If time and energy allows, continue down canyon beyond Broken Bow Arch. There are some nice subway sections and pools, some of which may require wading up to chest deep. A little over a mile downstream from Broken Bow Arch, Fortymile Gulch comes in on the left. Fortymile is another incredibly beautiful canyon that is well worth exploration. Hike up canyon as far as you are inclined. There are some incredible narrows further up Fortymile that involve wading up to neck neep but plenty of scenic knee-deep narrows before you get to that point.
A very nice loop or point-to-point hike can be done by combining Fortymile Gulch and Willow Gulch, starting from Sooner Wash and ending at the Willow Gulch Trailhead. The mileage from trailhead to trailhead is about 10 miles and makes for a good day hike or overnight trip. It is a bit more advanced hiking and navigation than the standard Willow Gulch Route and requires some deep wading and possibly swimming in the Fortymile Gulch Narrows. I completed the Fortymile & Willow Gulch route as a leisurely 3-day backpack in 2011. See my trip report here.
In lower Willow Gulch, below the Forty Mile Gulch Confluence, the canyon widens, but there are still some beautiful sights to see. There is an unusual narrow point at 37.333296,-110.989444 that appears to have once been a natural bridge. A little beyond that at about 37.333919,-110.988382 there is a low, but very deep alcove with some pictographs in it. The pictographs appear to have been painted on with mud so I am not sure if they are ancient or something done more recently.
As you travel further down Willow Gulch, the evidence of Lake Powell becomes more prevalant as the canyon fills in with thick willows and tamarisk. We turned around at about 37.334521,-110.982731 due to the thick overgrowth.
Permits & Regulations
Permits are required for all overnight trips in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. These are available for free at GSENM visitor centers or at most trailheads, including the Willow Gulch Trailhead.
Willow Gulch is within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area so dogs are required to be on a leash.
Relevant Books & Maps
- Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah's Escalante by Steve Allen
- Hiking from Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country
- Non-Technical Canyon Guide to the Colorado Plateau by Micheal Kelsey
- Canyons of The Escalante - Trails Illustrated Map #710