Willow Gulch/40-Mile Backpack, Day 1
Sunday, September 29
The easy overnighter backpack we chose goes down a drainage called Willow Gulch and comes back up a different drainage, 40-mile Gulch. A short cross-country walk from 40-mile Gulch completes the loop. Based on my understanding, this loop had a lot to offer: some fantastic classic Escalante terrain, complete with huge alcoves and big walls, a really nice, big arch, and some pleasant and easy canyoneering (a bit of wading, minor and fun obstacles). The overall length of the loop was quite short, and fit well into our schedule. And it promised a lot of solitude, unlike something like Coyote Gulch. That's because it's located way, way down in the lower part of the Escalante River drainage, down past all of the more popular stuff, and that means... yes, it does... it meant a long, long tedious drive down Hole-in-the-rock road. AKA washboard capital of the world. But other than that, it was basically perfect for our needs.
By 1pm we had made it all the way down the Hole-in-the-Rock road to the Willow Gulch trailhead. Incidentally, this was the farthest I've ever been down Hole-in-the-Rock road, farther than my previous record distance of 40-mile ridge (to gain access to the entry points for Coyote Gulch). It felt pretty remote down here - and also a lot warmer than it had been in the cool-ish temps of the upper Escalante.
Pointing out the landmarks
Nearing Willow Gulch Trailhead
Everyone was ready pretty quickly. Before 2pm, we were excitedly gathered at the trail register and ready to tackle the day's adventure. Before us was the classic Escalante trailhead view. Which is to say, not much of a view: a fairly non-descript and fairly flat landscape of orange sand and slickrock, dotted here with various desert plants.
I lead the group down a faint and sandy path beyond the trailhead register. We're headed into a minor tributary of Willow Gulch. The path soon becomes more distinct, as does the deepening tributary. Soon we're headed down into a dry wash with moderate walls on either side. The afternoon is warm and breezy.
Looking up at entrance path
The first forty minutes or so are dry. Mostly we're hiking in the bottom of our side drainage, heading down-canyon towards where it meets up with Willow Gulch.
It's only about thirty of those forty minutes to the meetup with Willow Gulch. We don't immediately start walking down the creek bed, as the canyon is wide here, and there's a large abandoned meander with an excellent footpath that brings us along a dry bench and around a slickrock knob before bringing us down into the actual creek bed (of Willow Gulch). We begin to see the tell-tale signs of water - bushes, reeds, and other river-loving plants, and a few minutes after that, we're splashing through a tiny little flowing creek.
We continue downcanyon. The flow in the creek is minor enough that we can hop over and walk around it (and keep our hiking boots on). The height of the walls increased dramatically here, as Willow Gulch transformed into a typically grand Escalante-style canyon. The breeziness also increased; perhaps the narrowing canyon and deepening walls created some sort of effect that amplified the wind. There were a few places where it was downright blustery.
Broken Bow arch is a major highlight of Willow Gulch, and we soon reach it. It's only maybe... an hour of hiking from the trailhead - not far. Broken Bow arch is a big structure - definitely up there with the other big arches of the Escalante (or of Utah, really). It's also very aesthetically beautiful, with a graceful curve and a commanding position. It ranks up there with the prettiest and grandest of the southwest's arches.
First Glimpse of Broken Bow
Pu and Sophie and BB Arch
Watercourse Below Broken Bow
Overhang below Broken Bow
Overhang below Broken Bow