Willow Gulch and Death Hollow: Utah Fall 2019
The Short Report
Note: this is the short one-page version of the Willow Gulch / Death Hollow fall Utah trip. If you want the full version, please go here instead.
In the early fall of 2019 myself and a group of six others headed down to the Escalante area of southern Utah and did two really fantastic (but quite different from each other) canyon backpacks.
The first was a backpack down in the lower Escalante region that looped down Willow Gulch and returned via 40-mile Gulch. An easy, 2-day, super-scenic outing. The second was a full top-down descent of Death Hollow -- a long drainage that starts way up on the upper slopes of Boulder Mountain. It's got a reputation for being a challenging route, and it's well-deserved.
So, first - the Willow Gulch loop. We drove down the long and tedious Hole in the Rock road for a good hour, past the 40-mile ridge road, past Dance Hall Rock, past the Sooner Rocks, then turned left and took the one-lane track to the Willow Gulch trailhead. We arrived early afternoon, but that was no problem as the distances on this hike are short (about 13km / 8mi total, over two days)
After signing in at the trail register, we headed down a faint sandy path (directly behind the trail register) that soon leads down into a side tributary of Willow Gulch. Following this for about 30 minutes brought us to Willow Gulch itself, which is just starting to develop the big orange walls of lower Escalante canyon.
Soon after entering Willow Gulch, water starts to be present in the creekbed along with the associated river vegetation. In a few minutes we arrived at Broken Bow Arch - a fantastic huge structure that's as great as any of the other major arches of the southwest. Then the gulch narrows up and the walls soar way up, developing the usual overhanging curved alcoves. There were a few minor obstacles as far as the canyoneering went - some pools and holes that were for us maybe waist deep in one or two short spots. Everything else was easy splashing at ankle to knee depth.
It takes us a little over 3 hours to reach the Willow Gulch / 40-mile Gulch confluence. Here, we turn left and start heading up 40-mile Gulch, on the next phase of our loop. It is getting to be late afternoon so it isn't far up 40-mile Gulch before we locate a suitable camp location for the night. It's not the best layout but there's not much choice in this part of the canyon.
The next morning we're off by 9 a.m., continuing up 40-mile Gulch. The water is much clearer than Willow Gulch's had been, and in the morning light there are particularly beautiful sections. We come across some deeper almost slot-like narrows with little cascades and waterfalls to ascend, but none very difficult, although it is easy to get wet and chilled in the shaded, narrow water channels. Once again, none of the water sections was more than waist deep.
Clear Water and Small Waterfall
Approaching final waterfall
Above the narrow and small waterfalls, 40-mile gulch begins to widen up, still with very beautiful and high walls, and the water depth of the creekbed starts to lessen. There's a bit dropoff that is bypassed on the left by using a footpath through some bushes, and then above that, the canyon begins to open up and dry out, and soon we're walking in open dry desert conditions again. We look carefully for a slickrock exit ramp on the left and easily climb up it so that we may begin the crossing over the open desert back to the Willow Gulch trailhead.
Arriving Willow Gulch trailhead
With a very successful outing in Willow Gulch and 40-mile Gulch complete, we immediately begin prep for the bigger, more challenging part of the trip: the descent of Death Hollow (the full descent, not a descent from the BMT). To this end, we drive back north to Escalante, fill up on water at the interagency visitor center, then head up the Hells Backbone Road to the Blue Spruce national forest campground. The campground is located just a few miles away from the Death Hollow upper drop-in point and makes a for a great spot to prepare for the descent. Brian and I take our rental Jeeps and shuttle one of them down to our intended exit point at Big Flat (we're choosing to end the backpack at Big Flat rather than incur a long walk back to Escalante or Highway 12, once we finish Death Hollow's canyon).
Death Hollow upper drop-in
The next morning we assemble at the Death Hollow drop-in point (also along the Hells Backbone Road). It's definitely fall up here, with a sunrise temperature slightly below freezing.
Only the very faintest of footpaths marks the initial descent down a pine-covered slope into upper Death Hollow. Pine Forest gives way to fields of manzanita bordered by yellow navajo cliffs. Once at the bottom of the initial descent, travel is in or on the banks dry creek beds, which are often littered with big boulders that you must clamber over. Cutting bends in the creek is often preferable, although often there's no discernable path.
Reaching the Manzanita Zone
Even though we're hiking downhill the entire way, it's a tiring day for us. Bushwhacking and dealing with thorny plants and boulder-choked streambeds takes its toll after a while. Then we have trouble finding the first water source and end up having to go slightly farther downcanyon until we find a small pool of water that is usable. Death Hollow starts off tough!