Willow Gulch Trailhead to Broken Bow Arch
Overview: Willow Gulch offers one of the best short day hikes, also suitable as an overnight trip, in the lower Escalante Canyons. Interesting narrow passages, a ribbon of riparian foliage, beaver ponds in the small stream, and large Broken Bow Arch are major attractions.
Start: Willow Gulch Trailhead
Distance: 4 miles, round-trip
Approximate hiking time: 2 to 3 hours, round-trip
Trail surface: Wash route
Trailhead access: 4WD advised when the road is wet
Best seasons: Mid-Mar through May; Sept through Oct
Canine compatibility: Leashed dogs permitted
Hazards: Flash-flood danger
Topo maps: Sooner Bench and Davis Gulch USGS quads; Trails Illustrated Canyons of the Escalante
Finding the trailhead: Follow Hole-in-the-Rock Road for 36 miles southeast from UT 12 (just east of Escalante) to Fortymile Ridge Road, and continue straight ahead, soon passing historic Dance Hall Rock. The road ahead undulates through several shallow drainages and is often rocky and rough and at times steep and winding.
Pass the signed left turn to Fortymile Spring (the site of one of the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition’s camps during the winter of 1879–1880) at 37.5 miles, cross Carcass Wash at 39.4 miles, and finally, cross Sooner Wash at 40.5 miles. Several spur roads just beyond Sooner Wash lead to excellent undeveloped campsites among the Entrada Sandstone domes of the Sooner Rocks.
An unsigned road branches left (east) 1 mile beyond Sooner Wash, atop the desert terrace of Sooner Bench. Turn left here and follow the narrow track east. This road, which is occasionally rocky with washboards in places, is passable to carefully driven cars. You will enter Glen Canyon National Recreation Area after 0.6 mile and reach the trailhead at the road’s end after 1.4 miles, 42.9 miles from UT 12.
A well-worn path begins behind the trailhead register. The beautiful canyon, embraced by desert-varnished walls of Navajo Sandstone, opens up 150 feet below. Once you reach the canyon floor, follow the sandy wash downcanyon, shortly passing a line of seepage fringed with the delicate fronds of maidenhair fern.
Soon the wash slots up, and most hikers bypass this slot by following a path above, on the right (south) side of the drainage. The wash opens up again beyond that first constriction, but soon you are funneled into a passable stretch of narrows, beyond which the mouth of a prominent side canyon opens up on the right after 0.5 mile, while on the left, a smaller draw joins the wash.
Continue straight ahead down the narrow, sandy stone hallway. Seep-willow and rabbitbrush fringe the wash, and soon cottonwoods appear. Soon a pair of paths begins following benches on either side of the wash as you approach the confluence with Willow Gulch, which joins on the right after 0.9 mile among tall Fremont cottonwoods. Turn left and now follow Willow Gulch downcanyon.
After walking for several minutes below the confluence, a prominent trail forged by hikers trying to avoid wading in the stream leads you up onto the right-hand bench. At length the bench pinches out and you descend a minor gully back into the wash, where you jump across the stream and follow a trail on the north-side bench, skirting a beaver pond. Shortly you return to the wash, where the canyon grows increasingly narrow, bounded by bold cliffs and domes.
After curving around a prominent bend in the canyon, large Broken Bow Arch suddenly appears ahead. Cross the stream and follow the obvious trail up to the bench opposite the arch. The creek flows beneath a low overhang just below the bench, but a screen of Gambel oaks hides most of the streambed from view. From the bench look for a steep sandy trail that drops into the oak grove below. Do not continue following the trail on the bench, as other hikers have, since it dead-ends at an overhang and you’ll have to backtrack.
You regain the wash where an overhanging ledge—the topmost layer of Kayenta Formation rocks—shades the stream and gardens of maidenhair fern hang directly below the arch. From here you can turn left, upstream, and scramble up to the arch or continue downcanyon and approach the arch from the opposite side.
Piercing a thick fin of Navajo Sandstone that projects into the canyon from the north wall, the huge triangle-shaped aperture of Broken Bow Arch frames a memorable view of the convoluted canyon walls beyond. The base of the opening is heaped with great angular boulders, which fell from above as stress fractures inexorably enlarged the span. The arch is shaded with a rich brown patina of desert varnish. Tall spreading cottonwoods in the wash below add a delicate contrast to the scene.
From Broken Bow Arch, retrace your steps to the trailhead.