(Glen Canyon National Recreation Area)
Utah's Incredible backcountry Trails
by David Day
7.2 miles (round trip)
Walking time: 4 hours
Elevations: 540 ft. loss/gain
Trail: There is no trail for most of this hike, but the route is not difficult to follow. The portion of the hike below Broken Bow Arch is in a narrow canyon where there is a danger of flash floods, so don’t venture beyond the arch if there is a chance of rain. Sneakers or other wettable shoes are the only practical footwear as you will frequently be walking in water.
Season: Spring, summer, winter, fall. This area is very hot in the summertime and receives some snow in the winter. The best seasons for the hike are spring and fall.
Vicinity: Near Escalante
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The attraction that draws most hikers to Willow Gulch is the magnificent Broken Bow Natural Arch. This improbable sandstone formation rises boldly from a low plateau on the north side of the streambed, where it can be seen clearly from a distance of several hundred yards. The triangular-shaped opening easily reminds one of a bow bent nearly double, but actually that is not how the arch got its name. It was given its present name in 1930 after an Indian bow was found underneath it.
Broken Bow Arch is located only 2.3 miles from the Willow Gulch Trailhead. It is a relatively easy hike to the arch, and many hikers turn around at that point. But in my opinion the hike from the arch on down to Lake Powell is almost as interesting as the arch itself. The character of the canyon changes dramatically in a surprisingly short distance, going from an open desert environment to a constricted environment of slickrock waterslides and sandstone narrows in less than a mile. Finally the canyon opens out again at the end, where a small plateau offers a fine view of Lake Powell.
From the parking area it may be difficult to see exactly where the trail starts, but if you walk in a northerly direction from the registration box, straight down the sandy slope, you will soon begin to see the trail. Look for a large sandstone boulder that looks like an upside-down Mexican hat about 150 yards from the trailhead. The trail passes within a few feet of the boulder, and then turns east for the descent into a short side canyon that eventually leads to Willow gulch.
This unnamed side canyon is interesting in its own right. It is dry and dusty, with cliffs of Navajo Sandstone on both sides and a short stretch of nicely sculpted narrows in its center. The trail generally follows the right side of the canyon for 0.5 mile before dropping to the bottom of the streambed. Shortly after the trail reaches the bottom of the canyon you will come to an intersection where Cottonwood Wash enters from the right and another short canyon comes in from the left. You may be confused at this intersection, as there are three possible routes to follow. Do not turn right or left, but continue straight through the intersection into the sandy wash that continues on the other side.
At this point you are in the lower part of Cottonwood Wash. Except in very wet years the canyon is bone dry, but, interestingly, it contains signs of beaver. Notice the stunted cottonwood trees struggling to find water under the sand; many of them have been damaged by the wood-eating rodents. You can take that as an indication that there is water ahead, but it is surprising how far the beaver venture into the dry canyon.
0.4 mile after entering Cottonwood Wash the canyon widens again at the confluence with Willow Gulch. There are a great many willow trees in the area (hence the name), and you should finally see some water in the streambed. Turn left into Willow Gulch, but before continuing be sure to make a mental note of what the confluence looks like so you will know where to leave Willow on the return trip. What initially passed for a trail has long since disappeared by this time; consequently it is easy to miss the exit point from Willow Gulch when hiking out. If you do miss the turn you can still reach the Hole in the Rock Road by continuing up Willow Gulch. But if you do this you will have to walk another 2.9 miles along the road to get from the head of Willow Gulch back to the trailhead.
You will pass a half-dozen small beaver dams as you walk down Willow Gulch. The easiest place to walk is generally in the bottom of the streambed, but the dams occasionally make detours necessary. The beavers are seldom seen, but their handiwork is everywhere. It is probably the pressure of overpopulation that causes some of them to venture up Cottonwood Wash in search of another place to build a home. Finally, a half-hour after entering Willow Gulch, Broken Bow Natural Arch should come into view.
Broken Bow is surely one of the most beautiful arches in the Escalante drainage. It curves gracefully away from the wall of the canyon in a way that is reminiscent of Rainbow Natural Bridge, the world’s largest natural arch. It is 170 feet high, with an opening 94 feet wide and 100 feet high. Its 70-foot-thick sides lend an element of strength to its grace, assuring us that it is going to be here for a long time to come. Best of all it lies in an easily accessible area, with no barriers on either side, so good photographic angles are easy to find. And its most photogenic side faces south, where it is in the sun for most of the day.
The Broken Bow Arch was sculpted from a fin of sandstone that once protruded into the canyon from the west wall. The stream has never actually flowed through the opening, and for this reason it is classified as an arch and not a natural bridge. It seems, however, that the fickle creek is intent on correcting this situation. As you walk through the streambed you can see the undercutting that has began as the water tries to straighten out its course and flow where Broken Bow now stands. The creek will probably someday be the instrument that destroys the arch.
The effects of water on sandstone become more and more apparent as you walk downstream from Broken Bow. The canyon becomes narrower, deeper, colder, and more devoid of plant life as you approach its mouth. In some sections the sensation is one of walking through a 20-foot diameter pipe that has been scoured smooth by the grinding power of water and sand. In other places it feels like you are walking along a racetrack with galleries for the spectators in the huge alcoves above. There are numerous waterslides along the way where the persistent stream has cut graceful channels into the smooth sandstone. And in one part of the canyon the water has carved out a 200-foot-long section of narrows that is scarcely 4 feet wide
Thirty minutes below Broken Bow Arch you will come to Fortymile Gulch, another narrow, watery canyon that joins Willow Gulch from the north, and soon afterward the canyon ends at Lake Powell. When the lake is full the water may rise almost to the confluence with Fortymile Gulch, but by the end of summer the lake has usually receded 0.5 mile below the canyon junction. You will know you are getting close to the lake when you start seeing a thick layer of mud on the canyon floor. The mud contains the footprints of dozens of boaters who have landed and walked up Willow Gulch, but they seldom go more than a few hundred yards.
Carcass Wash is only one of three possible exit routes from Fortymile Gulch to the Hole in the Rock Road, but it is, by far, the easiest route. If you try to exit through Sooner Wash you will find a canyon full of chock stones, and if you continue up Fortymile Gulch you will soon find yourself in a box canyon with no apparent way out. Carcass Wash is the second major canyon you will see on the left as you walk up Fortymile.
It is easy to miss the turn from Fortymile Gulch into Carcass Wash, and for that reason it is probably better to do this loop hike in the reverse direction. If you start at Carcass Wash the route simply follows the canyon downstream to Fortymile Gulch and on to Willow Gulch. Regardless of the direction you are traveling, however, be sure to pay particular attention to the weather before entering Fortymile Gulch. A flash flood in this canyon would be deadly, so don’t proceed if there is a chance of rain.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the
Pine Valley Mountains area, we recommend:
Canyons of the Escalante (Trails Illustrated, map #710)