Thursday, October 15, 2015

Willis Creek Narrows and Bull Valley Gorge: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Essence: Two radically different hikes in Navajo Sandstone slim canyons. Both drainageways emerge from the Pink Cliffs in Bryce Canyon National Park, cleave the White Cliffs, and flow into Sheep Creek, a tributary of Paria River. Willis Creek is a gentle, flat-bottomed, fluted corridor with serene sandstone walls. A trickle stream flows over gravel. This hike is favored by families. Bull Valley Gorge is a storm-carved slot, dark and deep. The floor of the gash is often slathered in thick, slimy mud and interspersed with pools. Obstacles clutter the passageway. For experienced canyoneers.
Travel: For those traveling south on Cottonwood Canyon Road, Skutumpah Road is 2.8 miles from Utah State Route 12; turn right/south. If you are coming from Kodachrome Basin State Park, drive south to Cottonwood Canyon Road and turn right/north. Skutumpah Road is 4.3 miles ahead. Zero-out your trip meter at the intersection of Cottonwood and Skutumpah (pronounced: Scoot-em-pa!) The condition of this dirt road varies greatly. If it is in good shape, 2WD with good clearance should reach the trailhead. However, the road can have deep ruts and it is very steep in places. In three miles, cross Sheep Creek. At the junction with 530 at 5.5 miles, bear left. The large parking lot for Willis Creek is on the right in 6.2 miles. The Bull Valley Gorge Trailhead is just before the bridge crossing the gorge at 8.0 miles. There is room for only two vehicles but there are pull-outs in the area. Carry the water you will need; it is not available at either trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Willis Creek Narrows: 3 to 5 miles, 250 feet of vertical. Bull Valley Gorge: 3 to 6 miles depending on route; 570 feet of climbing.
Time: Half day hikes
Difficulty: Willis Creek Narrows, Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; Class 1 walking. Bull Valley Gorge, social trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; scrambling in the slot with one Class 3+ move; flash flood hazard in both canyons
Maps: Bull Valley Gorge, UT 7.5 Quad, Trails Illustrated No. 714 Grand Staircase, Paunsaugunt Plateau
References: Willis Creek, Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region, by Ron Adkison. Bull Valley Gorge, Hiking and Exploring the Paria River, by Michael R. Kelsey.
Date Hiked: October 15, 2015
Quote: Even if I get stuck in a routine of mortal existence, I'm aware of immortal patterns going on all around me.  
Craig Childs

Willis Creek Narrows (THW, photo)

Route: Both hikes begin from Skutumpah Road and go east-southeast toward Sheep Creek. Willis Creek is an out-and-back. Bull Valley Gorge utilizes a south rim social trail for those turned back by the obstacle in the upper canyon. 

Willis Creek Narrows: 
When we arrive, there are 18 vehicles in the parking lot with room for more. There are two ways into the wash from the trailhead, elevation 5,980 feet. Cross the road and walk directly in the streambed, dodging a small, sculptural pouroff. Or, follow the trail on the north side of the wash. It drops into the shallow canyon at 0.1 mile.

The silty stream is easy enough to hop over. Or, splash downstream in river shoes. The canyon is immediately sinuous and constricted.  Navajo Sandstone, the predominate formation on the Colorado Plateau, is the premier slot builder. Willis Creek is accessible, accommodating, and therefore popular.  (THW, photo)

Temperate, ethereal narrows are interspersed with sunny stretches. As the stone peels back, classic Western shrubs and trees fill in the gaps. (THW, photo)

Water has patiently cleaved constricted corridors 200 feet deep.

The canyon is purely elemental: stone, sand, water, sky.  (THW, photo)

At 1.3 miles watch for an arch downcanyon-left. We dub it Pagoda Arch. (THW, photo)

At 1.4 miles, Averett Canyon comes in downcanyon-left. Walls are 300 feet high at this juncture. Local lore has it that a fella by the name of Elijah Averett was gunned down in this canyon in 1866 while pursuing Indian marauders. Walk up the side canyon a very short distance to a barrier fall. A bypass may be possible if you really want to explore Averett. We turn around as the narrows dissipate at 2.0 miles. Now I wish we'd gone just another half mile to the confluence with Sheep Creek.

Bull Valley Gorge:
At the trailhead, elevation 6,075 feet, Bull Valley Gorge is 144 feet deep with a gap of just over three feet. In the mid-1940's, a crude bridge was built across the span linking Bryce Valley with Kanab and Johnson Canyon.

The gorge played the big bully with us, primarily because of mud. Recent flash floods left walls slimy to six feet, mud oozed over the tops of our boots, we waded through knee deep pools. Soon we were encased in mud. Since Bull Valley Gorge only runs when it rains, save this slot for a dry spell.

For the standard route, from the trailhead, walk upcanyon on the right/north side of the slot. The path hangs above the abyss so be mindful. The incision is jump-across narrow. The trail and canyon intersect at 0.5 mile.

Step in and walk down the crack. In less than 0.2 mile a chockstone with a ten foot drop halts progress. In dry conditions, this obstacle can be downclimbed. A Jerry-rigged and questionable webbing and rope system is attached to the wall, shown. Tall people can span the gap. On this day, we can't get leverage because of the mud so we turn back to exploit options. The standard route is an out-and-back as far as you wish in the gorge.

Here's a view of the obstacle from below.

I am emerging from the canyon and returning to the trailhead. (THW, photo)

Absent information, we decide to walk the rim looking for a way down in. Cross the road and walk east on the south side of the gorge. Soon we are on a workable social trail with sporadic cairns guiding through the piƱon-juniper forest.

Kelsey (referenced above) notes several near-vertical entrance points, none of which are terribly appealing. 

A little over a mile from the trailhead, elevation 6,140 feet, we come to a promising, substantial side gully marked with cairns. It is steep but the footing is good all the way to the floor of Bull Valley Gorge, 5,770 feet. This image looks up the 0.3 mile gully.

We are delighted. Gigantic boulders at the bottom of the declivity are decorated with cairns but this juncture is unmistakable. Walk upcanyon into beckoning darkness.

The ventricle is strewn with large boulders interspersed with clean-channel walking. Scrambling is easy.

The defile is big on drama. I feel as if I am in Dante's depthless Deep. (THW, photo)

Now 0.8 mile upcanyon from our entrance, we are directly underneath the bridge. In 1954, three men from Cannonville and Henrieville died when their pickup stalled on the south side of the bridge. It rolled backwards and wedged into the narrow slot. Look up. The truck is clearly visible today about 50 feet beneath the bridge. (THW, photo)

In another 0.3 mile, we reach the chockstone that turned us back earlier. If you can bust up the obstacle, your hike is almost over. We give it a shot before retracing our steps downcanyon. We continue past the gully exit and shortly the canyon widens. Here we turn around and walk back on the rim. (THW, photo)

Our total mileage was 6.0. We intended to do a loop: walk down Bull Valley Gorge, up Sheep Creek, out Willis Creek, and back on the road to our car, about 15 miles. However, we mucked around so long in Bull Valley Gorge, we simply drove to Willis Creek Trailhead and did the out-and-back described above.


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