Willis Creek Slot Canyon

Having talked to the nice woman at the Sunset Campground within Bryce Canyon National Park we now had our sights set on checking out this slot canyon. Leaving the Park we headed up Hwy 63 into the town of Bryce itself and stopped to fill up the Tacoma. Turning right onto Hwy 12 from the North end of town we headed South towards the Cannonville Visitor Center to get more specific instructions to the slot canyon itself. Along the way we stopped and pulled over at the entrance to the town of Tropic.

Willow sitting in front of the Tropic, UT town sign
She Knows The “Sit-For-The Pic” Drill By Now

The stop was not for any good reason but merely because of my juvenile glee at the thought of Tropics in the Utah high desert. Not until later did we find out that Tropic is actually a thriving community of over 500 people nestled inside a beautiful Utah valley. The joke is on us I guess.

After a quick stop at the Cannonville Visitor Center we had our bearings and were headed in the right direction. We now also knew that we were inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument which is one of the Monuments on President Trump’s misguided “hit list.” Another reason to get out here and explore what this vast area has to offer.

Heading out of town we soon turned off Cottonwood Canyon Road onto BLM 500 a.k.a Skutumpah Road. About 6 miles of less than ideally maintained dirt road and 20 minutes later we arrived at the parking area. Willow was thrilled, absolutely thrilled I tell you that I put her harness on and draped the saddlebag over and clipped it into place. She was tasked with carrying two liters of water and yet nicely balanced with a 1 liter collapsible Platypus SoftBottle in each side of the saddlebag. We have the mountain scene on ours. We like mountains. So…I did the math: 4.4 lbs of water + .3 lbs of SoftBottles (.15 lb/ea) + 4.96 ounces for the Garmin eTrex 20x in one pouch of the saddlebag (to keep a GPS track of her movements – if I hike 2 miles she probably does ~4) + 5.6 ounces for the collapsible water bowl in the other pouch + 1.8 lbs for her Palisades Pack + 3.2 ounces for the Ruffwear Brush Guard we added to the harness of the pack to pad and spread the load which is my non-skinny 52 lb dog when I have to lift her up and over some obstacle. All tolled that’s 7.36 lbs or about 14% of her body weight and the generally recommended limit is 25%. Willow is no wuss. Plus we drink the water and her pack weight quickly diminishes as a hike progresses.

Willow at the Willis Creek trailhead sign
A Quick Pic At The Trailhead With A Smile Of Anticipation I Think

Across the road and one minute descending a quick switchback and we could look down and see the start of today’s adventure.

Willow looking down into the beginning of the Willis Creek Slot Canyon
She Couldn’t Wait To Get Down There. 10:50am.
Willow stomping around in the small, orange-colored stream that is Willis Creek
Immediately Trying To Dye Herself Orange And Blend In

We had heard that the creek was running bright orange the past couple of days but that it had been running clear less than a week ago. Something must have made quite the disturbance somewhere upstream lately. It was not clay and there was no sulfur-like smell from the water so we surmise the coloration is more like silt in a colloidal suspension.

At first the walls were only a few feet taller than me and the late morning sun was beginning to pound down. Within 50 yards or so the sides of the canyon grew tall and closed us off from direct sunlight.

Willow standing in Willis Creek deep inside the slot canyon
I Told You So. 7 minutes Into The Hike.

Soon that section of high walls shrunk and we found ourselves in an open area. Following alongside or even in the creek as conditions dictated we heard off ahead of us the increasingly loud sounds of some sort of waterfall feature. We eventually came to a 7-8 foot waterfall as the creek poured through a narrow slit between huge boulders and the wall itself. The audio in the two clips below is LOUD. I turn my volume down before playing either of them. Sorry.

We walked around that to a spot where we could use a small switchback to get back down to the level the creek had now fallen to. Back 30 feet from there was the waterfall itself and I sent Willow in as close as she would dare for this real quick, noisy video.

All of ten minutes past the waterfall we entered another tall narrow portion of the slot canyon.

Willow at the end of a section of slot canyon waiting for me
“Hurry Up My Slow Hooman”
Willow standing in yet another section of photogenic slot canyon carved by time and water
Nature Showing Off Some More Stunning Scenery
Willow standing in the orange silty water of Willis Creek waiting yet again for her slower human
“You Have Waterproof Hiking Boots Just Walk In The Water Like Me”

In those places where there was no easy way around or over the water we just trudged through it. At most it was up to 6 inches deep in some spots. As we hiked along a nice, mild, cool breeze was wafting through the canyon drying our sweat and bringing along with it the earthy smell of recently-passed-by-here pack animals of one sort or another or possibly cows. I am no scat expert but we passed more than a few piles of droppings ranging from old and dry to green, wet and no more than a couple of hours old. During the entire hike we sadly did not see any animals that might have been the ones to leave those calling cards behind.

a few small splatters of of fresh, green dung from a large herbivore
At The Fresh End Of The Spectrum

The smell was not overpowering or necessarily unpleasant but, in the confines of the slot canyon areas it was omnipresent. At least it was herbivore droppings and not carnivore or omnivore. As soon as we emerged into wider places in the canyon the smell dissipated.

Willow standing in Willis Creek in a section of the wider canyon
Much Cleaner Air Out Here

In many spots throughout our hike we could see places where the grooves in the canyon walls were telling their geologic story. Sitting in one place or position where the water wore marks in the wall in one direction for hundreds if not thousands of years or more and then, a collapse, a shift of some sort and now the water is working on the rock in a different direction. Like the rings on a tree the story is laid out for all with the knowledge to read.

Willow standing in the creek next to a large boulder with very interesting worn grooves in it
Look At Those Differing Grooves. If Only Rocks Could Talk.
Another Wall Showing the marks of thousands of years of shifting water levels and directions
Another Wall Showing The Chapters In The Book Of Its Life

While the hike was not crowded we did meet several groups of people along the way. A few times we had to pass each other within the tight confines of the narrow canyon walls.

coming across a group of people inside the narrow slot canyon
Not A Good Picture But You Get The Idea

We had heard that this was a dog-friendly hike and indeed we did meet about a half-dozen dogs on the hike. All different breeds and sizes. All friendly. All but one off leash but under verbal control as was Willow. I’m not sure about the rules for that in this place but we brought bags and picked up her poop and saw other people doing the same. Willow also didn’t chase any wildlife and we heard no other signs of such activity such as barking or yelling humans so we expect it was a good day for all involved, humans, canines and native fauna alike. Willow stopped and greeted each and every group or individual we passed and happily received her share of attention as well.

set of canine footprints in both brown sand and orange clay
Interesting Canid Footprints In Brown Sand And Orange Silt. Not Willow’s.

At about three miles in we were both getting a bit tired and decided to turn around at the next notable spot we came across. Right about then we turned a corner and were greeted by an imposing natural wall, drenched in shadows right where Sheep Creek crossed our path to join Willis Creek. That wall can easily be seen as the dark, vertical slash along the right side of the satellite photo below.

Satellite photo showing giant slash which was the huge wall we turned around at. The Light Blue Is Our GPS Track Into And Back Out Of The Slot Canyon.
The Light Blue Is Our GPS Track Into And Back Out Of The Slot Canyon

We stood in the damp, cool shade for a few minutes then lightened Willow’s backpack by teaming up and finishing off one of the liter bottles. I poured half of the other bottle into the empty one to again balance her load and then leaned back against the rock wall, feet in the cool creek to take this partial panorama of the spot.

partial panorama Showing Willis Creek On The Left Meeting Sheep Creek On The Right
Showing Willis Creek On The Left Meeting Sheep Creek On The Right

On the way back we explored a few dry tributaries that surely are swollen and dumping huge amounts of water into Willis Creek during the wet season. Now they are just impassable (without climbing gear) dead-ends.

dry tributary ended in an impassable dead end
Thankfully No Good Reason To Haul The Dog Or I Up And Over That Obstacle

As we were getting back and close to our starting point right as the tall, narrow walls shrink down and open up a bit we stopped and took a couple of minutes to watch a spider stalk an unwary moth in a microcosm of life itself playing out.

spider stalking a moth on the sandstone walls of the slot canyon
Closing In On Its Prey 24″ Away
Spider within 4 inches of a moth it had been stalking
Progress Made To Within Four Inches Of A Meal

And then, of course, Willow came splashing over through the creek to check out what I was so intently looking at and the moth took flight. Sorry spider dude, no meal for you this hour.

Finally back up to the parking area we left a few AWD cards on the vehicles of several people who took a liking to Willow during the hike. Marketing, always marketing. We signed the guest register and dropped a couple more cards in the metal box that holds the register (we’ve since received pleasant emails from people who told us they found our card there), removed the girl’s pack, changed socks and headed back out onto BLM 500 for our next stop of the day, Grosvenor Arch.

For such a beautiful spot it was a surprisingly non-difficult hike. Not “easy” but on the lower end of “moderate” with mostly flat terrain and not too much rock scrambling. We’re not sure how far they got but we passed a couple of octogenarians on our hike and I hope to be able to do the same when I’m at that age…decades from now. The water was not deep and you can choose to either wear waterproof hiking boots and stay dry or, as we saw several people do, wear water/aqua socks that protect the soles of your feet but allow them to get wet. While Google Maps says this is in Kanab, UT (the town for which Willow was named) and they both share the same 84741 zip code the slot canyon itself is over 56 miles by car to the downtown of Kanab as I think of the town. The 20 minute drive on a slightly maintained dirt road should not stop anyone in any sort of motor vehicle from arriving at the trailhead. If we were to do this hike again we would try to start earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon so as to get the sun at lower angles to the canyon and reduce our direct sun exposure when the canyon widens out to open riverbed. Truly a must see hike if you are in the area and are into such pursuits. Willow and I highly recommend it.

Safe Travels.

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