This is one of the best and easiest places to explore a slot canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Access is easy, aside from the short drive on a bumpy dirt road, and you’re treated to several narrow canyons without a long, steep hike.
Just getting to Willis Creek is a treat. It’s worth driving Skutumpah Road for a few miles, even if you have no intention of hiking. After the intersection with Cottonwood Canyon Road, Skutumpah Road climbs over a pretty impressive hill, providing an excellent view of the colorful landscape back towards Cannonville and Bryce Canyon.
Enjoy the scenery, then continue on…
… until you spot this sign at the Willis Creek parking area. The arrow is pointing towards the start of the trail, across the street.
Willis Creek Trail is easy to follow without getting lost. Most of the time you’re simply following the creek, and you’ll pass in and out of canyons, including this one near the start, which is fairly shallow in comparison to what’s ahead.
It’s a little tricky getting past this part. The creek tumbles over a waterfall, probably 10 feet high, into this slot.
You can find a path around the drop on either side, re-enter the canyon a few dozen yards downstream, then hike back up to the waterfall.
At the top of the waterfall, you can see erosion at work. The water is constantly cutting new grooves into the rock.
Downstream a bit, you’re suddenly in a wide-open area. It would be easy to think that you’ve seen everything, and turn around. But don’t! There are more slots up ahead — you just have to spend a few minutes walking downstream, and then they suddenly appear.
Willis Creek runs year-round, thanks to several springs along the way. It’s normally not very high, and you should be able to walk through the canyons without getting your feet wet. It seems that almost every time you need one, there’s a rock in the right place to help you hop over the water.
My visit was in late March. I didn’t encounter any ice at first…
… but as the slots grew deeper, I found plenty. Even though it looks like it was melting, it was still quite thick, except for the spots where it was obviously thin or completely melted.
Further on, I had no choice but to walk on the completely-frozen creek’s surface. It wasn’t slippery, and it wasn’t dangerous — so long as I kept an eye out for obvious thin spots and holes. If the ice had given way, I would have only dropped a few inches, but I would have ended up with a very wet, very cold foot.
You’ll alternate several times between wide-open spots, and narrow walls that are close enough to touch both sides at the same time. At one particularly nice spot, the entrance to a narrow stretch is marked by a sculpted rock that looks like a statue standing in the middle of the road.
This is as far as I hiked. I’m fairly certain that more slot canyons awaited up ahead.
I spent about an hour walking downstream, then turned around and backtracked. The return trip took about 40 minutes, since I wasn’t taking as many pictures.
Bull Valley Gorge
Travel another 1.8 miles beyond Willis Creek, and you’ll arrive at Bull Valley Gorge. Heck, you don’t just arrive at it, you drive directly over it.
Bull Valley Gorge is probably a more impressive slot canyon than the ones you’ll find along Willis Creek. At least, from the road, it appears deeper. It’s also packed with snow into spring, so it might be difficult or impossible to hike it early in the year. Another drawback to Bull Valley Gorge: it requires a rather lengthy hike, just to enter the canyon, and the round-trip distance for the complete hike is 17 miles.
Remember when I said that the road goes directly over the gorge? This is the view from the edge of the road. There is no guardrail, and no concrete — just a bunch of dirt wedged into the crack, forming a “bridge” of sorts. I’ve also read that the wreckage of a truck is part of the structure. Apparently, back in the 1950’s, a truck flipped over into the slot. Instead of removing it, they simply used it as part of the wedge that fills the gap.
If you don’t want to take the time to hike down into Bull Valley Gorge, you can still spend a few enjoyable moments wandering around at the top, where rushing water has sculpted the rock into swirling potholes. This is how slot canyons are born.
The relatively young cracks pour water into the deeper crevasse. It’s a reminder that you don’t want to be anywhere near here during a storm.
The Bottom Line
Willis Creek provides an easy way to access some nice slot canyons. You don’t have to hike a long way, you don’t have to rock-climb, and you don’t have to get your feet wet (if you’re careful). The slots are quite beautiful, and you’ll enjoy the solitude that this off-the-beaten-path destination offers.
The trailhead for the Willis Creek slot canyons is located along Skutumpah Road. From U-12 at Cannonville, Utah, take Cottonwood Canyon Road south. In about 2.8 miles, you’ll come upon two dirt roads on the right. Skutumpah Road is the second dirt road. Follow Skutumpah Road for approximately 6 miles. You’ll see a sign for Willis Creek Trailhead and a parking area, just before the creek crosses over the road. The trail begins on the opposite side of the street from the parking lot.
If you continue beyond Willis Creek for another 1.8 miles, you’ll come to Bull Valley Gorge. It’s worth the drive, just to see it, because the road crosses directly over the top of the slot canyon.
Beyond Bull Valley Gorge, the road gets rougher. Up until that point, you should be okay in a regular car — beyond it, 4-wheel-drive would be a good idea.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive up Skutumpah Road to Willis Creek and Bull Valley Gorge: