Willis Creek Narrows & Escalante, UT

Willis Creek Narrows
Saturday, April 27We arrived in Cannonville UT, in the early afternoon and found the KOA that promised good wifi. For once it was no lie. We wanted to use this place as a jumping off point for Cottonwood Canyon Road. The Yellow Rocks hike to amazing yellow sandstone formations, takes off about 11 miles down this dirt road and we’ve wanted to do again since our last visit in 2012. The problem we faced was rain. The thunder showers the area had last night, and the threat of more during the day today, put an end to that idea. No one we talked with thought it was a good idea to even attempt it. Mary managed to dig up a really nice alternative in the Willis Creek Narrows hike. It came out of the Photographing Southern Utah guidebook we carry, and was close by. This hike takes off about 6 miles down the gravel Willis Creek Rd. We did have to cross water 3 times, but it was shallow and narrow – no problem. There were already several cars in the lot when we arrived around 9:30. The guidebook suggested mid-morning to mid-day was best light for the hike so we were right in the sweet spot.The canyon has water running through it the entire way, but it was again narrow and shallow and had enough rocks and such to make it easy to traverse without getting the boots wet. The hiking polls helped a lot too. Others wore sandals or rubber boots and just sloshed through.The hike quickly drops into the waterway where the canyon is wide and walls about 15’ high. I could see the various waterlines along the canyon attesting to the changing levels. Much further down the canyon, I met a group coming back who said the water level had dropped several inches just in the time they had been hiking today. They wondered why my boots were nearly dry. This first section of canyon had walls of yellow and brown sandstone that had some nice curves and subtle curves, but was not really exciting. The harsh light was not helping and I found most of my images in shadowed portions of the canyon. After each section of narrows along the way, the canyon would open up for a time before entering a new set. Some sections were all creek with only rocks to step on to stay dry. After the first couple of narrows, things really began to gain interest. The walls had smoothed striations from flowing water, and more colorful layers of rock began appearing. As we were about to enter one particularly tight set of slots, a horse tour group  from Ruby’s Inn from Bryce came trotting by – it was Saturday after all. We’d passed them on the drive in and I was surprised how quickly they caught up to us.  This section had much higher walls and that wonderful bounce glow was making them glow. I especially enjoyed the swirling waves of stone higher on the walls. Each set of slots had something nice to offer. Each time there was a large bend in the path of the creek, new interesting compositions could be found. Mary and I parted ways after about a mile. Walking down the creek this way wasn’t difficult, but it did take attention and lots of jumping to get over obstacles. I wanted to continue until I reached the confluence with another creek about a half mile further down. Mary turned around here. The next two sets of slots were the most interesting to me. They were deep, with very prominent grooves running at various angles. The glancing light from above really accentuated this. After exiting this last slot, I continued down to the confluence of the creeks, but I actually passed it not realizing the other creek was dry. When I realized it, I turned around and followed the dry stream as far as I could – which wasn’t far. It ended at a rock plug that I was not willing to try to climb. So I turned around.As I reentered that final slot to start my hike back, I was surprised at how different it looked from this perspective. Perhaps the sun came out from behind clouds this time, or it was just seeing it from a different angle, but the walls had a different glow and seemed to swirl all around me. I made a few more images here, then pretty much hiked straight back to the parking lot. A really nice unexpected hike.

Escalante Area
Monday, April 29
Since our plans had been changed by the weather and doing much exploring on dirt roads is out for the time being, we decided to move on to the town of Escalante. This area has some impressive wide open sandstone landscapes and I always find something new to photograph. Thunderstorms are still rolling through and it’s just a matter of where you are whether when they hit.We took off on Utah Highway 12 out of Escalante, and plan to drive as far as Boulder Mountain for our day trip. The first stop was several miles just outside of town. It is the Boynton Overlook Wayside. The 180˚ view is always impressive and especially so with weather blowing through. Here we were pelted with rain and cold wind, but it’s just a few steps from the car to the view. Over the 40 years we’ve been coming through here, little has changed, but we were once able to walk all around the area here with no obstructions. Now there is a stone barrier built in such a way as to discourage people from doing that. It did have an interesting water stain pattern on it though. We soon moved on a little more down the road. And I mean just a little. This portion of the road runs right through incredible white sandstone hills and it takes very little to want to stop. At another spot at the next curve, Mary took off up one wash, while I saw a formation down another I wanted to look at. I worked on that for a while, then started looking around the general vicinity. First I found a bush with hundreds of caterpillars nesting, then I happened on an amazingly sculpted sandstone sluice running down a steep slope. It wasn’t terribly impressive at first, but as I followed it down, the sandstone became more sculpted by the years of runoff. I am not sure how well this is showing in the images. I have a bit more work to do on getting the color just right – the light was flat due to overcast sky, and color so subtle, it’s hard to be sure.
Some of the lichen growing along the edges had also been sculpted by flowing water. They appeared in relief – almost looking embossed on the stone. I found a few plants growing from cracks in the rock. The colorful layers of sandstone really helped make these compositions. Eventually, I found Mary and brought her over to this spot. Everyone gets in on the fun. After a good hour we continued along the highway. The road runs along deep canyons, past Calf Creek BLM land, before climbing up the cliff again to spectacular views. This stretch also boasts one of the narrowest portions of road I’ve seem – steep drop-offs on both sides. We photographed from several high vantages before dropping down into the town of Boulder.
Clouded Navajo Mountain once again shows itself.I wanted to take a branch road called Long Valley that runs out through more canyons. The rain was all around us and it was getting grayer by the minute so we didn’t linger too long. We drove as far as an overlook where the road drops down into the Water Pocket Fold area of Capital Reef – our next eventual destination.We watched the weather for awhile before turning around for home.One last stop at a favorite cottonwood tree in front of an incredible cleft in the sandstone rock. Tomorrow we cross Boulder Mountain to visit Capital Reef National Park for a few days.

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