Posted by: kerryl29 | August 16, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Willow Gulch

It was quite late in the afternoon when we wrapped up at the Clay Beds and transitioned from the Vermillion Cliffs area to Escalante, Utah, which would be our base for the next few days. It was after dark when we reached Escalante and, after a few false starts trying to find a camping spot, we ended up at a dispersed camping area not far down Hole-in-the-Rock Road. It was quite late, and the forecast was for a clear morning (which turned out to be correct), so given the less than brilliant conditions and the inability to scout anywhere in advance, we gave ourselves a break and didn’t get up until after sunrise.

The plan for the day was to visit Willow Gulch, a location neither of us had ever visited, located near the southern end of the road, more than 40 miles south of Escalante. Hole-in-the-Rock isn’t paved but is in pretty decent shape. It has a bit of a “washboard” feel to it, but most sections are viable for any vehicle. Still, high speeds are not advisable, unless you want a flat tire, so it took us a fair bit of time to get to the turnoff for Willow Gulch, a journey that was marked by a false turn or two.

But we got there, finally, under partly cloudy skies late in the morning. Willow Gulch is…well, it’s a gulch. Shocking news, right? There’s a creek that meanders through a lengthy canyon, of sorts. A not particularly long trail–2 1/2 miles or so–wanders in and around rock formations and along riparian stretches of creek, with numerous cottonwoods and other growth. The payoff at the end is the towering (and extremely impressive) Broken Bow Arch.

There was only one vehicle in the parking area when we arrived. We lathered on the sunscreen and hit the trail. Before long, I found a scene I wanted to photograph. Jason was anxious to get into the canyon part of the location, in the hope of using mid-day reflected light, so I told him to go on ahead; I’d catch up to him eventually. (I did, but not until the very end of the trail, as it turned out.)

The light was admittedly not great, but I loved the shape of this old cottonwood.

Cottonwood, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The light being what it was, I converted the same image to black and white. To my surprise, I think I like the color rendering better.

Cottonwood Black & White, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The trail was interesting. After passing a shallow slot canyon along the rim above, the trail meanders around some slick rock and then reaches a grove of stunted cottonwoods, well above the creek bed. I stopped to make an image in what was now slightly diffused lighting as a thin layer of clouds took over a larger portion of the sky.

Cottonwood Grove, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Not much farther along a path slithers off into a side canyon, which I decided to follow. It led me to a ledge, high above the creek, with a view of the gulch sentinels, with a healthy cottonwood in the mid-ground.

Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Returning to the main trail I found myself descending to creek level, where the trail became occasionally sloppy, but I worked around and through it without too much difficulty. The gulch narrowed considerably here, though it was never very tight. The creek, and the surrounding sandstone walls, wound around in sinewy S-shape, fringed by tall grasses.

Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Winding around the creek bed, I found a place where I could cross easily, and then found myself in a broader canyon, at the base of a slickrock shelf. I climbed toward the top and, as I neared the peak, part of the far end of the gulch came into view, dominated by Broken Bow Arch. I naturally began to make a beeline for the arch–who wouldn’t?–but I caught a glimpse of something to my right–a gorgeous cottonwood tree, backed by a towering sandstone wall, glowing red with modestly reflected light. I practically dropped my gear, momentarily forgot about the arch, and sized up this visual prize.

Cottonwood and Red Rock, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

There were a number of ways to frame this scene, and I explored most, if not all, of them. The tree was some distance from me, or from any place that I could easily access, so I moved around the shelf I was standing on and adjusted my perspective accordingly. Ultimately, I made three images of the scene.

Cottonwood and Red Rock, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Cottonwood and Red Rock, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

When I was done with the cottonwood, I turned my attention back to Broken Bow Arch, and moved closer to it. The arch is huge–a span of nearly 100 feet. There are lot of angles from which it can be photographed. The two images below are from spots accessible from the trail on the way in.

Broken Bow Arch, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Broken Bow Arch, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

You can hike around to the far side of the arch and then up a steep sand dune for a view in the opposite direction of the two photographs above. I did this, and liked the view, but wasn’t at all enamored with the sky visible at that point in that direction, so I planned this shot as a black and white.

Broken Bow Arch Black & White, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Back down the dune, it’s possible to hike down to creek level, where I found a scene with what I thought were interesting reflections. It was extremely difficult to produce the image below; it required a focus stack and bracketed exposure for HDR rendering. It was also a very awkward position to stand.

Willow Gulch Reflections, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I caught up with Jason up at the back side of the arch; on the hike back, I stopped to produce one more image of Broken Bow.

Broken Bow Arch, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

It was late in the afternoon when we got back to the parking area. Ours was the only vehicle there. We’d met the owners of the vehicle we’d seen upon arrival shortly after reaching Broken Bow Arch–the only people we’d see on the trail all day.

It took about an hour and a half to head back to the dispersed camping site. A bit of scouting was done on the return, as we explored possible locations for the following morning’s hoped-for sunrise, but increasing cloudiness snuffed out any prospect of a sunset that evening and attention turned instead to plans for the following day–sunrise and beyond.



  1. Gorgeous photographs. I appreciate and am inspired by your use of black & white to explore it more in my photography. Thanks for sharing them.

    • Thanks very much!

      I’ve posted quite a bit of black & white imagery from this trip in recent weeks; that’s not a coincidence. Rendering in black & white was often at the forefront of my mind much of the time when I was in the field. Best of luck in your monochrome explorations.

  2. Those Black and Whites seemed to fit the surrounds…. 🙂

    • Thanks…I’ll be interested to hear what you think about the black & whites that will accompany further posts in this series at other desert locations.

  3. Beautiful images, Kerry. Makes me even more eager to see this area on a future springtime trip. Your first b&w made me think about how that would look in IR. I keep thinking about having a body converted, but haven’t gotten past thinking about it. I’m not sure I can wrap my head around thinking in three different ways about compositions: color, mono and IR. So far, two is challenging enough! But IR continues to intrigue me…

    Love your posts, keep ’em coming!

    • Thanks, Steve.

      I’m in very much the same boat as you regarding infrared. Have been pondering the notion of a conversion for years, haven’t done anything about it to date. In addition to the issue about thinking of yet another type of rendering in the field, there’s the complication of carrying another camera body around. And of deciding what part of the IR wavelength range you want to convert to, assuming you go ahead with it. But, complications aside, I haven’t completely dismissed the idea either.

  4. Beautiful pictures of Willow Gultch, hopefully one day I will get to the Utah or Arizona. Those desert pictures always look so amazing.

    • Thanks! I hope you have the opportunity to visit the desert southwest at some point; it’s quite a remarkable region.

  5. […] morning after the day at Willow Gulch was spent photographing at one of the locations that was scouted late the previous day–a spot […]

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