an easy, family friendly hike with a pretty set of narrows in the vicinity of Bryce Canyon National Park and Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah
Willis Creek Slot Canyon Trail Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated
DESIGNATION: Paria Hackberry Wilderness Study Area, Bureau of Land Management, Garfield County
BEST SEASONS: year-round, though summer is hot. Be especially aware of flash flood risk in July and August.
DISTANCE: 2.2 miles round trip
WATER: hike follows a shallow perennial stream
ELEVATION: 6,000ft at the parking area – 5,820ft at the turnaround
ACCESS: sandy, steep road to trailhead – high clearance necessary, 4wd preferred
ROUTE: Route follows the often muddy canyon floor.
GUIDEBOOK: Best Easy Day Hikes: Grand Staircase-Escalante
TIME: The hike as described takes most people roughly 2 hours to complete, but your time can certainly vary.
This is a popular hike in-season (spring, summer, fall), despite its remote location. Expect to see at least a few other hikers.
Willis Creek is a dog-friendly hike! The confined canyon walls even lend to the common practice of letting your dog off-leash, though the technical legality of doing so is unclear.
Willis Creek Narrows Driving Directions
There are several ways to get to Willis Creek. The signed trailhead has a parking area (and registers just fine in Google Maps) but it’s best to proceed with caution. You’ll be traveling on remote dirt roads, where conditions can vary.
Most hikers will be driving in from the north, along Route 12. From Cannonville, Utah (15 miles southeast of Bryce Canyon National Park on Route 12), head south on Kodachrome Road, which becomes the Cottonwood Canyon Road. At the 2.5 mile mark you’ll pass a sign for Kodachrome Basin State Park, and the road surface turns to dirt. You’ll pass the signed Sheep Creek road before reaching your right turn for the Skutumpah Road (BLM500) at 2.8 miles.
The Skutumpah Road is generally good packed dirt, but you’ll initially be greeted by a steep hill that has a tendency to accumulate windblown sand. Conditions can vary greatly, of course, depending on recent weather and rain events.
Follow the main Skutumpah Road southwest for 3.3 miles. The marked trailhead for Willis Creek will be on your right, and the hike begins across the road to the left.
In dry weather conditions, it’s possible to travel via lengthier dirt road approaches from the south (Kanab / Page) or from the west (Orderville), but note the current road closure mentioned below!
You can drive the length of the Cottonwood Canyon Road from Highway 89A, a distance of about 40 miles on dirt to reach to the turn for Skutumpah. Along the way you’ll pass near the Grosvenor Arch, as well as some other nice hikes like Hackberry Canyon, Cottonwood Canyon, and Round Valley Draw.
In years past it was possible to access this area via the Johnson Canyon Road near Kanab, or from the west end of the Skutumpah Road in Glendale, but…
THE SKUTUMPAH ROAD IS CLOSED AT BULL VALLEY GORGE (THE BRIDGE IS WASHED OUT).
A great source for southern Utah’s current (dirt) road conditions is here.
Map of Willis Creek Slot Canyon
Here’s a trail map that shows you the narrows through Willis Creek.
The 3 mile round trip hike is marked with a purple line. The Skutumpah Road is highlighted with a red line. Both the turnaround point and the parking area are clearly marked.
You’ll also get an overall impression of nearby canyons like Sheep Creek and Averett Canyon. You can right-click on this map to view a larger version, or to download it.
Dispersed, primitive camping is allowed in most areas along the Cottonwood Canyon Road and Skutumpah Road.
Backcountry camping is also allowed for backpackers along the canyons in the area, such as here in Willis Creek.
Unless otherwise posted, you’re generally okay to camp within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Just be sure to stop by the BLM Visitor Center in Cannonville to get a free permit. The staff at the visitor center may also have good suggestions on where to find the best sites.
Check the weather!
Like all slot canyons, Willis Creek is susceptible to flash flood activity. A flash flood can occur at any time of year, but heavy rains are seen most often in July and August.
Be sure to check the weather forecast before hiking in any slot canyon, and consider cancelling your plans if rain is in the forecast.
With that said, Willis Creek’s sections of narrows are generally quite short. If a flash flood did happen to come through, I think a prudent hiker would have a good fighting chance at locating an escape route (as opposed to a more confined area like Buckskin Gulch).
Still, wet weather will create problematic road conditions, so it’s best to stay away on rainy days.
With the exception of the first few feet from the parking area, there isn’t much of hiking trail here. You’ll be following the stony (and occasionally wet and muddy) bottom of the narrow canyon.
There is perennial water in the bottom of the canyon. It’s only a couple of inches deep, so it’s easy to keep your feet dry on most days.
The first steps of the hike are dry, open, and unimpressive, but the creek soon presents itself, and the narrows begin to unfold.
A small waterfall marks the first stage of the hike. It unassuming presence is nonetheless tranquil and beautiful.
You can bypass the waterfall on either side of the canyon, and then walk back upstream to get the nice perspective shown in the photo below.
The canyon gets more deep and narrow as you proceed. The stretch near the end of the hike may be the most dramatic, immediately before the turnaround point at Averett Canyon. The walls will open and then close again a couple times throughout the hike.
The narrows of Willis Creek come to an end at the junction with Averett Canyon. This canyon enters Willis Creek on the left, and the intersection is sometimes marked with a large cairn. This is where most folks will choose to turn around.
Intrepid day hikers and backpackers may continue to Sheep Creek, Bull Valley Gorge, and points beyond. Progress up Averett Canyon is soon blocked by a pourover, impassable to all but skilled climbers.
My Trip Notes & Images
I hiked Willis Creek with Haley and friend Rachel on June 14, 2020. Road conditions were great and we made it up the hills on Skutumpah Road with no trouble – I’d remembered a lot more sand on a previous visit.
The hike was fun and relaxed, as Willis Creek is meant to be. We were there on a Sunday – we saw about a half-dozen other vehicles in the lot, and maybe 20 or 30 other people in the canyon at midday. Weekends seem to make a big difference regarding crowding in this part of Utah, especially during the “Covid times” of 2020.
One thing we discovered is the way past hikers made a habit of creating “mud graffiti” on the canyon walls. This was something new to all of us, and quite disappointing. It seems that people have been scooping globs of mud from the creek and sticking it on the walls to dry, thus able to leave their initials, handprints, and “Everett was here” sort of messages.
Since Haley and Rachel are National Park rangers, they felt compelled to get to work on cleaning the graffiti with water from the creek. After cleaning up the first couple sites, however, we realized the magnitude of the job was much larger than expected. Granted, someday a flash flood may wash it all away, but nobody likes to see this junk on a nature hike.
Here’s some better-looking images from the canyon: