Capitol Reef National Park

Hickman Bridge

This is the heart of Capitol Reef country. Hickman Bridge lies about a mile from this trailhead, a graceful curve of stone that was named after a local educator—Joseph S. Hickman—who labored to preserve Capitol Reef as a park.

Rushing waters of the Fremont River created the nearby canyon walls. On the banks grow tamarisk, willow and cottonwood—plants that cannot survive without an abundance of water. The river is named for John C. Fremont, famous frontier explorer.

Desert plants and animals here use water very sparingly. Only about seven inches of rain fall on Capitol Reef a year. From here you can see how "Capitol Reef," or the Waterpocket Fold, got its name. The high cliffs form a barrier to travel, like an ocean "reef." And "Capitol" Dome, the Navajo Sandstone that looks like a Washington, D.C., landmark, lies just ahead. About 180 million years ago, the white domes were a Sahara-like sand, which turned to rock. Now the sandstone is becoming sand grains again.

About 30 paces to the right is a ring of black boulders that once formed the foundation for a "pit house." People of the Fremont Culture—who lived, farmed and hunted here for about 400 years—left little behind. Long after the erosion of Capitol Reef had begun, the eruption of volcanoes laid down a blanket of lava just west of here. The black rocks are the worn, watertumbled remains of that lava flow, torn loose by glaciers. The desert is a fragile environment. The dark crust on the soil just past the marker is living organisms, lichens, called cryptobiotic or cryptogamic soil, which protects the desert against erosion. A careless explorer can leave tracks that last for generations.

Two trees exist here: the pinon pine and the Utah juniper. They stand apart to share precious soil moisture. The pinon has tough straight needles and cones. The juniper is clothed in scaly, lace-like leaves and has bluish berries and a cedar-like odor. Plants combat evaporation to survive. Mormon tea leaves are tiny scales; chlorophyll is concentrated in the stems. Prickly pear cactus has thick, water-holding pads. Roundleaf buffaloberry has reflective silver leaves to reduce heat. The Fremont people knew how to make use of desert plants. The yucca provided mats, baskets, rope, nets, food and shampoo.

This is a "wash." Water flows here occasionally. Wash sands hold enough water to give "shade tree" size to normally dwarfed juniper and pinon. It's a good place to spot animal tracks: chipmunk, ringtail, perhaps even cougar. Up on the cliff is a granary used by the Fremont people to store beans and corn grown on the Fremont River flood plain below. Pioneers called them "Moqui" huts and thought they were dwellings of tiny ancients. Water scours and grinds after every cloudburst. Sand-laden water carves potholes. Over immense spans of time, water eats through rock walls to form natural bridges. Rest a while at the nearby alcove.

All around you water is at work, removing the "cement" that holds sand grains together. Where the cement is weaker, water has worn countless pockets along the cliff faces. Scan slowly for the arching stone masterpiece: Hickman Natural Bridge—133 feet wide, 125 feet above the gnawing floods. Early park advocates—Utahns "Joe" Hickman and Ephraim Pectol—thought it the very essence of a "Wayne Wonderland." In ages long past, this bridge was a narrow "fin" of sandstone. First an alcove appeared and, millennium by millennium, grew larger. One day, enough rock fell from the alcove to let floodwaters through. A natural "bridge" was born and successive floods deepened both the hole and the canyon below.

Just upstream lie the orchards of Fruita, an 18th century Mormon pioneer settlement. Downstream, to the east, the river becomes the "Dirty Devil" and flows into the Colorado and to the Pacific.

Trailhead: At the signed Hickman Bridge Trailhead, two miles east of the Visitor Center on Utah Hwy 24.

Note: The ascent to Hickman Bridge is fairly gentle; you will climb only about 400 feet from the trailhead elevation of 5,320 feet above sea level. In the summer, take water with you and wear a hat. Avoid dehydration!

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 26 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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