Butch Cassidy and his "Wild Bunch" once roamed these parts. Our bunch was considerably tamer, but wild in enthusiasm as we approached the trail to Hickman Natural Bridge.
This was no ordinary hike for our party of five but a pilgrimage, for we all have ties to Joseph S. Hickman for whom the bridge was named: Three of us are married to Hickman kin, the others are a daughter and a grandson, my husband.
It was a hot morning when we hit the dusty one-mile bridge trail. Although Amar Hickman Pierson had made the hike many times she nevertheless bought a 25-cent trail guide in the Visitor's Center for the two first-timers, her husband Lefty and me, and then pointed out geological features, plant and animal life, an ancient Indian pit house and a storage hut set in the rocks. Along the way she passed out welcome swigs of cold water.
After a couple of uphill climbs, followed by a descent into a wash, we rounded a bend and . . . there it was.
"Keep going!" my husband shouted to us and another group of hikers. "This isn't the best view."
A Breathtaking Angle
We trudged on a few more yards until blue sky loomed behind the massive arch of the 133-foot span at a breathtaking angle I'd seen in many a photo, but found no less impressive in reality.
Intimidated by the heat and rugged ascent ahead, the Piersons and I stayed put while my husband and Uncle Bill Barclay tackled the rocks to sit at the northern base of the arch, where Joe Hickman had posed in a cherished family photo.
On the return trip Lefty Pierson couldn't resist telling another group of hikers who stopped with us in the shade that they were in the company of Joe Hickman's daughter and grandson. We blushed and beamed.
Joe Hickman didn't discover the bridge, as his 97-year-old widow, Della Hickman Chaffin, readily points out. "Some children told him about it," she said, "then he went and 'found' it."
Hickman, a high school principal in neighboring Bicknell, explored the area on horseback and was so impressed with its beauty that he wanted to make it a lasting frontier. He and his brother-in-law, E. P. (Port) Pectol, worked to publicize the area. In 1924 Hickman was elected to the Utah Legislature; the next year he succeeded in getting 160 acres of public land, around a place called Fruita, set aside as a state park called Wayne (County) Wonderland.
Two days after its dedication on July 22, 1925, Hickman drowned at age 37 in a boating accident on nearby Fish Lake.
"This shocking event dampened enthusiasm for a time," according to "Rainbow View: A History of Wayne County," "but people began to turn to Mr. Pectol as the logical person to carry on the movement." Pectol, a Utah legislator in 1933, lobbied Congress for the region's preservation, and in 1937 Capitol Reef was designated a national monument. The natural bridge, originally called Broad Arch, was named in Hickman's honor.
In 1971 a greatly expanded area became Capitol Reef National Park. Last year the National Park Service honored descendants of Hickman and Pectol at the park on the 50th anniversary of its federal recognition.
It is apparent why Hickman was taken with Capitol Reef, a region the Navajos called "Land of the Sleeping Rainbow." The park is a palette of beige, gold, gray, pink, lavender, white and green, but mostly you'll see red--the reds of sunrise, sunset and high noon.
Its dominant feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a tilted 100-mile-long escarpment, a portion of which pioneers called a "reef" because it formed a 20-mile north-south barrier.
Composed of successive sea bed deposits, the fold is dimpled with many rock depressions, or pockets, that fill with water and become natural holding tanks that have maintained man and animal in dry season. Within the reef is a formidable white sandstone cap called Capitol Dome because it resembles the U.S. Capitol. From those two landmarks came the park's name.
As you approach the park from the west you are first greeted by a swath of red desert and cliffs resembling shoulder-to-shoulder Pharaohs. Quickly you meet two vermilion sentries, lanky Chimney Rock and short, chubby Twin Rocks. Close by is the turnoff for the scenic Goosenecks of Sulphur Creek, a dizzying 800-foot-deep chasm of twists and turns carved by water.
On the Goosenecks trail Uncle Bill gave botany and geology lessons, pointing out pinions and junipers and ripples from Triassic Period seas etched in slabs of sandstone. I was surprised to find occasional fossils of marine life and animal tracks that had escaped my untrained eye until Bill pointed them out. "I've been here at least eight times," he said, "and I've never failed to see something different."
Down the road across from the Visitor's Center is the Castle, a fairyland outcropping of golden rock. A short hop from there, past the picnic area, is the beginning of Scenic Drive, which has an honor-system box for depositing the park fee--$3 per car, $1 for bicycles.
The eight-mile gravel road leads to Grand Wash, site of Cassidy Arch, and a short trail that leads to a ruined dugout said to have belonged to Butch and the Wild Bunch, in country similarly unruly that obviously was a good hiding place from the law. The wash is also home to a defunct uranium mine that dates to 1904 but yielded little ore.
Past the Egyptian Temple, Scenic Drive tapers off into Capitol Gorge, a narrow route at the base of overwhelming sheer rock walls 1,000 feet high that make you feel the size of an ant.
Rough and Bumpy
The gorge was once the only access to the park, which didn't get a paved road until 1962. Although rough and bumpy, the road into the gorge is navigable by ordinary car. On the way back is an excellent view of Golden Throne, a monolith of glowing white sandstone, and the slanting Waterpocket Fold, with its multicolored sedimentary layers.
The gorge road exits at Utah 24 near the east entrance to the park, but if your shocks are worn you may wish to double back past the Visitor's Center and continue east on Utah 24 to the start of Hickman Bridge trail. Near the trailhead are Capitol Dome, Navajo Dome and Pectol's Pyramid, named for E. P. Pectol.
Lining the road west of the trailhead are remnants of Capitol Reef's earliest-known inhabitants, believed to have lived there around AD 800. A short path leads to prehistoric petroglyphs left by the Fremont Indians, a tribe about which little is known except that they may have been hunters. Some of the rock carvings are of desert bighorn sheep. Take the trail to the right past the road marker for about a quarter of a mile for closer views of more petroglyphs.
Nearby is Fruita, an oasis along the Fremont River planted with apricots, apples, cherries and peaches by Mormon settlers. Visitors can pick fruit in season. The verdant main picnic area is in these orchards, where deer will sometimes join you for lunch.
Two small pioneer buildings remain: Fruita Schoolhouse and Behunin Cabin, which was home to Elijah Cutler Behunin, a rancher who cleared Capitol Gorge and christened the way with the first wagon in 1882. Some believe that the Butch Cassidy signature on a stone wall of the cabin was carved by the outlaw.
The park's main sights can be covered in a day, but if you want to explore in depth there are enough hiking trails to keep a wanderer happy. Treks away from the heart of the park, such as Cathedral Valley, Muley Twist Canyon and Burr Trail, are more remote and accessible by unpaved roads, some recommended for high-clearance vehicles only.
A permit is required for overnight trips. Back-road vehicle tours and camping trips to the park and surrounding lands are available in nearby Torrey.
Rim trail rides on horseback also can be arranged in Torrey at Rim Rock Ranch. There are no bicycle rentals, but if you bring your own, the park has a guide to miles of mapped bike routes.
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Capitol Reef is about 150 miles northeast of Bryce Canyon National Park via U.S. 89 and Utah 24. To go to Capitol Reef from Interstate 15 north, take I-70 east at the Cove Fort interchange, U.S. 89 north to Sigurd, then Utah 24 east to the park.
Air connections can be made from Las Vegas or Salt Lake City on Skywest Airlines to St. George or Cedar City, where rental cars are available. Several bus tours serve the park.
There are three campgounds inside the park, at the start of Scenic Drive, to the north at Cathedral Valley and to the south at Cedar Mesa.
The park has no lodging or food services but accommodations are available in nearby Torrey 11 miles outside the park on Utah 24, at Bicknell and Loa 20 and 25 miles away, respectively, and east 43 miles in Hanksville.
For more information on travel to Capitol Reef, contact the park: Capitol Reef National Park, Torrey, Utah 84775, (801) 425-3791, or the Utah Travel Council, Council Hall/Capitol Hill, Salt Lake City, Utah 84114, (801) 538-1030.