Thursday, May 26, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - Hickman Bridge

Capitol Reef offers a network of “front country” trails that lead to outstanding natural features. In presenting those trails it makes sense to start with arguably the most popular and heavily utilized trail, Hickman Bridge. The main reason this attraction sees so many visitors has more to do with its’ proximity to the highway than anything else. Since most visitors are passing through the park on their way somewhere else, a quick trip to see the bridge represents a chance for folks to get out of the car for an hour or so before continuing on.

The relatively easy 2.2 mile (round trip) trail begins at a parking area right alongside Utah Highway 24, just a few miles east of the Visitor Center. At this spot the Fremont River crosses under the road from south to north, and the path is constricted between the water and a sheer rock wall for a few hundred yards. Once past the bottleneck, the trail begins a moderate climb along a maintained route to the terrace above. The grade is not too steep with a small number of switchbacks, although some may find ample excuse to stop and admire the sweeping view while catching their breath.

Once on the level bench the trail splits in two, with the left fork heading for the bridge, and the right fork continuing on higher and farther to the Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs. I’ll present more information about hiking to these rewarding but more challenging destinations later in another post.

Heading in a general westerly direction, the path enters a modest drainage where a smaller but equally interesting double natural bridge is forming over the shallow dry creek bed.

If you’ve read a previous post I wrote last year about Natural Bridges National Monument, you might recall I discussed the difference between an arch and a bridge. Basically the major factor in shaping each feature and how they are classified relates to running water. Arches typically form primarily where harder rocks overly softer formations, and the opening in an arch weathers out as a result of repeated freeze/thaw cycles in natural cracks, fissures, and faults.

Bridges develop with the aid of water, usually at a gooseneck or meander in the course of the stream or river. The water does not have be perennial or permanent, it just needs enough time to erode the base away more quickly than it is being removed by natural processes from the upper section. Hickman Bridge is such a feature, as water is only present when heavy rain falls on the area, and the instrument of creation is a dry, sandy slickrock wash for much of the year.

At nearly a mile in, the trail splits again, this time forming a short loop which approaches then passes directly under the bridge. No matter which branch you take, the arch appears after a short walk.

The arch is oriented north-south and the best views framing the Navajo domes of the Reef are found on the northwest aspect. As mentioned at the beginning, this is a popular hike and you should expect to share the scenery with others. When I visited in late May I saw around 30 to 40 people at the arch and along the trail, so if enjoying scenery in peaceful isolation is your goal, Hickman Bridge is probably not the place to be.

Even with the considerable traffic encountered here, this is a pleasant walk in beautiful surroundings. No matter how you look at it, it sure beats a day at the office.

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