Hiking Distance (round-trip): 1.8 miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Cautions: Steep drop-offs; high temperatures during summer with little shade.
Many locations in canyon country see their share of crowds, but Capitol Reef is one place where you can still find trails that are so peaceful, you’ll think you’re in the backcountry. But despite the fact that Capitol Reef is a bit “off the radar” as Utah parks go, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a second-rate alternative to Arches and Bryce Canyon. With its sandstone arches, cliffs, slot canyons, and potholes, you’ll be wondering why more people don’t know about this region of canyon country.
A Reef in the Middle of the Desert
Capitol Reef might seem like an odd name for a national park located in the middle of redrock canyon country, but there’s a somewhat logical explanation. Bisecting the park from north to south is the Waterpocket Fold—a nearly 100-mile long “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. The geologic term for this wrinkle is a monocline, where one side of the fold is much steeper in comparison to the otherwise horizontal rock layers.
For early settlers, the Waterpocket Fold wasn’t so much a scenic wonder as it was a formidable roadblock. The barrier reminded them of the way an ocean reef poses a hazardous obstacle to mariners. The pioneers also thought the area’s dome-shaped rock formations looked a lot like the rotundas in Washington, D.C. Put these observations together and voilà—the name Capitol Reef.
Hickman Bridge Trail
Hickman Natural Bridge is one of the classic sites in Capitol Reef National Park, and easy access to the trailhead from Hwy 24 makes it the most popular hike in the park. From the parking area, the trail initially follows the bank of the Fremont River. After a short distance, the trail turns away from the river and climbs some steep switchbacks up the lower slope of the sandstone rim. At the top of the switchbacks, turn left at the signed junction. From here, it’s another .7 miles to Hickman Bridge.
The trail is not difficult to follow, but you will have to rely on rock cairns to guide you through certain sections. Eventually the trail brings you into the bottom of a wash, where you’ll pass a small natural bridge. (Kids love to play in the sand under this mini bridge, so if you’re hiking with children, be prepared for a delay here). After climbing out of the wash, you’ll soon reach a spur trail on the left, but continue straight on the main path to reach the base of the bridge.
Spanning 133 feet across, Hickman Bridge is carved from the fine-grained sandstone of the Kayenta Formation. According to the park, Hickman is a classic example of a natural bridge that formed over millions of years as intermittent flowing water eroded the sandstone. Some sources, however, say the bridge is technically an arch, having formed primarily through wind and weather erosion. Discussions about the arch’s origin serve as a reminder that science is not static; as researchers continue to learn more about geologic processes, theories often change.
Regardless of how it formed, Hickman Bridge is an inspiring example of geologic artistry. Take some time to walk around and look at the bridge from different perspectives. A wide-angle lens will help you capture the whole bridge in one photo. The trail passes under the bridge opening and loops around the backside of the bridge to connect with the spur junction you passed on your way in. You can also return the way you came without looping around, but you’ll miss out on a magnificent viewpoint that overlooks the Fruita Historic District. Be aware that climbing the bridge is not permitted.
The entrance to Capitol Reef National Park is roughly 135 miles from Moab, so you can make it an overnight trip, or you can combine it with a trip to other Utah national parks and monuments.
From Moab (144 miles): Head north from Moab on Hwy 191 for 31 miles to I-70. Turn left to merge onto I-70 west and continue for 33 miles to Exit 149 for UT-24. Head south on UT-24 for about 44 miles to the town of Hanksville. Turn right to continue on UT-24 west for 28 miles to the east entrance of Capitol Reef National Park. After you pass the Capitol Reef National Park entrance sign on the right side of the road, continue for 7 more miles. Turn right into the Hickman Bridge Trail parking area.