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A Family Pilgrimage to Hickman Bridge in Utah

October 16, 1988|KAREN PARKER | Parker is a Times news editor

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK, Utah — 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.

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