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Brimhall Natural Bridge.

Brimhall Natural Bridge of Capitol Reef National Park

Brimhall Natural Bridge is an exceptional double bridge that sits deep within the southern end of Capitol Reef National Park. It is a little known and formidable hike that you will remember for the rest of your life. After two failed attempts, much disappointment, and a few thousand miles driven, I am elated to blog about a hike that you could previously only find very little information about. Capitol Reef National Park is one of the less visited national parks in Utah and that makes it a very pleasant surprise. Capitol Reef has all of the great hikes and excitement of Zion without the shuttle bus and big crowds. The park stretches for over a hundred miles from north to south with many epic, remote areas that make it very easy to get away from the crowd. I am only going to cover the Brimhall Bridge hike within Capitol Reef in this blog because it is possibly the most epic five mile hike I’ve ever encountered. It is steep, difficult, and there are risky obstacles that may only be crossed during certain times of the year. Information, timing and research were huge in making this a successful hike, and I am glad that I was finally able to make it.

How to get there.

There are two ways to get to the trailhead, one of which is more adventurous than the other. I will skip to driving from I-70 (see map) where you will take Utah Hwy 24 south to Hanksville. From Hanksville, you have two options. If you want to explore more of Capitol Reef and other possible hikes, head west from Hanksville until you hit Notom-Bullfrog Road just before you enter the park. Notom-Bullfrog Road is a very long, winding, and washboard dirt road that skirts the east side of Capitol Reef National Park. It is not necessary to have 4WD on Notom-Bullfrog road but always be aware of the rain potential in the area. One rainstorm can change the entire dynamic of the desert and everything downstream. There are several normally dry washes you have to cross that can quickly become raging torrents.

The east option out of Hanksville, surprisingly, keeps you on a paved road the vast majority of the way, and there is really only one wash crossing to worry about. The paved option takes you just north of Bullfrog Marina and Lake Powell, Bullfrog being the closest settlement for food and supplies.

Both options from Hanksville are very scenic and eventually take you to the dirt turn-off for Halls Creek Overlook and the Brimhall Bridge trailhead. The road becomes a lot rougher and although a small SUV such as a Subaru Outback or Toyota RAV4 will make the journey, the road is much more navigable in a high clearance vehicle.

Until you get very close to the actual overlook, you are still on BLM land where there are a couple of camping spots only a few hundred yards away from the overlook. The rules for camping on BLM land are much less restrictive than camping on national park land where you will need a permit from the Capitol Reef visitor’s center.

THE HIKE

The actual hike from Halls Creek Overlook is about five miles round trip and drops down nearly one thousand feet into a wrinkle in the earth called the Waterpocket Fold and the Grand Wash, which is the main drainage for most of Capitol Reef down into Lake Powell. From Halls Creek Overlook you have a great view of the narrow canyon and the Brimhall Bridge beyond.

The hike down the overlook has some steep loose sections of switchbacks combined with flatter traverses that take you far enough north, you begin to worry if you are on the right trail. Rest assured the trail is plenty clear and there are no junctions or forks to worry about. The only stressful part of hiking down the overlook is knowing you have to hike back up. Once you’ve made it down into the bottom, you will come to the main wash and hopefully an easy crossing. If there is an abundant amount of water where you have to deviate from the trail to cross the wash, there is a good chance that an upcoming pothole is full of water and most likely impassable. (A solid tip and major time saver is to bring a pair of binoculars with you, look down into the wash from the overlook and if you see a lot of standing water, do yourself a favor and come back another time. There are plenty of other hiking options in Capitol Reef.) It is very difficult to skip the hike when you have come so far, but it is even worse to hike down most of the way to discover you cannot get there anyway. I will talk more about the “pothole” a little later.

If you are able to easily get across the wash, you will soon find yourself dropping down again into a smaller wash, which leads into the towering narrow canyon. Deep sand quickly turns to river rock and denser green trees. There really is no wrong way to hike to the back of the canyon; it all ends up in the same place.

The Obstacles

At the end of the wash/canyon, you come to the first “obstacle” — a roughly fifteen foot rock wall with no way up except for a stack of large, flat rocks, precariously arranged over time. I recommend testing the rocks on the way up before bearing full weight on them; a step in the wrong place can topple the pile. If you are an avid rock climber, this probably won’t be much of an obstacle for you. I am no rock climber and I must admit, the first time I climbed it, it messed with my head more than I thought it would. Now that I have done it a few times, it’s not major. Pay attention to the large pothole to the left of the rock wall. It is a pretty good barometer for the next obstacle – a bigger pothole. If the first pothole is full of water, it’s nearly guaranteed that there is water in the pothole coming up after the rock wall.

Up and over the rock wall, you hike through a rugged solid rock wash, very different from the loose sandy one you just came from. Again, there is really no wrong path to keep moving forward; you will end up in the same place. At the end of the wash, the canyon narrows significantly, and you are finally faced with the obstacle that I have been referring to this whole time. It is a narrow stretch of slot canyon with a deep pothole in the middle and a boulder blocking your way on the other side. If the pothole is full of water, which is often, it is very difficult to get up and over the boulder from the water. This last hike was the first time that I had seen the pothole dry. The previous hikes it was roughly eight feet deep with water, and I didn’t even attempt it. With a pack full of water and photography gear, getting across a large pothole full of water is rather daunting unless you have some mean canyoneering skills. Even though the pothole was dry, it was still a challenge to get my pack and myself over the boulder. I basically had to wedge myself between the right side of the rock wall and the boulder and slowly work my way up. I threw my pack up first, but if I were to do it again I would probably go up first and then pull my pack up with a cord or rope to avoid any serious abrasion damage to my gear.

The pothole obstacle on the way to Brimhall Bridge.

The pothole obstacle on the way to Brimhall Bridge.

Beyond the Boulder

Now that I finally made it past the boulder and the temporary bane of my existence, I was greeted with more boulders to scramble through. I once thought that if I got past the main pothole and boulder, it would be mostly downhill from there. Unfortunately, there is a lot of steep scrambling. You’ll want to bear left or south, following some much-appreciated cairns back into yet another short wash. (Wait there’s more!) At the end of the wash is another large impassible rock wall where you will see cairns on the right, directing you to make one last steep upward assault on loose dirt and rock to the high point where Brimhall Natural Bridge finally comes into view. From there, it is a relatively easy cairned drop to the left that puts you down into the final wash you will follow the rest of the way to the bridge. As you get closer to the bridge, the surroundings begin to green up and you start to realize how big Brimhall Natural Bridge actually is. You can stay low in the wash to end up right under them or you can take a trail to the left that elevates you enough to get a good vantage point from a long rock ledge. The extensive desert varnish is fascinating and really adds a nice contrast to the lighter rock around it. From the higher point you can continue on up underneath the bridge or as far as you feel comfortable in the large, loose flat rock.

One recurring theme you will see in the literature and on the trailhead signs is to bring plenty of water. Capitol Reef National park is a high very hot desert that routinely tops ninety-five degrees in the summer. DO NOT expect to find water while hiking, and plan to bring all you need with you. It is not convenient to carry a lot of water, but on this trip I brought two camel back bladders for a total of five liters for an overnight stay. It was not quite enough and I had to ration my last liter coming back up Halls Creek overlook where my legs were cramping up badly. This clearly compounds the problem of a difficult hike, not only do you need more water but water is heavy and can end up being half the weight of your pack. When they say one gallon per person per day, that is no joke. To minimize the heat, I chose to hike in, in the evening and hike out early in the morning. I can’t imagine hiking it in the heat of the day; that would be miserable. Make sure to leave some water in a cooler in your vehicle. If you happen to run out by the time you get back, it is encouraging to know you have some cold water waiting for you.

 

Brimhall natural bridge

It was worth it!

It is possible to enter the Waterpocket fold another way rather than via the overlook. About eight miles north, there is a trailhead and corral for horses or pack animals to enter the wash, which would save you from having to go back up one of the worst parts of the hike. Believe me, I’ve considered it!

In the end it is all about timing, this hike was rough for me and took a lot of time to get there mostly because of weather, preparedness and the amount of gear I hike with. It will most likely be awhile if I ever go back but the effort it took to finally make it was definitely worth it, Brimhall Bridge is very different and in an incredible setting. Under the right circumstances with a small pack, nice weather, and a stronger fitness level, the difficulty of this hike could change dramatically for the better. Hopefully this information and video help you plan a successful hike to Brimhall Natural Bridges and as always, if you have any questions don’t hesitate to email.

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