A Death in Bull Valley Gorge

They were crushed between the walls of Bull Valley Gorge; killed instantly, or at least that’s what their families prayed for. The three men had crossed the gorge on Skutumpah Road’s one-lane bridge, and their pickup apparently stalled, rolled backward, and plummeted over the edge. It came to a crashing, grinding stop in the narrowest section of the slot, about twenty to twenty-five feet below the bridge, and eighty feet or more above the canyon floor.

The men died on the night of October 14, 1954, more than half a century ago, and their pickup still hangs high above the bottom of the gorge. If you drive out Skutumpah Road—a challenge in the best of conditions—you’ll see the rebuilt bridge and deeply shadowed slot, which at some points is less than five feet wide. Cautiously make your way to the canyon floor directly under the bridge, and you can look up to catch a glimpse of the pickup’s wheels.

Bull Valley Gorge Truck

“I was 11 years old when the accident happened, and my family lived close to what is now Escalante National Monument,” a local man recently told me. “I was out cutting wood with my father and uncle, and we’d heard that three men, Max Henderson, Clark Smith, and Hart Johnson, were missing from the night before. When we got to Bull Valley Gorge, I had to wait in the truck while my dad and uncle looked into the slot and saw the awful thing that happened. Seven children in Henrieville and Cannonville lost their fathers. One of the little girls—she was only seven years old then—grew up to become my wife.”

That little girl is now in her sixties, and shared some of her thoughts with me. “After my father died, mother remarried and she and my step-father raised us. I never went out Skutumpah Road to that bridge, not for many, many years. My husband said it would help me to go there, so we finally drove out together. It still makes me nervous, even though the road and bridge are better than they used to be—you know, it’s the place, thinking about what happened there.”

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My husband, John, and I are seasonal volunteers in Escalante, and I confess that Bull Valley Gorge spooks me. John is one of the coolest, calmest drivers I know, and even he got a little jittery on the bridge over the gorge. The road descends steeply before crossing the slot, and rises steeply on the other side. When John got out of the car to look around, he put rocks behind the wheels to block them. The place got in his head, he told me.

The bodies of the three men who died were recovered the same day they were found, but it wasn’t easy to accomplish. I was told that the sheriff arrived at the scene with his son, who had some experience rappelling. The young man descended into the slot to reach the pickup, and people on the rim pulled up two bodies with ropes. As for the third victim, he evidently fell from the truck, and was found at the bottom of the gulch.

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One funeral service was held for all three men. It’s hard to imagine the intensity of emotion in the close-knit towns of Henrieville and Cannonville on the day of the service. Back then, each community had about the same number of families it has now—roughly 40. A number of local families have ancestors among the first Mormon settlers, and have lived in this remote and sparsely populated area for generations.

As for the bridge over Bull Valley Gorge, after the accident county workers pushed large quantities of boulders, rubble, and tree trunks into the slot directly over the pickup truck, and rebuilt the wooden span on top of this. If you head out Skutumpah Road and cross the bridge, you’re going to drive right over the pickup suspended in the slot.

Driving Skutumpah Road

This remote, unpaved road is associated with a notorious figure from Utah’s past. John D. Lee was an early Mormon leader who established Skutumpah Ranch and the now-vanished Skutumpah settlement and sawmill, among many other projects in the region.

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Lee, who had 19 wives and 56 children, was easily the most infamous man in 19th century southern Utah. He was eventually executed for his role in the “Mountain Meadow Massacre,” the 1857 slaughter of the members of a passing wagon train not far from St. George. When the authorities were searching for him, John D. Lee hid out close to a place he knew well– Skutumpah Road.

Check on the condition of the road before you go (4WD and high clearance are

recommended). Take emergency gear, and don’t even think about starting out if it’s wet or threatening rain. Precipitation turns the bentonite clay roadbed into thick, slick mud, and there won’t be anyone around to get you out of there. Drive cautiously. Some sections of Skutumpah Road are real heart thumpers; rocky with steep climbs, descents, and hairpin turns.

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The road runs for 34 miles, partly inside Escalante National Monument and partly outside. Coming from the north, access Skutumpah Road from Cottonwood Canyon Road, four miles south of Cannonville on Utah S.R. 12. If you’re coming from the south, drive paved Johnson Canyon road north from U.S. 89, nine miles east of Kanab. At 16 miles north of U.S. 89, where the pavement ends, turn east (right) at a three way intersection on to Skutumpah Road.

A third and longer option is to turn on to Glendale Bench Road from U.S. 89, 25 miles north of Kanab. From unpaved Glendale Bench Road, you’ll reach the three way intersection with Johnson Canyon Road and Skutumpah Road.

Hiking or Backpacking Bull Valley Gorge

The Skutumpah Road Bridge and Bull Valley Gorge are located in the National Monument close to Willis Creek and Sheep Creek, and it’s possible to complete a 17 mile loop backpack or hike that includes all three spots. Typically, however, day hikers take in-and-out trips when starting from the bridge over Bull Valley Gorge.

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To access Bull Valley Gorge from the bridge, take the trail on the right side of the gorge as you face upstream. Walk upstream past the trail register for a half mile or so until there’s a reasonable place to descend into the canyon. At the bottom, turn and start walking downstream. When you’re under the bridge, remember to look up.

Conditions in the gorge are highly variable. Some sections will require rope and climbing skills. Before going, check with Monument Visitor Center staff for current conditions, weather forecast, and information on the skills and gear you’ll need to have. Bull Valley Gorge may be dry or there may be cold standing water and mud that present problems for backpackers and hikers. Flash flooding can be extreme due to the very narrow width of some parts of the canyon. Carry topographical maps, and if backpacking, the required permit—available at no cost at the trailhead or from a Monument Visitor Center.

8 Responses to “A Death in Bull Valley Gorge”

  1. On 24 May, Skutumpah road was well graded and could be driven with a standard sedan if so desired. It was very smooth in our Land Cruiser driving on low inflated tires.

  2. Fantastic article! This old Texan loves Southern Utah! The area of which you speak is very unique to say the least! Many of the roads are breath taking! I hunted Canaan Mountain many years ago! What wonderful memories! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great read.
    Well researched article.
    I heard the story when I was just a kid and have the privilege and honor to call two of those kids mentioned my cousins, after their mother remarried my uncle.
    Many times I tried to get someone to take me to the sight but never successful. The excuse was always that the road was no good.
    Thank you for letting us know how to get there.

  4. I have been over that road many times with several groups of high school kids from Hurricane and we always stop to tell the story and get to where we can see the truck. We have also done the loop and an up-and-back hike hike. It is an amazing place and story.

  5. I was with Sheriff Deward Woodard and his son Paul Woodard. The Sheriff was my Grandfather. It was terribly difficult getting these poor men out. They had been in the truck for a while and it was extremely hot.
    Neal Magleby the Mortician from Richfield met us there and picked up the bodies.I was a Sophomore at Panguitch High School.

  6. I am Donald Henderson. I grew up in Cannonville. I knew all three men who were killed in the terrible Bull Valley Gorge accident. My brother-in-law, Floyd Richards, who passed away a few years ago, helped retrieve the bodies. Max Henderson was my cousin. He married Violet Rae Smith. Hart Johnson married Anna Mae Folsom. I don’t think Clark Smith was married. I write this because I am curious to know who wrote the article. Which of the men was the father of the seven year old girl who became the author’s wife? Who is the seven year daughter? I would like to hear from someone who knows the answer to these questions. I think i would know these people. I would appreciate an answer.

    I graduated from Tropic High School in 1947.

  7. Donald Henderson this is my family story. Violet Rae Smith and Clark Smith are my relatives. My family is from Tropic, Cannonville, and Henryville. My great grandma Clora Smith is from Tropic and My great grandfather Hardy Smith is from Henryville or Cannonville. I can’t remember. I’m sorry I can’t tell you about the 7 year old girl. I dont know anything about her. I bet if you did some research in all three towns you might get an answer from my families. In fact my grandma is in Tropic right now. She is working at Bryce Canyon Inn for my cousin. She might know more about the story than I do. Her name is Shaunna Mitchell.

  8. Donald herserson I would like to know more on max herserson he was my grandpa and I would like to know more about the hersersons so if you could e-mail at kennaveater@gmail.com me I would a appreciate it violet rae is my grandma

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