The Bridge at Bull Valley Gorge


The bridge at Bull Valley Gorge is gone, swept away by the brute force of flash flooding at the end of March or beginning of April this year. Gone is the narrow, white-knuckle crossing over the deep canyon; all that remains of the infamous bridge is a crumbling fin of dirt, rock, and tree trunks. 

Skutumpah Road across Bull Valley Gorge is closed, and the approach to the washout is blocked to stop any driver who ventures to this stomach-churning spot. According to National Monument staff, it could be some time before a new crossing is built; unlike the old bridge, the crossing will have to meet today’s construction and safety standards.

A pickup hung in the gorge for almost 65 years, wedged high above the canyon floor and surrounded by material that was pushed into the slot when the bridge was improved those many decades ago. Until the recent washout, crossing Bull Valley Gorge by road at this extremely narrow spot meant driving or walking over the old vehicle that hung some 20 to 30 feet below the canyon rim. 

There’s a good chance that although it may not be visible, the pickup is still in place–mute testimony to a tragic event that profoundly affected the families and communities of this remote area.

Skutumpah Road, Grand Staircase Escalante, Utah. Three men in a pickup hurtle through the night, the only human souls for dozens of miles in any direction. Just ahead, a thread-the-needle bridge over Bull Valley Gorge, a jagged slot more than one hundred feet deep and, in places, barely six feet across. 

Friday, October 15, 1954: The news spread quickly through Tropic, Cannonville, and Henrieville, a cluster of small towns in the high desert east of Utah’s Bryce National Park. Three local men were missing, two of them husbands and fathers with seven children between them.

Like most people in the area, the missing men were descendants of nineteenth century Mormon settlers. Here, generations have scraped out a living farming, tending stock, or in now-vanished lumber mills, becoming all too accustomed to hardship and loss in one of the most remote, thinly-populated places in the country. On that long ago October morning, everyone prayed hard for a good outcome while silently steeling themselves for the opposite.

The three men were last seen one day earlier, and were thought to have driven south from Cannonville into a region of tangled canyonlands. In the 1950’s, the area’s few roads were mostly unpaved, just as they are today; driving could be rough in dry weather, and sometimes impossible with any amount of rain. Here, temperatures veer between brutal extremes. Water is scarce. And back in 1954, when communities had no funds or assistance to execute a search, little separated a lost or missing person from death.

Catherine, a longtime resident of Tropic, was seven years old when the three men disappeared. She has good reason to remember that day. Her father was one of the missing men.

“My father, Max Henderson, and his friends, Clark Smith and Hart Johnson, attended a funeral at the Mormon church in Cannonville, and when it was over, the three of them started drinking,” Catherine told me. “I recall my father standing outside our house and pounding on the door really hard, and he and my mother yelling at each other.”

“It’s all right if people know how things were between my father and mother. It was a long time ago. I don’t mind,” Catherine said. “I don’t have many memories of my father, but I do remember that he promised me a white kitten before he drove off that day. He said that he left it somewhere and had to go get it.”

The truck rattles down a steep hill to the bridge at Bull Valley Gorge.  Under the waning moon, unearthly sandstone spires and knobs stand like cardboard cutouts, and the gorge itself is ink black. The pickup crosses the bridge but then stops. Within a few seconds, it begins to roll back toward the edge of the chasm.

“In our little towns, there’s no such thing as bad news that affects just one family,” Catherine’s husband, Marion, told me. â€œMost trace their ancestors back to the original Mormon pioneers. And a lot of us are ‘double-related,’ connected by blood or marriage in more than one way.”

Fear envelopes the three communities as the hours pass with no trace of the missing men. There are few people to carry out a search and hundreds of square miles where the men might be. In the 1950’s, this part of south-central Utah was considered among the most isolated areas in the country. One of the handful of roads is 34 mile long Skutumpah Road—Catherine thinks that maybe one of the men kept sheep or had a deer camp near here, and that it may have been where the three friends liked to drink. 

Skutumpah Road is famous for a bentonite clay surface that turns to glue when wet, and for a location so desolate that John D. Lee, a notorious 19thcentury Mormon leader, resisted church orders to establish a settlement here.  The road is also famous for its dramatic formations, including Bull Valley Gorge. In 1954, this slender gorge was spanned by the narrowest of wooden bridges. 

Saturday, October 16,  the third day that the men have been missing. Eleven year-old Marion is cutting firewood along Skutumpah Road with his father and uncle. “A fellow stopped us on the road, telling us to keep an eye out for the three men and the pickup.”

Max Henderson, Clark Smith, and Hart Johnson were all in their thirties in 1954, and at least two of the men—Henderson and Johnson— served in the military during World War II. Growing up in tiny Mormon communities, they left for wartime duty and then returned home to the same communities. Clark Smith reportedly never married, but Max Henderson and Hart Johnson were each married with young children. Henderson’s wife, Viola Rae—Catherine’s mother—and Smith were cousins.

In 1954, opportunities were scarce in this part of Utah.  Henrieville and Cannonville, each with about two hundred residents, and Cannonville with about four hundred, have remained roughly the same size for decades. “The reason,” Marion told me, “is that young people had to go elsewhere for education and jobs. The timber jobs were gone, and most people farmed, worked with livestock, and kept a cow.”

According to Littlefield, not much cash circulated in these communities in decades past. People often traded with one another to get what they needed, but some things just couldn’t be found locally. “When I was a child,” Marion said, “a man sometimes came through Tropic with a produce truck. He sold things like oranges that we never saw. If you don’t usually have them, an orange tastes like the most wonderful thing you can imagine.” 

Many families were poor, and securing even the basic necessities of life was a challenge. Church participation was a community focus, and everyone, including young children, pitched in and worked for the common good. In Mormon communities, self-reliance and self-sufficiency were foundation principles.  There were few modern conveniences, including telephones—Marion remembers only one family having a phone in his home town of Tropic in the fifties. 

“When my father, uncle, and I came to the steep hill before Bull Valley Gorge, we saw that a few people were standing at the edge of that narrow slot,” Marion recalls.  â€œMy father stopped our truck well before the gorge and told me to stay put.  A few more vehicles arrived, and the men all gathered at the bridge while the women and children stayed up the hill. While I waited in the truck, dad and my uncle looked down into the chasm and saw the awful thing that had happened.”

Garfield County Sheriff Deward Woodard arrived at Bull Valley Gorge with his son Paul, who was visiting his father for the weekend. With them was fifteen year old Robert, the sheriff’s grandson.  Robert’s mother passed away when he was very young, and his father had recently moved to Salt Lake City. The teenager lived with Sheriff Woodard and attended high school in Panguitch, a town of more than 1,000 and the county seat.

“When we arrived, men were gathered on the wooden bridge, looking straight down,” Robert told me. “That was the only way to see the truck. At that spot, Bull Valley Gorge is shaped like an hour glass, wider at the top and bottom, and constricted in the middle. The pickup had fallen a couple of dozen feet before it came to a stop, crushed in the narrowest part of the gorge and hanging high above its floor. It was obvious to me that nobody could have survived.”

The sheriff deduced from the truck’s position and tracks that the missing men had been heading back in the direction of Cannonville. He figured that they probably made it across the bridge over the gorge, but then the pickup apparently halted and rolled backwards. 

The bridge is framed on each end by a steep hill; after crossing, Max Henderson possibly tried to downshift to start up the hill on the far side. Henderson’s truck, which had belonged to his father, was a standard transmission pickup that almost certainly didn’t have a synchronized gearbox.  To downshift, Henderson would have to double clutch while carefully gauging his speed. Evidently, he didn’t succeed and the truck stalled.

Henderson’s driving may have been impaired by alcohol, and darkness no doubt made everything more difficult. The truck rolled to the edge of the gorge and toppled in backwards.

“Max Henderson was still in the pickup,” Robert said. “The other two men had  been thrown out and fallen to the canyon floor.  My grandfather asked for someone to bring him a long rope, and he made a kind of harness. I was lowered down into the narrow gorge, with the idea that because I was 15 years old and smaller than a grown man, I might be better able to work on bringing the victims up to the top. By then my adrenalin was pumping full force.”

In 1954, Sheriff Deward Woodward and one assistant were responsible for all of Garfield County’s five thousand square miles, an area with less than one person per square mile. “I often went along with my grandfather when he was called out,” Robert told me. “He might have known the families of the deceased men at Bull Valley Gorge, but fortunately my uncle, Paul, and I didn’t know anyone.  I think that helped us, given what we  had to do. It took three or four  hours to retrieve the men, and the circumstances were awful. 

“Trying to free the driver from the pickup turned out to be a one man job. It involved maneuvering on and around the wedged vehicle in very cramped conditions. It was terribly hot. The effort required a lot of strength, so my uncle Paul ended up doing most of the work below the canyon rim. He was in his early twenties at the time, over six feet tall, and as a police officer he had already faced intense and challenging situations.

“Pulling the three victims up through the rock-choked chasm to the top required great effort by the men standing on the bridge, but at last it was accomplished. My grandfather had called Magelby’s Funeral Home earlier, and the mortician, Neal Magelby, had already arrived. My uncle and I carried the deceased men  to the mortician’s vehicle and laid them inside.

“It wasn’t until my grandfather, uncle, and I were driving back to Panguitch and talking everything over that my uncle Paul allowed his stress and exhaustion to come out. He had remained calm and in control during the entire experience. I will never forget that.                                                                                                         

“I remember my father’s casket being placed in the front room of our house, so people could come to pay their respects,” Catherine said. There was one funeral in Tropic for all three of the men. It’s difficult to imagine the intensity of emotion at the service that day.

The Bull Valley Gorge accident left Catherine’s mother a widow with three small children and no security. “My youngest sister was only four months old at the time.” Catherine said. “My mother was a bitter woman. She was bitter about Max Henderson and she was bitter about everything else, too.”

“About a year after father died, my mother married Joseph Hughes, who was a kind man and really became a father to us. I think that a lot of the reason he married mother was that he wanted us three girls to have a father. He was a good man, and he was good to us and my mother.

“We were poor, just as many families around us were poor. I was the oldest child, and I grew up wanting to make things be right for other people, to fix things, to make everyone feel all right. My whole life, that’s how I’ve been. 

“Mother passed on this year, and my husband, Marion, and I cleaned out her house. This was the place where I grew up. My mother had become a hoarder and the whole house was filled  with stuff. One of the things she kept was funeral programs and obituaries. She must have held onto every single one that she ever had. When we went to clean out her car, we found the funeral program for Marion’s mother stuck down between the front seats. It had been there over ten years—since my mother-in-law passed away.

“I met Marion when he returned from his Mormon mission and came to a dance at my high school. The way he likes to tell the story, he asked the principal to show him the prettiest unattached girl at the dance. We’ve now been married for over 53 years.”

The Bridge at Bull Valley Gorge

After the accident at Bull Valley Gorge, county workers rebuilt the bridge by pushing quantities of boulders, rubble, and tree trunks into the slot directly over the pickup truck, and making the driving surface of the bridge wider.

Catherine told me that many years passed before she made the decision to visit the gorge. Her husband, Marion, thought that it would do her good, and he brought her out to see the site of the accident.  â€œI have always felt nervous about that place,” she said.  â€œI knew that the bridge and the road were better than back in the fifties. But I still felt nervous because of what happened there.”

Until the bridge washed out, driving Skutumpah Road across the narrow chasm meant passing directly over the pickup that still hung suspended there. Hiking about a half mile upstream, it was possible to cautiously descend to the canyon floor and backtrack to look up to catch a glimpse of wheels and metal–crushed by material pushed on top to form a foundation for the replacement bridge. 

More than sixty years have passed since the deaths at Bull Valley Gorge, and the author wishes to thank Catherine, Marion, and Robert for their generosity and kindness in assisting with this account. They were seven, eleven, and fifteen years old when the accident took place. This is their story.



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.


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.


Bull Valley Gorge and Skutumpah Road where it reaches the 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 Bull Valley Gorge crossing.

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, carry the required permit—available at no cost at the trailhead or from a Monument Visitor Center. 

To access Bull Valley Gorge from Skutumpah Road, take the trail on the right side of the gorge as you face upstream. Until the recent washout, hikers could walk upstream past the trail register for a half mile or so until finding a reasonable place to descend into the canyon, then at the bottom, turn and start walking downstream. 

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