A hiker stands in the bottom of the wash, just under Hurst Bridge, which spans more than 50 feet and hovers more than 20 feet in the air. While there are a number of natural rock bridges located throughout the San Rafael Swell, many consider Hurst to be one of the best.
The north end of the wash, visible beyond the bridge, leads towards Ernie Canyon.
The ominous wall of jagged, slanted rock that parallels state highway 24 for more than 20 miles conceals many surprises within it's expanse. Hidden amongst the rock are mining relics from a era since past and marks on the rock walls made by ancient peoples that once called this place home. It's a place referred to as the San Rafael Reef - one that also shelters many geologic curiosities, including rock bridges and arches.
One of the most attractive of these is Hurst Bridge, which stretches over a narrow corridor of strikingly red rock. It is found atop the outer rim of the reef, near the southern edge of Ernie Canyon, a deep and twisted fissure in the reef itself.
An expedition to this impressive geologic sight begins approximately 18.2 miles south of Interstate 70, where a dirt road leaves state highway 24 and passes through a metal gate to the west of the asphalt. This 4-wheel drive route mainains a few moderate clearance issues, as well as multiple encounters with sand. Most upper to mid-size SUVs and pickup trucks with 4-wheel drive capabilities typically do the trick, however.
Not far from any sign of asphalt, the road quickly leads downward, over a lip of exposed rock, into the sandy bottom of Iron Wash, and back atop the opposite side. At about a mile's drive from the highway, the road splits. The fork to the right heads west, towards Ernie Canyon.
At 2.8 miles from the highway, the road splits yet again. This time, however, this journey leads to the left and into the bottom of the sandy wash. Less than a quarter mile ahead, a wooden fence placed by the Bureau of Land Management seems to emerge from the sagebrush. A quick turn here leads to a nice place to park that's out of the wash bottom.
At this point, the excursion continues on foot - with a map and GPS in hand. The path ahead leads past the wooden fence and up the wash about three quarters of a mile, where the wash opens up and reveals a stunning view of the narrow Ernie Canyon and the slanted strata surrounding it. The trail leaves the wash here, however, and veers to the left, up the steep rock face - an ascent of approximately 350 feet in elevation.
Atop the slant, the trail ahead becomes less obvious but leads west, and then to the north-west. The path forces hikers to traverse rocks, brush, trees, and rocky obstacles along the way.
Finally, this journey leads to a barren pasture of red rock surrounded by vibrantly colored flora and fauna. Hurst Bridge hides in a rocky wash north of here, around the west side of the knoll.
The bridge is a bit elusive and can't be seen directly from this rocky flat. The key is locating the spot where the trail descends off of the rocky shelf and into the wash, past several juniper trees, and through brush, towards the bridge.
With a span of only 55 feet, a width of eight feet, and a height of only 22 feet, Hurst Bridge may not seem very extraordinary. But when viewed with it's natural surroundings, it's easy to see why many see it as special. The mixture of square, red sandstone walls, the bridge above, the surrounding flora and fauna, and the still, quiet air create a secret haven of sorts that seems to shelter one from the societal noise and chaos of the world.
It's now time to head back using the same path that lead here. In total, the journey comprises a five to six mile jaunt, and leaves one with a better appreciation for the geology of the San Rafael Reef.