Natural Bridges National Monument: Power of Nature

Situated high atop Cedar Mesa, Natural Bridges National Monument illustrates the power of water in shaping a high desert landscape

From sea to shining sea, America is packed with unforgettable, extraordinary, and unique places administered by the National Park Service, but few offer a more striking landscape than Natural Bridges National Monument.

Formed by the power of water in a place where water is all but absent, three stone bridges in the Utah desert have been protected as a national monument since 1908, but their history goes back much, much farther. 

How are natural bridges formed?

The three bridges of Natural Bridges National Monument are thought to be about 5,000 years old—practically brand new in geological terms. They are geologically different from natural arches like the ones found 100 miles away at Arches National Park.

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches, which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden, whereas arches are usually high and exposed, as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges.

Sipapu Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rain is scarce in the Utah desert, but when it does fall, it often creates fierce flash floods that tear away at the canyon walls. The curved, meandering path of the floodwaters gradually undercuts the stone, and when two parallel streams undercut the same rock formation from opposite sides, they eventually break through and meet in the middle — and a bridge is born. 

The three bridges

In 1883, prospector Cass Hite wandered up White Canyon from his base camp along the Colorado River in search of gold. What he found instead were three magnificent bridges water had sculpted from stone. National Geographic publicized the natural bridges in 1904, and President Theodore Roosevelt established Natural Bridges National Monument four years later, creating Utah’s first national park unit in 1908.

Sipapu Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bridges themselves have been named and renamed several times over the years. First named “President,” “Senator,” and “Congressman” by Cass Hite, the bridges were renamed “Augusta,” “Caroline,” and “Edwin” by later explorer groups.

As the park was expanded to protect nearby Puebloan structures, the General Land Office assigned the Hopi names “Sipapu,” “Kachina,” and “Owachomo” in 1909.

Sipapu, or “the place of emergence,” refers to the entryway through which the Hopi believe their ancestors arrived in this world. Sipapu is the largest of the bridges, and the second-largest natural bridge in the world.

Kachina Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kachina gets its name from the rock art that adorns the bridge, resembling symbols often seen on kachina dolls. The thickest of the three bridges, Kachina is probably the youngest.

Owachomo means “rock mound.” This bridge gets its name from the distinctive rocky feature atop its east abutment. The narrow profile of Owachomo suggests that it has eroded more quickly than its neighbors.

Owachomo Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessing the bridges

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges.

Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges, which are located in two adjacent canyons.

To make the experience even more breathtaking, each natural bridge is accessed by a steep hike down to the base of the bridge and then back up again. Each trail is less than 1.5 miles in length and takes less than an hour to complete.

Owachomo Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring plenty of water, along with sunglasses, sunscreen, appropriate footwear, and a camera. The cooler months offer more agreeable temperatures.

The visitor center is open year-round. It has a slide program, exhibits, publications, and postcards. A 13-site campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare