Sculpted By Water: Natural Bridges National Monument

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

Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area in southeastern Utah. It is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result is not heavily visited.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Unlike Arches National Park with over 2,000 classified arches, there are only three natural bridges here. The area also has some scattered Indian cliff dwellings, pictographs, and scenic white sandstone canyons.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pinyon and juniper covered mesa is bisected by deep canyons exposing the Permian Age Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Where meandering streams cut through sandstone walls, three large natural bridges were formed. At an elevation of 6,500 feet above sea level, Natural Bridges is home to a wide variety of plants and animals. Plants range from the fragile cryptobiotic soil crusts to remnant stands of Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine. Hanging gardens in moist canyon seep springs and numerous plants flower in the spring.

Animals range from a variety of lizards, toads, and an occasional rattlesnake, to peregrine falcons, mountain lions, bobcats, and black bear.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naming the Bridges

Several names have been applied to the bridges. 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” to the bridges in 1909. Sipapu means “the place of emergence,” an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world. Kachina is named for rock art on the bridge that resembles symbols commonly used on kachina dolls. Owachomo mean “rock mound,” a feature atop the bridge’s east abutment.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three 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.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experiencing the Bridges

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. Starting down the trail to Sipapu Bridge, we arrived at the first rough-hewn Navajo-looking log ladder and scampered down. The trail to the Sipapu Bridge hugs a massive overhanging rock wall that Mother Nature has painted in wide swaths of black, orange, and pink. Considering the forces of wind and water that shaped these rocks, we couldn’t help but imagine the ancient people who once sought shelter here.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sipapu Bridge is the second largest natural bridge in the world (only Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon is bigger). In Hopi mythology, a “sipapu” is a gateway through which souls may pass to the spirit world. After admiring the bridge for a while, we made our way back up along the striped rock wall to the wooden ladders and on up to the loop road that winds through the park.

The second stone arch, Kachina Bridge, also requires hiking down stairways that have been carved into the sandstone by the National Park Service and clambering down log ladders as well. Unlike Sipapu, however, Kachina is a thick and squat bridge that crosses a large cool wash filled with brilliant green shade trees.

A massive bridge Kachina is considered the “youngest” of the three because of the thickness of its span. The relatively small size of its opening and its orientation make it difficult to see from the overlook. Along the flanks of this bridge we saw the faint etchings of petroglyphs that were pecked out of the rock eons ago. We were intrigued to learn that some of the cliff dwellers from the Mesa Verde area 150 miles away in Colorado had called this place home around 1200 A.D. We got our workout once again as we huffed and puffed up the ladders and staircases back to the loop road.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Owachomu Bridge is probably the most spectacular and also the easiest stone bridge to reach. The trail into the canyon underneath the bridge is a short distance from the overlook. It is the oldest bridge in the park and rock falls have reduced the thickness to only 9 feet, so it may not be here much longer. Needless to say, walking on top of the bridges is not allowed.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Current Status

Natural Bridges’ roads, trails, campground, and restrooms are open. The visitor center remains closed. When open, the visitor center has a slide program, exhibits, publications, and postcards. A 13-site campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

People repeatedly occupied and abandoned Natural Bridges during prehistoric times. They first began using this area during the Archaic period from the year 7000 BC to 500 AD. Only the rock art and stone tools left by hunter-gatherer groups reveal that humans lived here then. Around 700 AD, ancestors of modern Puebloan people moved onto the mesa tops to dry farm and later left as the natural environment changed.

Three hundred years after their ancestors left, the farmers returned. They built homes of sandstone masonry or mud-packed sticks, both on the mesa tops and in alcoves in the cliffs. South facing caves provided passive solar heating and cooling. The farmers often chose sites near seep springs where water could be found.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Styles of masonry, ceramic decoration, and other artifacts suggest that the people here were related to those of the Mesa Verde region to the east. Influences are clearly evident from the Kayenta region to the southwest and the Fremont culture to the north. Like these people, the inhabitants of Natural Bridges left this area for the last time around 1270.

Navajos and Paiutes lived in the area during later times, and Navajo oral tradition holds that their ancestors lived among the early Puebloans.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 7,636 acres

Visitation: 52,542 (2020)

Established: April 19, 1908

Entrance Fee: $20/private vehicle, valid for 7 consecutive days

Camping Fee: $15

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

10 Amazing Places to RV in April

RV travel allows you to take the comforts of home on the road

April is when many RV destinations begin to bloom. Deserts of the Southwest bask in perfect temperatures, the calm before the summer sizzle. Elsewhere, there are springtime celebrations to mark the joy of a new season. It’s shoulder season at beach escapes everywhere from Florida to Southern California.

The bad news is COVID-19 has taken its toll on the tourism industry and continues to impact travel. Canadian snowbirds didn’t flock south this winter. Naturally, RVers are looking forward to the relaxation of these restrictions. But where are the most amazing places to RV this month?

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in February and March. Also check out our recommendations from April 2020.

Greenville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greenville, South Carolina

A perennial stopover between Charlotte and Atlanta as well as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Greenville has become a destination in its own right. The walkable downtown, Instagrammable Main Street, and culinary scene are easy draws. Foodies can choose from cuisines reflecting a variety of cultures, authentic barbecue, and James Beard Award-nominated dishes. Greenville’s thriving arts community includes public sculptures and murals, the Peace Center (home to Greenville Symphony Orchestra), and the annual Artisphere which showcases 135 artists. Don’t miss 26-acre Falls Park on the Reedy. Plan to spend a day exploring the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail. Walk, run, or bike this 22-mile trail system which tracks along the Reedy River, an old railroad corridor, and city parks.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon and Sedona, Arizona

The Grand Canyon and Sedona— when paired together—provide a magical landscape overload.

In the case of Sedona that landscape may literally be magical as the town is home to so-called vortexes where various energies align to create spaces for communing with, well, whatever intangible thing it is you’re seeking. But don’t let that distract you from the red rock buttes and cliffs that jut out of the ground at most every turn. The Grand Canyon, of course, needs no introduction and the popular South Rim entryway is a scenic two-hour drive from Sedona. Sedona itself has numerous hiking trails for every skill level and you should also make time to visit Red Rock State Park and Oak Creek Canyon.

Louisiana swamp tours © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana Swamp Tours

Louisiana serves up a lot more memorable experiences than just bowls of its famed gumbo.

To experience an indelible part of the state’s past, present, and future visit the mysterious and exquisite swamps throughout south Louisiana, home to one of the planet’s richest and most diverse ecosystems. Perceived as beautiful and menacing, south Louisiana’s ancient swamps have long captivated writers, historians, and travelers. Just the name “Louisiana” brings to mind images of moss-draped oak trees, bald cypresses with massive, bottle-like trunks, and flat-bottom boats effortlessly gliding through waters populated with alligators. On a south Louisiana swamp tour, you’re likely to see all of those plus some unexpected surprises. All swamps have their own stories to tell and with the help of expert local guides you’re guaranteed to have the kind of adventure you’ll only find in Louisiana.

Chattanooga Choo Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, Tennessee

To save Chattanooga’s Terminal Station (the first railway station in the south when it opened in 1909) from being demolished in the 1970s, a group of businessmen invested approximately $4 million into turning the Beaux Arts structure into a vacation destination. In addition to hotel rooms, the terminal complex also has retail shops, a comedy club, and a stunning rose garden. Recently procured by hospitality brand Life House Hotels, the property has debuted a new look with a new wine bar, 40-seat cinema, a recording studio, and revamped suites inside historic Pullman train cars.

Blue Bell Vreamery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington County, Texas

Have you seen those iconic photos of a lone live oak tree on a small rise overlooking an endless field of bluebonnets? It may well have been snapped in Washington County. With old courthouse squares alive with shops and cafes, frequent town festivals, and historic Texas-independence sites, you can’t get more stereotypically small-town Texas than this. Sitting equal distance from Houston and Austin (about 70 miles from either), Washington County makes an easy country escape from the city. No town is more than 40 miles from the region’s main center, Brenham, home of Blue Bell ice cream.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Worth a visit any season of the year, Natural Bridges is particularly spectacular and enjoyable in spring. Take in the three towering natural bridges (Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu) from overlooks along Bridge View Drive, a paved 9-mile loop road, or by short hikes from each trailhead. For those who are looking for a longer hike, an 8.6-mile loop trail will take you past and/or under all three bridges.

And don’t hurry back; after dark, the skies around Natural Bridges provide a breathtakingly celestial view with thousands of stars visible. You’ll camp in solitude among the juniper trees at the Natural Bridges campground. The campground is conveniently located next to the visitor center off the main park road. Campsites are first-come, first-served and open year-round. Each site has a fire grill, picnic table, and tent pad but no running water, electricity, or hookups. Ranger-led Dark Sky Astronomy Programs are offered spring through fall. Call ahead for details.

Mingus Mountain Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mingus Mountain Scenic Road, Arizona

Traveling from Prescott to Jerome, you start out a mile high, finish a mile high and climb a mountain in the middle. This route rises from the expanse of the Prescott Valley abruptly to the heavily vegetated Black Hills. In Yeager Canyon the road is visually and physically enclosed by the vegetation and canyon walls. Descending from the top of Mingus Mountain to the Verde Valley there are spectacular views of the Mogollon Rim, San Francisco Peaks, and the red sandstone cliffs of the red rocks. This scenic road makes a smooth transition into the history of the mining area as it meets the Jerome, Clarkdale, Cottonwood Historic Road.

Walterboro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walterboro, South Carolina

For those reminiscing about the warmth and familiarity of an authentic small town, Walterboro provides the perfect opportunity to step back through time. Nature lovers can take advantage of South Carolina’s year-round balmy weather and enjoy the quiet solitude of the ACE Basin and Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Great Swamp Sanctuary) which is accessible from downtown. Visitors are reminded of the town’s early days as a summer retreat—tree-lined streets where quaint homes with broad porches and beautiful churches date to the 18th century. Treasure-hunters love scouring the village’s dozen antique shops, finding everything from high-end antiques to fun vintage souvenirs or shopping the Colleton Farmers Market for farm-fresh produce and delicious homemade food products.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio, Texas

There are big cities out there with little character and even less history but San Antonio is not one of them. The San Antonio River Walk (or Paseo del Rio) is a linear park that winds for thirteen miles from Brackenridge Park through downtown San Antonio and south to the farthest of the city’s five eighteenth-century Spanish missions. The central section of approximately 3½ miles is navigable by tourist barges that stop along riverside walkways near hotels, restaurants, and shops. Access to the remainder of the River Walk is along hiking and biking trails. The River Walk draws several million tourists a year, is ranked as one of the top travel destinations in Texas, and has inspired riverside developments throughout the world.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic Market Square and The Alamo are the heart of River Walk tourism and for good reason. Fiesta, the city’s annual springtime festival is typically centered here every April. The extravaganza lasts over a week and is—at its core—a celebration of culture in the loudest, brightest, and most exuberant sense. The historic Battle of Flowers Parade, the main event, was established back in 1891 to honor the heroes who fought for Texas independence at The Alamo. The parade will commemorate its upcoming 130th anniversary in 2021. (San Antonio plans to have an abridged Fiesta celebration this year after canceling due to pandemic concerns in 2020.)

Tombstone Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Site, Arizona

The rich history of Tombstone has been celebrated time and again by Hollywood because of the interesting characters and rough tendencies of this once thriving Arizona town. A well curated display at the courthouse gives visitors an insider look into the life and times of the Earp family and their exploits during their time in Tombstone. While in Tombstone, don’t forget to stop by the OK Corral, the site of a famous gun battle that helped shape the history of the town. 

Worth Pondering…

April is a promise that May is bound to keep.

—Hal Borland

A Utah Road Trip: Natural Bridges, Moki Dugway, Valley of the Gods & More

This route provides breathtaking views of some of Utah’s most beautiful sites

It’s nearly impossible to drive any kind of distance in Utah without going through some spectacular countryside, no matter what route you choose. However, there is one drive a bit off the beaten path that is not nearly as well known as other scenic drives and designated scenic byways and yet is truly worthy of a day trip.

Driving west on SR-95 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting this 130-mile journey from our home base at Cottonwood RV Park in Bluff, we drove our toad north on US-191 to Blanding, then took a left turn to head west on SR-95.

With every bend in the road, we found ourselves craning our necks to take in the stunning views. Enormous, patterned red rock walls lined the sides of the road, and mystical red rock formations rose up from the horizon and changed shape as we passed them by. The landscape was vast, open and colorful, and completely devoid of the human touch. Everywhere we looked, we felt inspired by the wondrous creations of a divine hand.

Driving west on SR-95 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road was first constructed in 1935 as a gateway from Blanding to Natural Bridges National Monument and remained unpaved through the 1960s. It wasn’t until the ’70s that portions of the road began to be paved. Yet, because it doesn’t link any major towns or cities, we found that as we passed by one glorious red rock vista after another on our way to Natural Bridges, there was rarely another vehicle on the road.

Driving west on SR-95 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several miles before reaching the national park gate we left SR-95, heading west on SR-275 to the park gate. Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area. It is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result is not heavily visited.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. The area also has some scattered Indian cliff dwellings, pictographs, and scenic white sandstone canyons.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges with Hopi Indian names—Sipapu (the place of emergence), Kachina (dancer), and Owachomu (rock mounds). Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge.

Continuing our road trip, we retraced our route on SR-275 and SR-95, traveling south on SR-261 to Muley Point, Moki Dugway, and Valley of the Gods.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before descending Moki Dugway, you may wish to stop at the fantastic vista at Muley Point. To reach Muley Point, take the first road to your right (west) at the top of the dugway. The Muley Point Overlook provides viewers with a panorama of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, and the vast, sweeping valleys of the desert valley below. 

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also spelled Mokee, the term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11 percent grade), which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Moki Dugway was constructed in the 1950s to provide a way to haul ore from the Happy Jack Mine on Cedar Mesa to the mill in Halchita, near Mexican Hat.

The State of Utah recommends that only vehicles less than 28 feet and 10,000 pounds attempt to negotiate the dugway. The remainder of US-261 is paved.

Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook. You enter another environment as you descend from scrub forest to desert.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Short hikes are necessary to reach some, but most can be seen from the road. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. As is usual in this stark landscape, morning and evening are the best times to take photos. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road exits onto US-163 about 7.5 miles north of Mexican Hat. Pointing our toad east for 17 miles and we’ve back at our home base in Bluff.

Worth Pondering…

How strange that nature does not knock, and yet does not intrude!

—Emily Dickinson

Incredible Geological Formations in National Parks where you can avoid the Crowds

Enjoying the splendor of some of America’s most breathtaking national parks can be tough when you’re dealing with crowds of tourists

Over millions of years, factors such as weather, erosion, volcanic ash, and cooling molten rock created incredible rock formations and geological wonders across the U.S. While the spectacular geological formations in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, California’s Joshua Tree, or Utah’s Bryce Canyon are some of the best known, they also can be overrun with visitors. Here are four remarkable, underrated geological formations that are worth checking out.

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Before you go, check the park’s official website for park alerts. As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

Lassen Peak, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Yellowstone National Park’s spewing geysers and steaming hot springs get all the attention—and about 4.4 million annual visitors. Lassen Volcanic National Park, approximately 150 miles north of Sacramento in the Cascades, offers similarly spectacular sights and only about a half-million yearly visitors. Volcanic activity still abounds here—around 100 years ago, the park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, erupted for three years. It was the most powerful series of blasts in the Cascades until Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. Lassen Peak is only one of about 30 volcanoes in the park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you arrive at the park, you’ll probably smell before you see the first hydrothermal feature you’ll pass—the bubbling mud pots of Sulphur Works give off an unappealing odor like rotten eggs but are fascinating to watch. Be sure to see the park’s largest hydrothermal area via the Bumpass Hell Trail, a 1.5-mile trek across a meandering boardwalk. You’ll pass over thumping mud pots, bubbling turquoise pools, and roaring steam vents—including the park’s largest, Big Boiler.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve had your fill of hydrothermal activity, check out the park’s many beautiful frigid lakes, waterfalls, and flowering meadows. The park is open year-round, but due to its 8,000-foot elevation, snowpack limits access to some areas during the winter and spring months.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Utah is home to five of the nation’s most popular national parks: Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Capitol Reef. If you want to avoid the crowds you typically encounter at the “Mighty Five” but still see impressive geological formations, head to Natural Bridges National Monument. Known for its three natural rock bridges formed by water (instead of the wind erosion of arches), it’s also a fantastic place to gaze at the night sky—the monument became the first certified International Dark Sky Park in 2007.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in Utah’s southeast corner, Natural Bridges National Monument receives only about 88,000 annual visitors. In comparison, Canyonlands and Zion see about 734,000 and 4.5 million, respectively. Sipapu Bridge, the monument’s largest, has an impressive 268-foot span and a height of 220 feet. The monument’s second-largest bridge, Kachina, was named for the petroglyphs and pictographs that adorn the base. Owachomo Bridge, while the smallest, is the most accessible, requiring only an easy half-mile round-trip hike to see it.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Unlike the tan-shaded dunes in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, the dunes in White Sands National Park are, unsurprisingly, white. However, calling them white is doing them an injustice as these majestic dunes are made of gypsum that glitters in the sun creating a breathtaking, sparkling wonder.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. What makes this special is that gypsum usually dissolves upon contact with water so it doesn’t stick around long enough to form huge mounds. Here, however, the arid climate and lack of rainfall of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert prevent the gypsum from dissolving. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

In a state filled with rock formations, canyons, and awe-inspiring natural features, Canyon de Chelly is a lesser-known but uniquely historical canyon located in the northeastern corner of Arizona. While the Grand Canyon is the grandest of all canyons and Mesa Verde is known for its iconic ruins within epic canyons, Canyon de Chelly has a very similar history with equally as beautiful landscapes and fewer tourists. Although Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument, it is under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation instead of the National Park Service. Because this monument is still inhabited by Native Americans today, the regulations within the monument are a lot stricter, making access to the park more exclusive but not difficult with some advanced planning.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The easiest way to see Canyon de Chelly National Monument in its entirety is from the ten overlooks along its rim. The canyon is surrounded by Canyon de Chelly Highway, a 130-mile, partially paved loop that is completely bikeable but not recommended for most vehicles on the unpaved stretches. You can drive between these overlooks along the North and South rim drives.

At the time of writing all Navajo Nation Tribal Parks were closed until further notice. 

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape.

—John Burroughs

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. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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