Vien R. Guenther
Hiking in Natural Bridges National Monument - Utah
Updated: Jan 8
The state of Utah is well known for its National Parks - we’ve visited them all and hiked in them as well - several times in some. But there are other sites in Utah that you might want to explore other than the national parks, if you haven’t yet. The National Monuments in Utah offer the same unique nature’s wonders, with a bit less visitors, therefore they can be less crowded. One of these monuments is the Natural Bridges National Monument.
This park is located 50 miles northwest of the "Four Corners" (where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet at a common point) in southeastern Utah. The Natural Bridges National Monument was established in 1908, by President Theodore Roosevelt, as Utah's first National Park Service area.
The park has the second-largest natural bridge in the world - the Sipapu Bridge. The other two - Kachina and Owachomo might not be as big as Sipapu, but they are impressive as well. You won't be able to realize the scale until you are standing underneath them.
All three Natural Bridges in the park was named in honor of the Native Americans who once lived in the area - the Hopis.
DRIVING THE LOOP
Natural Bridges has a nine-mile scenic loop drive that meanders through the park. There are various stopping points, including overlooks at each of the three bridge locations. There are trails from the overlooks down to each of the bridges, which are at the bottom of the canyon. We did both, drove the scenic loop and hiked in the canyon.
HIKING DOWN THE CANYON
While the bridges can be seen from the scenic drive, the best way by far is to hike down to them. There is a long nine-mile loop hike on which all three bridges can be visited. The trail begins at Sipapu trailhead and at some point you will take the ladder down the bottom of the canyon.
This is a strenuous hike that will take the better part of a day. We hiked the full loop which is about 9.8 miles. If you don't want to hike the full loop, shorter partial loop hikes can be made. The Sipapu-Kachina Loop is 5.7 miles, the shortest hike, while Kachina-Owachomo is 6.5 miles. In any case, some hiking across the mesa-top is necessary; trails connect all three locations.
Even down below it can get hot. I can’t imagine what it’s like to hike here in summer. We met only a handful of hikers along the trail, as we had the place to ourselves most of the time. It was so quiet down below, except for the sounds of nature.
We came here in Autumn (of 2012), one of the best times of year to hike in the canyon, not only because of the fall colors but for cooler weather as well. In the fall, the hike in the canyon is especially scenic when the cottonwood trees have changed their color from green to golden yellow.
THE CANYON FLOOR
Down in the canyon, it was colorful and lush with vegetation! The fall colors of the trees and sandstone's many hues gave the canyon contrasting views that are wonderful to see. Photo opportunities abound. You will find riparian trees and plants growing near the water - cottonwoods, grasses, wildflowers and other water-loving plants. Unbelievable how nature works, shallow groundwater and some occasional flash floods are enough for these plants to thrive in the canyon.
Although it's Fall, we still saw some plants blooming in the canyon such as this tall yellow evening primrose. What would it be like in late spring I wonder? The wildflowers in bloom must be incredible.
HOW THE BRIDGES FORMED
Before the bridges were formed, the area covering eastern Utah was a beach. Imagine it 260 million years ago; seeing what we see today, it's hard to believe isn't it?
Unlike arches, which are formed by various kinds of erosion including wind and the freeze/thaw action of water, natural bridges are formed through erosion by water flowing in the stream beds of the canyons in which they are located. The power of water, wind and time are something to behold indeed.
THE NATURAL BRIDGES IN THE PARK
The three natural bridges in the park have been named several times by earlier explorers, names such as "President", "Senator" and "Congressman". Then to "Augusta", "Caroline" and "Edwin" - not very imaginative names I would think. But in 1909 the General Land Office gave them the Hopi names - Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo - far more appropriate names I believe. Besides the natural bridges, the park was also expanded to protect the Puebloan structures nearby. We didn't see them unfortunately.
Sipapu Bridge, the second largest natural bridge in the world. Sipapu means "the place of emergence," an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world.
Kachina Bridge is believed to be the youngest natural bridge in the park. Kachina is named for rock art/petroglyphs on its side that resemble the symbols commonly used on kachina dolls.
Owachomo Bridge is the most accessible and most photographed natural bridge in the park. It is believed to be the oldest natural bridge of the three bridges. Owachomo means "rock mound," a feature atop the bridge's east abutment.
Pets are not allowed on this trail. The park also has a campground, picnic areas and a visitor center.