Campground: One of my favorites, 13 private spaces are shaded by a piñon-juniper forest. Each site has a fire grill, picnic table, tent pad, and communal pit toilets. Fill your water bottles at the Visitor Center, the only potable water in the park. The park averages 90,000 visitors per year. Campsites are first-come, first-served, so from May to September, arrive by mid morning. Natural Bridges was the nation's first International Dark Sky Park. It is one of the three darkest parks in America. There are astronomy programs Wednesday and Thursday nights. Bridges was the first photovoltaic park and is completely off the grid.
Fee Information. Pay fee at the Visitor Center, open year-round, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours during the summer. Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails.
Distance and Elevation Gain: The standard loop is 8.6 miles with 650 feet of climbing. The hike described here is 11 miles with 900 feet of gain.
Time: 6:00 to 7:00 for the 11 mile hike
Difficulty: Well-signed but sporadic trail segments in wash; suspended stairway, wooden ladders and mild friction descent to Sipapu; sandstone scampering in Deer Canyon; navigation moderate; mild exposure on optional routes; streams are intermittent so carry all the water you will need.
Maps: Moss Back Butte, UT 7.5 Quad; Trails Illustrated, Manti La Sal National Forest, UT, #703
Latest Date Hiked: March 10, 2015
Quote: Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. Lao Tzu
Sipapu Bridge is the second largest natural bridge in the world. (Chris Blackshear, photo)
Geology: Two hundred-seventy million years ago, the bridges were a figment of Earth's fantastical imagination. Where they now stand, crystalline quartz granules glistened on the sandy beach of an inland sea. The Colorado Plateau rose, the waters receded, and the wind-blown deposit solidified into pure white Cedar Mesa Sandstone, a formation up to 1,200 feet thick. Watercourses tirelessly excavated aptly named White Canyon and its companion tributaries of the Colorado River. Stone walls confining incised, looping meanders were bombarded by grit and boulder-laden flood waters draining the Abajo Mountains. The river circled back on itself, leaving a fin at the neck of the meander. Battering away, insistent on a more efficient course, the river cut through solid rock, creating a young bridge. Hydraulic action enlarged the aperture. Erosional, arch-creating forces work unceasingly and periodically slabs exfoliate from the spans. Of course, arches don't straddle running water like bridges do. The three bridges are at different developmental stages. Kachina is the youngest at 30,000 years. Owachomo, the eldest, is 50-60,000 years old. Sipapu is middle aged. Bridges have relatively short lives; Owachomo could come crashing down at any moment. We are supremely fortunate to be sharing the planet with these soaring stone edifices.
Recent History: In 1883, the rascally, legendary explorer, Cass Hite, left his gold-digging camp on the Colorado River and with two comrades and a Paiute guide, launched an exploratory expedition into White Canyon. Hite is given credit for discovering the three stupefying bridges even though they were already storied in the oral history of native tribes: the Paiutes, Utes, and Navajos. America was romantically entranced with the wonders of the West. In 1904, National Geographic Magazine featured the bridges, and in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt established Utah's first national monument. Bridge names evolved but the ones that stuck are Hopi. The tribe's prehistoric ancestors lived among the spans. Sipapu, place of emergence, refers to tribal creation mythology. The bridge forms a gateway over White Canyon through which all canyon travelers must pass. Kachina, bridge of the spirit dancers, invokes rock art figures carved on the bridge. Owachomo, rock mound, points to a conical formation atop the southeast end of the bridge.
Prehistoric People: The land of bridges has been good to people for 9,000 years. Nomadic hunter-gatherers left vestiges of themselves--art on bridges and walls, stone tools scattered on the ground. Corn growers followed with baskets, spears and atlatls, digging homes into the earth. Later, bean and squash farmers arrived with bows and arrows, and above-ground, multi-room dwellings. Domesticated turkeys supplemented deer and rabbit. In 1060, the Ancestral Puebloans arrived, their culture directly reflecting the Mesa Verde people to the east. They built masonry homes and granaries in south-facing alcoves and on the mesa top. They created corrugated and ornately painted bowls, stone tools and weapons. Artists and image writers, they pecked and painted their stories on walls and boulders. By 1285 the occupation was over; the people migrated south. Structures, baskets and bowls, tools and weapons, corn, rock writing and burials were abandoned. Please leave everything that they left exactly as you find it. Do not enter structures or sit on walls, and do not touch their (rock) art.
Ruin in the White Canyon complex.
Route: White Canyon flows out of the Abajo Mountains, under two of the greatest earth bridges on the planet, and is swallowed 45 miles later by the still waters of Lake Powell at Hite. This counterclockwise loop links the bridges, two in White Canyon, and one in Armstrong. A speedy mesa-top walk closes the loop. An optional two-mile side trip into Deer Canyon is highly recommended.
Alternative Hikes: If your time or physical ability is limited, you can still see the bridges. From the nine-mile loop road, there are wheelchair accessible paths to bridge overlooks. If you have half a day, trails descend from the road to all three bridges.
Sipapu Bridge: From the Sipapu Bridge Trailhead, 6,200 feet, descend a beautifully crafted stone staircase and on to the sandstone rim of White Canyon. The downward path is marked with cut stairs and chunks of rock outlining the trail. In the image below, Sipapu Bridge is hard to find unless you know where to look, center left.
Drop down a two-tiered metal staircase and then a sturdy wooden ladder onto a high, shady, north-facing bench where towering Douglas firs thrive.
At 0.3 mile, a sign points to Sipapu Bridge View. Pass a crumbling ruin with a thick coating of soot on the alcove ceiling.
Walk on the flat platform to a high perch for an astonishing, unmatched view of the bridge. Sipapu is a substantial structure, arcing 220 feet above the canyon floor, spanning 268 feet. Its size is second only to Rainbow Bridge. The roll-off drop is deceptive so don't succumb to cliff-suck in your state of reverie.
Climb down two more ladders. Metal hand railings make the slab descent easy and safe.
At 0.8 mile, after 500 feet of elevation loss, the bridge now soars directly overhead, locked in a straddle over its creator stream. The abandoned meander channel is visible on the right. While White Canyon is usually flowing innocuously, I have been caught here in a bridge-widening, thigh-deep flash flood, spell-bound and drenched as water poured off the bridge in sheets. (Chris Blackshear, photo)
Cross the wash and follow the route downstream, capitalizing on trail fragments. Fremont cottonwoods, yellow and red twigged willows crowd the canyon floor. Grasses sail overhead. Scarlet gilia, firecracker penstemon, and Indian paintbrush fervently splash dazzling color. Ferns and yellow-green columbine spill down seeps in alcoves.
Mule deer scatter tracks everywhere. Watch for evidence of an occasional bear, mountain lion, and rattlesnake. Lizards are abundant. If you love birds, here's but a taste: rufous-sided towhee, dark-eyed junco, white-breasted nuthatch, great-horned owl, red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, falcon, canyon wren, and dove.
Canyon walls are high and smooth, rolling on and on. Beauty entices, pulling you downcanyon. Mineralization has streaked the canvas, once a uniform creamy white, into an American abstract scintillating with blotches of red, orange, brown, and desert varnish black.
Confined between constricted walls, walk on fluted bedrock. Crystalline clear water brims the depressions and flows down the sculptural floor.
In one mile, come to a small but troubling pouroff with a mysteriously deep pool at its base. There is no bypass and our hike turns around here due to time constraints. However, I have straddled the breech and executed a 12 foot-long, full-body stem. Challenges can be overcome for another 1.5 miles when you will be blocked in all directions. The image below looks upcanyon at the obstacle. (THW, photo)
Stemming Deer Canyon. (THW, photo)
Imminent splashdown! (THW, photo)
Return to the confluence at 3.6 miles and turn right/downcanyon. In 0.2 mile, Horse Collar Ruin, north, an Ancestral Puebloan site, is visible on a ledge 150 feet above the canyon on the right. To reach it, climb a steep friction pitch. There are multiple rooms with wooden window and door lintels. Notice where fingers long ago pressed mud between stones. Please, do not enter or touch the structure.
Continue along the bench to reach Horse Collar Ruin, south. The smooth-walled granaries have namesake shaped doorways. There are two well-preserved kivas at this site. Find a social trail leading to the canyon floor. If you'd rather not visit the ruins directly, walk 0.3 mile to the Horse Collar Ruin Overlook from the loop road. Take your binoculars.
Pass two side canyons, downcanyon-left, and then notice a skyline arch at mile 5.3, half a mile before Kachina Bridge.
Kachina Bridge: The youngest of the three bridges, the third largest on earth, Kachina is 210 feet high, spans 204 feet, and is a whopping 93 feet thick. White Canyon wash continues to enlarge the structure. Walk under the bridge at 5.8 miles and immediately arrive at the confluence of White and Armstrong Canyons. At this joining of canyons, coupled with the presence of a massive bridge, the sense of power is palpable. Bridge abutments are richly decorated with both petroglyphs and pictographs. There are over 100 elements in this area. Look for images of spirals, venomous snakes, geometrics, horned anthropomorphs, red and ocher handprints, butterflies, and bighorn sheep.
Leave White Canyon, turning left/south up Armstrong Canyon. Briefly, our route shares treadway with the 0.75 mile trail accessing Kachina Bridge from the road. The well-engineered track leaves the wash on the left and mounts stairs to a junction with the Owachomo trail in 0.15 mile. Turn right. The cairned route wanders out onto a sandstone bench that bypasses the elaborately scoured Kickpoint Pouroff, pictured.
Pass two major side canyons coming in on the right, "Atomic" and To-ko-chi Canyon. The wash hooks sharply right at an unmistakable rock formation, The Shoe.
Passing the apex, study the wall on the inside of the bend for spectacular rock art, both pecked and painted. You will see many anthropomorphs, one with a snake head; three large spirals; a linear set of triangles, or teeth; and a fertility image.
At 8.3 miles, a sign points left and the trail leaves the wash for good, climbing onto a broad bench bypassing a series of barrier falls in Armstrong. In half a mile, Owachomo Bridge shyly and prettily comes into view as you round a shallow bend. The image below shows the namesake rock mound atop the bridge on the right.
Owachomo Bridge: Reach the third bridge at 8.8 miles. It is the smallest bridge, yes, and perhaps the most poetic. Mount the shallow cross-bedding that doubles as a grand staircase and the floor of the bridge-carving wash. It is but an intermittent tributary of Armstrong Canyon, often reduced to the barest sheen of water.
Walk under the bridge and find a stairway of hewn stone that leads to the road, 0.2 mile distant. Owachomo is 106 feet high with a graceful span nine feet thick. The thin and fragile ribbon of rock takes a dark slice out of the brilliant Utah-blue sky.
Mesa-Top Trail: Cross the blacktop at 9.0 miles. It is but two miles to Sipapu parking. While people commonly plant a shuttle vehicle at the Owachomo Trailhead, I truly enjoy this segment. The north-trending, well-tracked trail is either a narrow thread bounded by cryptobiotic soil or a cairned corridor across sheets of sandstone. There are soft grade changes as stone drainages are crossed. At 10.2 miles, the trail to the Kachina trailhead departs but we continue straight ahead.
One friction climb may get your attention but generally, this is a fast and pleasant way to run out the hike. The Bears Ears momentarily show themselves to those on the mesa trail.
Note: Shade on the mesa consists of piñon-juniper rounded out with buffalo berry. On a warm day, you may wish to park at Owachomo and begin your hike on the mesa-top trail.