Bridges to Sky

Natural Bridges National Monument

Owachomo Bridge Standing beneath a natural bridge is like standing in another dimension. Or a sort of dimensionless time. Wind whistles through the rock, dust hangs in the air. It's so odd to see a huge rock with a huge hole in it, one big enough to drive a semi through. It makes you stop for a second.

Standing under the bridge and looking up, you wonder, What is holding it up there? A rock bridge! I wonder how it was formed. Did it all break away at once? Did it happen so slowly no one noticed it happening? How much longer can it hang up there? What will it be like when it comes crashing down?

Humans have been wondering the same thing for centuries. Natural Bridges, a small park on a forested plateau just off state Route 95 in far southeastern Utah, has been repeatedly occupied and abandoned for the last 9,000 or so years. The earliest settlers left only rock art and tools, but starting around 700 A.D. American Indians moved on to the mesa top and farmed; they moved on when the climate changed. About 1100 A.D., people from the immediate south moved into small homes in the deepest, best-watered canyons and farmed. They moved on in the 1300s.

Perhaps the first non-Indian to see the natural bridges was Cass Hite, a gold seeker living along the Colorado River. In 1883, he was exploring the upper reaches of White Canyon, the lush, deep, sheer-walled canyon that runs through the park when he discovered three magnificent rock bridges. Word of the wonders spread quickly and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt created the monument.

National monument though it may have been, Natural Bridges stayed well off the beaten track until 1950s and 60s, when decent roads were built through the canyon country and across the Colorado River. The first park ranger, Zeke Johnson, lived in a tent for almost two decades; the tent doubled as the visitors center. Today, sitting at the end of a dead-end road and close to nothing, Natural Bridges sees only a relative trickle of visitors who come to see the bridges, hike the canyon and relax on the mesa.

Kachina Bridge The uninitiated may be tempted to confuse arches with natural bridges. They can often look almost identical, but here is the technical distinction: bridges span a watercourse while arches do not. Both are formed through the erosional forces of precipitation, wind and frost. With bridges, flash floods or simple water action are the primary eroders. Millennia ago, White and Armstrong canyons were simple streams across a plain. The streams looped in long, winding curves; in some cases, the river made such a looping meander that it created a very thin wall in the rock - like the curves in an S, raging floodwaters scoured one side of the wall, then raced around to erode the other side. Eventually, the river broke through the base of the wall to take the shorter, straighter course. The old meander is abandoned, and the bridge is born.

Cedar Mesa, a million-acre plateau encompassing the monument and surrounding area, is comprised of nearly horizontal sedimentary rock layers. Long, long ago wind-blown sand from the north and west was laid down here as dunes. Later deposits buried the dunes and pressurized them so that moisture was pressed out and the sand petrified. The land tilted and was pushed from underneath by the roiling Earth, exposing the sandstone to erosional forces and the streams.

In Natural Bridges, Kachnina Bridge is probably the best place to see this spectacle in action. Here, the meandering stream cut down into the Cedar Mesa Sandstone leaving a thin walk of rock which the stream attacked from both sides. Owachomo is the best place to see the end product. Owachomo is 106 feet high and 180 feet long but only 27 feet wide and 9 feet thick. In the park's visitor center there are historic photos of pioneers daring death and walking out on the thin bridge. It seems ready to collapse; such stunts are no longer allowed.

If early Indians named the bridges, then those names have been lost. Non-Indians first named them President, Senator and Congressman, in order of their height. Later explorers called them August, Caroline and Edwin. When the park was surveyed in 1909 the bridges were renamed: Sipapu is a Hopi term meaning place of original emergence; Kachina is named for nearby rock art which resembles the symbols often found on Hopi kachina dolls; Owachomo means 'rock mound,' a reference to a feature on the bridge's east side.

Owachomo Bridge Natural Bridges is a pretty small park, and it's natural to want to stick to the scenic drive and breeze through on your way somewhere else. You can see plenty of nice things from the scenic drive, but for those wanting to get to know the park better, here a few ways:

  • Bike the scenic route. It is nine miles long, winding and one-way only. That means that the cars on it go pretty slowly. The pavement is in good shape and there are plenty of scenic pullouts;
  • Hike down to the bridges. Since you start up high and hike down, the trail quickly leads you away from the crowds and the road and into a pygmy forest of junipers and pine. The short, steep trails drop down to the slick rock canyon bottom then under the bridges;
  • Spend a day on a loop hike or car shuttle hike linking all three bridges. Good trails lead from the road to Sipapu Bridge, then downcanyon and under Kachina Bridge, then further down to Owachomo. From there, it is an easy hike up to the road and a relatively level cross-country jaunt back to the Sipapu Bridge trailhead. If you had two cars, one could be left at Owachomo, cutting out the walk back to Sipapu. A shorter version would be to go from Sipapu to Kachina and back, or from Kachina to Owachomo and back. Rangers can give more detailed information on the routes.

Attention volunteers:

Splore will hold its cross-country skiing orientation at the Salt Lake City REI store at 7 pm on Jan. 10. The on-mountain orientation is Jan. 20-21 at the Solitude Nordic Center. Overnight accommodations will be BYOB (bring your own bedding) at the Wasatch Mountain Club cabin at nearby Brighton. REI is at 3300 S. 3300 East.

Founded in the 1970s, Splore is a nationally recognized program which specializes in wilderness recreation for people of all backgrounds and abilities. Based on the premise that the outdoors ought to be for everyone - and that in the outdoors, personal fulfillment is almost a given - Splore uses the beauty of Utah's wilderness as a springboard to that self-actualization. Splore runs cross-country skiing, river rafting, canoeing, rock climbing and other programs.

The group's goal is barrier-free recreation, which can have a surprising variety of meanings: a paraplegic who wants to ski is put on adaptive skis and pulled; one who wants to hike is carried; at-risk youths are taught the value of focus; cancer victims, self-reliance. Of course, those who volunteer would willingly admit that they learn, too.

What Splore has found is that individuals who are immersed in a wilderness experience often forget the limitations imposed by themselves or society. They accomplish things they didn't think they could even attempt. The reward is not just a day in the sun but also personal growth, self-reliance and independence.

For each program Splore trains dozens of volunteers in how to work with and communicate with people of different abilities. Typically, volunteer training is necessary since some operations, like lifting someone out of a wheelchair and into a sled or raft, require specific steps to avoid injury. River rafting training is in early May and involves an overnight trip on the Colorado River. Canoeing training is in August. Rock climbing training is in late May or early June. And cross-country training, which involves an overnight campout in Splore's Brighton cabin, is coming up in early January. The orientation sessions go over Splore's history and philosophy, program goals and objectives, policies and procedures, volunteer responsibilities, disability awareness and education, skill development, fun, and information on types of activities and populations. There is a nominal charge, but food is included.

Training complete, volunteers can sign up for morning or afternoon ski lessons which stretch almost daily into mid-March. There are also opportunities to volunteer on overnight yurt trips into the Uinta and Wasatch Mountains - yurts are cozy winter-proof semi-permanents tents. You don't have to be an expert skier to volunteer. Typically, lessons involve slow-speed cross-country skiing on a set track. Most importantly, you should love wilderness and recreation and have a willingness to share the wilderness experience with people of all abilities.

For more information, call Splore at (801) 484-4128.

Back to top Print this page E-mail this page