Do you love the rock formations of the American West? Have you fallen in love with the stone arches at Arches National Park and are looking for more beautiful places like this? Then Natural Bridges National Monument is a park you absolutely must put on your itinerary, especially if you will be traveling in southeastern Utah. Over the centuries, the elements have shaped three majestic natural bridges, named Kachina, Owachomo and Sipapu, which were among the first to be declared a national monument in 1908-the eighth American National Monument out of 129, to be precise! Are you curious to know more about them? Why do they bear these names? How do you visit them?
How to Get There
Natural Bridges National Monument is located in southeastern Utah, as the crow flies, halfway between Canyonlands National Park and the Arizona border. For this reason, it can be a perfect stop either if you are planning an itinerary in Utah or if you are traveling from Utah to Arizona, for example, to visit nearby Monument Valley. The park’s visitor center is located along UT-275, also known locally as Natural Rd, which branches off from UT-95. Let’s find out how to reach it from different directions so that you can decide how best to fit it into your travel itinerary.
- From the south (from Arizona): If you are coming from Arizona, the quickest route is US-163. Shortly after Mexican Hat, you will find UT-261 on the left, which you can take to the intersection with UT-95 after a few minutes on the right UT-275 leading to the park. Along the way, there are other points of interest, such as Goosenecks State Park and the Valley of the Gods. Starting from Monument Valley, this route is about 62 miles long and you will have to factor in about an hour and a half of travel time, but beware: it includes the Moki Dugway, which, even though it may be very scenic, is not suitable for all cars. A longer but more relaxing alternative is not to take UT-261 but to continue on US-163 to Bluff, where the road changes its name to US-191. Follow it past White Mesa, and before Blanding you will find UT-95 on the left, to be followed to the mouth of UT-275. In this case, the drive is 170 miles long and takes two hours.
- From the east and northeast (from Colorado and Moab): If you are traveling through multiple states from either the east or northeast, there is another option. You could choose to come by going through Colorado. In this case, you can either travel on US-70 via Grand Junction or, further south, on US-491. Both roads will lead you to US-191: north between Thompson Springs and Green River and south at Monticello. Turn left in both cases, heading south, until you find US-95 on the right. The northernmost route goes through Moab and thus through nearby Arches and Canyonlands. Keep in mind that it will take one hour from Monticello and two hours from Moab.
- From the northwest (from the rest of Utah): to get here from other parts of Utah, you will inevitably travel on UT-95, which originates from the scenic UT-24 Scenic Byway, which connects to the larger US-70 near Green River and is the gateway to the rest of the state.
Natural Bridges Hours and Tickets
The park is open every day of the year, 24 hours a day. The visitor center, on the other hand, is open daily from 9 am to 4 pm, but during the winter it is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. During the year, the visitor center is closed on Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Thanksgiving Day. Admission is $20 per car and $15 per motorcycle. If you plan to visit other National Monuments and National Parks, I highly recommend purchasing a national parks annual pass to save money when visiting America’s natural wonders.
Visiting Natural Bridges National Monument
If you have visited other Utah parks before or if you have seen pictures, you will know that we are in a part of America where remarkably large rock formations that have a long history and varying shapes dominate the landscape. Here, too, at Natural Bridges National Monument, large rocks are the protagonists, in particular three large natural bridges, which we will describe below. But know that in this park you can also see breathtaking landscapes, birds and wildlife.
The Three Natural Bridges
Each rock formation has a unique history, when studying the geology of the American West, one never ceases to be amazed at how many wonders nature is capable of creating over time. To understand how these rock bridges came into being, one must step back 260 million years in time, when this was a sandy beach overlooking the sea that, at that time, covered much of what is now the United States. As the waters gradually receded, layers of sand and mud were deposited on top of each other, pressing each other together.
Ten million years ago, tectonic movements pushed up these layers of sedimentary rock, which were then eroded by rivers, forming the canyons that make these landscapes unique. Over the centuries, the water pummeled the walls of the canyons. As a result, the rocks crumbled and natural bridges were created.
Among the three bridges in the park, this one is the thinnest. This means that it is the oldest, where erosion began first, and therefore also the one that will disappear before the others. Or at least that is the most likely theory. The bridges may have been eroded at different rates by the force of the water. The name Owachomo in the Hopi language means “Rock Mound” since there is a large rock formation at the eastern end of the bridge. The bridge is 105 ft high and 180 ft wide, while the strip in the middle is 26 ft wide and 10 ft thick.
The second largest bridge owes its name to the petroglyphs on one of its sides. The petroglyphs represent dancing figures, the Kachina dancers precisely. It spans 203 ft and is 210 ft high from the ground, while the horizontal part of the bridge is 43 ft wide and 301 ft thick.
Sipapu Bridge is the largest of the three. Chronologically it is believed to be somewhere between the previous two arches. The very rounded opening, as well as the particularly smooth walls, indicate that this large arch was carved by the force of water carrying abrasive sand. The name Sipapu is very distinctive: it is the term the Hopi used for an opening between worlds. The bridge is 220 ft high and 270 ft wide, and the piece connecting the two ends is 31 ft wide and 52 ft thick. Just to give you an idea, the hole could almost fit inside the dome of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
There is more to see in this park than just rock formations. It also has important historical evidence of peoples who inhabited these lands thousands of years ago. It is thought that humans lived in this area as early as 7000 B.C., then left it around 700 A.D. when the natural environment was changing. It was around the year 1000 that people settled here and farmed. They show similarities with the people who lived in the Mesa Verde area. They left between 2 and 3 centuries later, but in their place came the Navajo and Paiute tribes. The Hisatsinom, ancestors of the Hopi, are one of the nomadic peoples who left signs of their presence here. They are credited with the pictographs and petroglyphs that can still be seen today.
Some of these cave paintings, as well as remains of ancient settlements, can be seen in the park. The main archaeological site in the park is the Horse Collar Ruin, a well-preserved Pueblo ancestral site dating back some 7 centuries. The establishment of the National Bridges National Monument came precisely because of the documentation of this site, even though it has not been considered the park’s top attraction. It is still worth it to see the two stone houses and the small barrel-shaped structure. Several pottery artifacts, arrowheads, and other objects have been found here.
Tips for Visiting Natural Bridges National Monument
There is a road that makes a loop in the park, however, none of the bridges are visible from this road, so you will need to walk to see them, at least for a few minutes. If you are pressed for time, or if you are visiting the park when the weather is not optimal (such as on a hot sunny day, when walking for hours in the sun is not recommended), the ideal solution is to drive around and walk to the viewpoints. On the other hand, if you have enough time and enjoy walking, the best way to appreciate the beauty of the park is to wear comfortable shoes and venture along the longer trails.
Each of the three bridges has its own viewpoint, which can be reached in about 10 minutes on foot. The archaeological site, on the other hand, has a viewpoint, but the hike to get there is slightly longer. All four viewpoints have a dedicated parking lot, where you can leave your car to take the short footpath.
- Sinapu Bridge Viewpoint: This is the first one encountered when visiting the park. The start of the short trail is just a few minutes’ drive from the Visitor Center following the park road.
- Horse Collar Ruin Overlook: To reach this overlook, takes 30-45 minutes, making it the farthest viewpoint to get to. From the overlook, you can see the ruins set in the beautiful surroundings of the canyon.
- Kachina Bridge Viewpoint: Continue on the same road to access the Kachina Bridge Viewpoint. This area is also particularly interesting because desert plants abound around the trail. It is also strategically placed within the scenic loop trail-a useful thing to know if someone in the group wants to take a longer route and someone else wants to drive here instead.
- Owachomo Bridge Viewpoint: After traveling more than halfway down the road, you will arrive at the parking lot to access the last viewpoint. For many, the thinnest bridge is also the most fascinating, precisely because it seems so delicate. From here you get an excellent view of it.
In addition to the short trails needed to reach the scenic spots, there are also longer routes that we can take to better appreciate every corner of the park. Remember that to undertake these hikes it is good to wear appropriate clothing, especially suitable shoes, and pay attention to weather conditions.
- Hike to Sipapu Bridge (1-2 hours). Allows you to get to the base of the majestic Sipapu Bridge, walking inside the canyon that formed it. This is a truly impressive walk that allows you to see up close how the force of the river has sculpted the rocks over the centuries. It is 1.2 miles long round trip, but quite impassable. In some sections, you have to use wooden and metal ladders to climb up and down the rocks. Caution: The trail entrance is different from the viewpoint further down the road.
- Hike to Kachina Bridge (1-2 hours). This hike is slightly longer than the previous one (about 1.4 miles), but with an even greater elevation gain. In this case, the start of the trail is the same as the respective viewpoint, but after 325 feets along the driveway leading to the viewpoint, one must take a path that descends to the left. This route also includes sections of stairs and a steep trail. It is worth the hike not only for the view of the bridge from below, but also to be able to admire the petroglyphs drawn at its base.
- Hike to Owachomo Bridge (20-60 min). A shorter hike, just under half a mile long round trip, that is less steep than the previous ones. The start is the same as the respective viewpoint, and halfway down the driveway, you turn right onto the trail.
- Three loop trails. If you are a true walker, instead of taking all three of the above trails, you can choose to do a long loop trail to see the park in its entirety. The full loop is just over 12 miles long and allows you to see all three rock bridges up close, passing both in the canyons and on top of the mesa. It is challenging and certainly not suitable for everyone. Two intermediate alternatives are the Sipapu-Kachina Loop (5.7 miles) and the Kachina-Owachomo loop (6.5 miles), each of which touches two of the three bridges. A good option for visiting the park if you have a day to spare is to do one of the two intermediate loops and see the third bridge thanks to the viewpoint or its dedicated trail.
Birdwatching and Night Tours
There are more than just rocks at Natural Bridges National Monument. Many birds live here, and if you know how to walk carefully enough you will be able to see a variety of specimens. Small black-coated hummingbirds or large birds of prey, wrens whose songs echo in the canyons, and titmice that hide among the juniper branches. Different species of birds may pass before your eyes in the canyons.
If you are an avid birdwatcher, this is not the most famous park for sightings, but it is a place where you can see species other than those in the parks most traveled by walkers armed with binoculars. Another reason to visit the park is the stars. The night sky in this area is an especially popular destination for lovers of astronomy. Just to have a term of comparison, think that in the city you can see about 500 stars, while here you will see up to 15,000 thanks to the complete absence of light pollution. If you stay overnight at the park’s campground, this is an experience not to be missed! Also, inquire at the visitor center: sometimes park rangers organize thematic tours at night.
Where to Stay near Natural Bridges National Monument
The only place to stay overnight in the park is the campground, which is absolutely recommended if you are traveling in an RV. Alternatively, the closest place to find lodging is Blanding, where I particularly recommend Stone Lizard Lodging and Cedar Canyon Condos. Other locations that may be convenient for you are Bluff (heading south) or Monticello (heading northeast).