Although Utah is extremely popular for many of its national parks and monuments showcasing the state’s unique beauty, few people visit Natural Bridges National Monument. Even fewer realize that it was the first national monument declared in the state in 1908. Natural Bridges might not have the number of spectacular rock formations of Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, or Bryce, but its bridges and remoteness make a visit worthwhile.
Natural Bridges National Monument protects three natural bridges formed by millions of years of water and erosion. The names of the bridges, Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu, honor the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived in the area hundreds of years ago.
After driving miles in a desolate corner of the Southwest, once you are in the park, stop at the visitor center to learn about the park, its geological and human history, and its importance in sustainability as home to one of the first solar panels in the world.
The following are some of the most amazing experiences in the park.
1. Driving The Scenic Loop Road
Once past the visitor center, a one-way loop road leads through the park, featuring gorgeous views of the surroundings and offering several stops at overlooks and trailheads.
This nine-mile scenic drive is a must for anyone visiting the park since it offers the easiest way to see the bridges. Stop at each overlook and walk to the viewpoints to see the bridges from above.
However, if you have time and it’s not too hot, hike at least part-way down into the canyon, closer to the bridges for the most spectacular views.
The largest and most spectacular of the three bridges, Sipapu Bridge, was formed over thousands of years, though it is geologically speaking middle-aged, older than Kachina, but younger than Owachomo Bridge.
Named after the Hopi term that denotes the opening between worlds, Sipapu Bridge has a rounded opening and smooth sides that are witnesses to the countless floods that formed it. The best way to see it is hiking down to it, or at least halfway, where you’ll find a better view than from the very top.
The trail to the bridge is a steep drop of 500 feet in 0.6 miles. Though relatively difficult, the hike is fun and interesting, using stairways and Pueblo-style ladders. Halfway down, you can rest at a viewpoint under a large rock outcropping. This is my favorite part of the trail, especially on a sunny day.
Once at the bottom of the canyon, the trail crosses the creek several times, passes under spectacular rocks and cliffs, and leads through a wooded area until you stand under the bridge.
The Canyon Bottom
From there, you can climb back out the same way, or continue the trail on the bottom of the canyon to Kachina Bridge, and climb out on the Kachina Bridge trail.
You can also continue on the canyon floor for the full 12-mile-long loop trail, winding through oak and cottonwood groves, connecting all three bridges.
Horse Collar Ruins Overlook
The next stop along the scenic loop road is the Horse Collar Ruins Overlook. One of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the area, Horse Collar Ruin, got its name from two of its structures with doorways resembling horse collars. Scholars believe people left the area, and thus the structure, over 700 years ago.
Because of the site’s remoteness, few people knew about it, so visitors didn’t disturb it. This is why the site is still in such an excellent state of preservation.
The mesa-top overlook is a short hike on a slick rock from the parking lot, and there is no trail leading down to the ruins. However, serious hikers who take the trail at the bottom of the canyon from Sipapu Bridge to Kachina Trail pass close to it for a better view.
The youngest of the three bridges, and also the widest, Kachina Bridge got its name from the petroglyphs and pictographs of dancing figures found on its side, believed to be kachina dancers.
Enlarged in our lifetime, in 1992, when about 4,000 tons of sandstone fell from the inside of its opening, Kachina Bridge proves these bridges are still constantly changing.
To see it, stop at the parking lot about halfway along the scenic loop drive, and walk the paved trail to the viewpoint. From here, you have an aerial view of the bridge. For a closer look and a different perspective, you can hike down to the bridge. Although, this is not an easy feat.
The 1.4-mile round-trip trail to the base of the bridge has an elevation change of 462 feet and is extremely steep. Thankfully, a wooden ladder, rock stairs, wooden stairs, and switchbacks make descending easier, or at least more fun.
The final stop along the scenic loop road, Owachomo Bridge, is the perfect end of the drive. The most accessible and most photographed bridge in the park, Owachomo Bridge is the oldest of the three. It is also the thinnest, which makes it more spectacular, even if it’s smaller than the other two.
Named after a rock formation on top of the east end of the trail, its name means “rock mound” in the Hopi language.
A paved trail leads to the viewpoint, with benches in the shade of junipers along the walkway. However, there is no need to stop at the viewpoint here. The half-mile round-trip trail leading to the bottom of the bridge is also relatively flat and visible in its entirety from the viewpoint. Here, all it takes is a short walk to see this ancient wonder up close, from underneath.
Though you can visit the whole park in a day, especially if you don’t hike down to all three bridges, the best way to experience Natural Bridges National Monument is to camp in it.
The campground is near the visitor center, at the start of the scenic loop, making it a convenient start-up point for the visit. 13 sites, only available for tents, are surrounded by juniper trees. They all have a tent pad, a grill, and a picnic table. You need to bring your own food since there is no camp store to buy anything.
You can take a stroll along a short trail leading to the amphitheater, where you might see rangers talk about the canyon, its geology, animal and plant life, or the night sky. At night, they offer the perfect opportunity for stargazing in the park.
The world’s first International Dark Sky Park was certified on March 6th, 2007. Natural Bridges National Monument offers some of the best stargazing opportunities. Far from any light pollution, in a remote corner of the Southwest, the night sky in the park is as dark as it was 800 years ago when the Ancestral Puebloans were looking at the stars.
Since all the trails are open day and night, stargazing is possible anywhere in the park, from the campground to the trails. During our latest trip to the park, it was a new moon, and the sky was clear, so we had perfect views of the stars, planets, and the Milky Way right outside our tent. We watched the night sky from the campsite, but we noticed several campers driving out on the loop road. Since all trails are open even at night, they could watch the Milky Way rising behind the silhouette of Owachomo Bridge, since that hike is easy enough to hike in the dark.
If you visit in May or September, you may take part in an astronomy event hosted by the rangers.
5. Solar Power And Sustainability
Solar cells power all of Natural Bridges National Monument. You can see the solar field from the visitor center and campground. You could also visit the solar field.
This panel is one of the oldest solar systems in the world. At its dedication, in 1980, it was also the largest.
The original batteries, even then, provided the energy source for the park for ten years. After sitting deactivated for two years, in 1992, they added more efficient batteries, which still provide the energy source for the park today.
It offers a cost-effective and pollution-free energy source for the park in this remote location, proving that solar power is effective, especially in the sunny and bright Southwest.
Best Times To Visit And Other Tips
The best time to visit Natural Bridges National Monument is fall or spring when the mild temperatures offer the best time for experiencing the park. This makes the shoulder seasons the busiest times, but because of its remoteness, the park is still quiet.
When hiking in Natural Bridges, make sure you carry enough water and use sun protection. You are still in the dry environment of the high desert. If you hike down to the bridges, wear comfortable hiking shoes with a good grip, since you’ll be walking on slick rocks that can get slippery, especially if wet.