If you were the little sibling in your family growing up, you know what Natural Bridges National Monument is going through. It’s not easy when someone else is getting the spotlight all the time. No matter what you do — like having three enormous natural bridges, smaller crowds and a bustling town of your own nearby (Hello, Blanding!) — it seems like you’ll always be second fiddle.
Well, Utah.com is here for you, Natural Bridges (and you, younger siblings). We know about all your amazing achievements, like being Utah’s first dedicated National Parks Service area, becoming the world’s first International Dark Sky Park and having the second-largest natural bridge in the United States. We can appreciate the “quality over quantity” magic that you’ve got going on. And, most importantly, we know just how to tell people to enjoy your trails, vistas and viewpoints to the fullest.
Let’s start by clearing the air about what makes an arch different from a natural bridge. Actually, let’s clear the water, since that has a lot more to do with how the two are formed.
The simple difference is that a natural bridge is a type of arch formed by running water, while standard arches are formed by the freezing and thawing cycle of moisture within a rock. Both are processes of erosion, but the process that creates a natural bridge is a little more straightforward — water runs up against a rock until it breaks it down enough to create a space to travel through. Over time, that space becomes a natural bridge, and in many cases, that natural bridge remains long after the water is gone.
That’s the case with Natural Bridges National Monument, which is why there’s no section in here about scuba equipment. But there’s a lot of hiking and exploring to be done, no matter how much time you have to visit.
Let’s say you’re on a road trip through southeast Utah. Maybe you’re doing the Trail of the Ancients scenic drive and were planning on stopping at Natural Bridges in Utah anyways. Maybe you’re tracking down famous Utah movie locations in Monument Valley and decided to add one more scenic stop. If you only have a few hours to explore Natural Bridges, here’s what you should do:
Rule of thumb: if a park or monument is named after a natural feature, you should check that out first. Sure, the Grand Canyon has some cool trees, but you should really focus on the canyon.
Natural Bridges National Monument has three stunning natural bridges — Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo — which are the highlight of the monument. All three can be seen in two ways: from above, via viewpoints a short ways off the road, and from below, via longer hikes. The one-way Bridge View Drive is 9-miles long and takes you to all three bridges.
Sipapu is the first bridge on the drive. It’s also the biggest in the monument and the second biggest in the entire United States. It’s 220 feet high and spans 268 feet across! And just how high is that? Well, for reference, you could fit the whole dome of the U.S. Capitol building underneath it.
Speaking of Capitol buildings, the first known name for Sipapu was actually “President,” coined by a miner named Cass Hite in 1883. He must have been one patriotic prospector, because he named the other two bridges “Senator” and “Congressman.” Those names didn’t stick around for too long, however. Government surveyor William Douglas decided to give them new names when the area was dedicated as a national monument in 1908. He used the language of the Hopi Tribe, relatives of the ancestral Puebloan people who once inhabited the region. The name Sipapu roughly translates to “place of emergence.”
Kachina, or “dancer” is the next bridge along your drive, and the second largest in the monument. It’s named for the petroglyphs of dancers that William Douglas found at the base of the bridge, which can still be seen today. Just like a dancer, Kachina can’t stop moving — in 1992 about 4,000 tons of sandstone fell from its opening. Now that’s shaking your stuff!
The last bridge on your drive is Owachomo. Its name means “rock mound,” in reference to the rock formation on top of its east end. Owachomo is the smallest bridge, but it’s also the easiest to hike to. The short trail (only about a half mile total) takes you to the base of the bridge, where you can really appreciate just how big the monument’s “small” bridge is. Owachomo is thought to be the oldest bridge as well, because it’s the thinnest and has likely experienced the most erosion. Be sure to tell the old gal how good she’s looking as you walk by.
A full day at Natural Bridges should definitely still include the Bridge View Drive and each view point. But now that you’ve got time to really soak it all in, you can explore more and get to know this unique landscape.
Owachomo is the easiest bridge to hike to, but it’s not the only one. The trails to both Sippapu and Kachina are relatively short (around 1.5 miles round trip), but there’s some pretty steep terrain attached to that mileage. Hikers should be prepared for switchbacks, a bit of scrambling and several sections with short wooden ladder ascents/descents. Just enough adventure and exercise to earn a hearty pat on the back!
Sipapu is the first bridge in the monument, so you might want to hike that trail first and use it to gauge your timing, heart rate and adventure comfort level. It’s also the biggest bridge in the monument, which means it’s the most impressive up close.
If you’re feeling good and have the time to add on the Kachina hike, you’ll find a unique payoff at the end. At the base of the bridge, you can still see the dancing petroglyphs that lend the bridge its name. This rock art was created over 700 years ago by the ancestral Puebloans who made this area of Utah their home, so be sure not to touch it or add any art of your own. If the idea of an ancient art museum tickles your fancy and you only have time for one hike, feel free to skip Sipapu and explore Kachina instead.
The Bears Ears, Natural Bridges and Four Corners region is home to some of the most well preserved cultural sites in the country, and Horse Collar Ruin is certainly one of the highlights. This remarkably intact site can be seen from an overlook about 0.3 miles from the parking area. From the view point, you’ll be able to see down below to several structures including a kiva and multiple houses. Use binoculars to really appreciate the details, and remember that everything you see is over 700 years old!
Why is Horse Collar Ruin so well preserved? In short, because it’s pretty far out of the way in one of the most out of the way places in the country. The site wasn’t found by modern explorers until 1907, when it was discovered by the expedition that would lead to the establishment of the monument. Soon after that, however, Horse Collar Ruin went back into hiding. The terrain kept it so well hidden in fact, that it took the moneument’s first custodian, Zeke Johnson, over 20 years to stumble upon it again.
That mistake isn’t likely to happen again. Nowadays the ruin is both well marked and well protected. It serves as a place for visitors to reflect on the human history of the region and hopefully remember our small place as inhabitants of a vast and incredible planet.
It takes more than just a day to get to know any place, and the Natural Bridges area is certainly worth getting to know. If you’re base-camping in Blanding or at a campsite and have more time to settle in and explore the region, here are a few more things to do.
Not only is Natural Bridges certified as an International Dark Sky Park, it was the first ever area to earn that distinction. That means that the skies are pretty dang dark, and the stargazing is pretty dang incredible.
If you’re staying in Blanding and driving into the monument to see the show, the best place to enjoy it is probably the Owachomo bridge. This bridge offers the shortest hike and the opportunity to see a natural bridge silhouetted against a night sky filled with thousands of stars. If you’re planning on hiking down to the bridge, bring a flashlight or headlamp, and set it to red-light mode if you can, so you don’t mess with the night vision of other gazers.
Of course, if you don’t want to hike, you can always go with tried and true methods like lying back on the hood of your car or setting up a blanket in the grass. And if you’ve snagged one of the few sites at the Natural Bridges National Monument campground, there’s nothing like leaving the rain fly off your tent on a warm summer night and falling asleep beneath the stars. It’s the best seat … er, bed in the house.
If you enjoyed your hike (or hikes) to the bridges and feel like you want even more, several of the trails loop together to provide you with a longer excursion. You’ll pass by multiple bridges and get the chance to see more of what the monument has to offer off the beaten path.
Basically, you can do a loop of either the first two bridges, the second and third bridges or all three in a day-long adventure. All three loops have primitive trails and challenging terrain, but if you want to see what the monument has to offer beyond the bridges, a longer hike is the best way to do it. You’ll travel through canyons, over mesa tops and (of course) below bridges. And you’ll follow proper hiking etiquette and leave no trace as well, right?
Sipapu - Kachina Loop: 5.7 miles. Strenuous.Kachina - Owachomo Loop: 6.5 miles. Strenuous.
Full Natural Bridges Loop: 9 miles. Strenuous.
Whether you’re staying in town, stopping through or escaping the campground for some food that isn’t fireside weenies, Blanding is the closest place to grab a bite to eat after your adventures. And don’t worry, Blanding, Utah’s restaurants are anything but bland. There you’ll find several charming local eateries, and even more charming local people.
Utah is full of hidden gems, these under-the-radar destinations are often just as incredible as their marquee-topping counterparts. Let Natural Bridges be your gateway (literally) to all that Utah has to offer off the beaten path. Start planning your trip today.