Experience the heart of this secluded National Monument on foot, passing beneath three monstrous
trolls bridges along the way.
Natural Bridges National Monument Trail Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated
DESIGNATION: National Monument (entrance fee required)
BEST SEASONS: year-round, through spring and fall are best
DISTANCE: 8+ miles round trip
ELEVATION: trailhead ~6,200ft / canyon floor ~5,600ft
WATER: none reliable – bring plenty
ACCESS: paved roads to trailhead
DIRECTIONS: Loop hike begins and ends at the Sipapu Bridge parking area.
ROUTE: Descend 0.5 miles into White Canyon via the steep Sipapu Bridge Trail. Hike the unmaintained canyon floor southwest 2.3 miles to Kachina Bridge. From here, hike Armstrong Canyon’s floor southeast 2.9 miles to Owachomo Bridge. Climb out of the canyon on the Owachomo Bridge Trail, and head north on the Owachomo Bridge to Sipapu Bridge Trail 2.3 miles to your vehicle.
GUIDEBOOK: Natural Bridges Road Guide
Natural Bridges Map
Here’s a photo of the map from the park’s 2012 brochure:
The red line shows the main park road, and the dotted line denotes the available hiking trails. Circles on the map were drawn by the park ranger in the visitor center. 🙂
National Monument Overview
This is one of the lesser-visited units of the National Park system, due to its remote location in southern Utah. Blanding is the largest nearby town of any consequence, 46 miles to the east on route 95.
The main attraction of the park is its three huge bridges, sculpted of white sandstone. Managers have done a nice job of developing a scenic drive to view the features from above, as well as maintaining a network of relatively short trails to access them.
Each bridge has a trail from the road to the canyon floor. Following the bed of the canyons and connecting upper cross-country trails over the high, open country of pinyon-juniper forest creates a nice loop hike.
The wonders of greater southeastern Utah cannot be understated, as an intrepid backcountry explorer can find a lifetime’s worth of interesting destinations in the nearby country of Cedar Mesa and beyond. Rich in archaeological resources, these canyons are central to the new Bears Ears National Monument.
The following text is from the 2012 park brochure:
In 1883 prospector Cass Hite wandered up the White Canyon from his base camp along the Colorado River. In search of gold, he found instead three magnificent bridges water had sculpted from stone. In 1904 the National Geographic Magazine publicized the bridges, and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt established Natural Bridges National Monument, creating Utah’s first National Park System area.
The Story behind the Bridge’s Names
Several names have been applied to the bridges. First named President, Senator, and Congressman in order of height, the bridges were renamed Augusta, Caroline, and Edwin by later explorer groups. As the park was expanded to protect nearby Puebloan structures, the General Land Office assigned the names Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo in 1909.
Sipapu means “the place of emergence,” an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world. Kachina is named for rock art symbols on the bridge that resemble symbols commonly used on kachina dolls. Owachomo means “rock mound,” a feature atop the bridge’s east abutment.
Dimensions of the Bridges
The following chart lets you geek out on the size of the bridges, measured in feet:
A 13-site campground (no water) has tables, tent pads, grills, and pit toilets, with a limit of one vehicle (26 feet long or less) per site. Campsites are first come, first served and open year round.
This is a very basic area, without most common amenities, like a camp store or shower. It’s more like what you’d expect to find at your typical Forest Service campground.
According to the International Dark Sky Association, Natural Bridges has some of the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. This location was in fact the very first Certified Dark Sky Park in the world (designated in March 2007). This entails a certification process that now recognizes over 50 parks around the globe, and more each year.
They say that over 100,000 people visit this National Monument each year. Only a small percentage stay overnight, so maybe hang around and check out the stars?
The Hike – Trip Notes Photos
I visited the Natural Bridges in August of 2012, day-hiking the full loop as described in the notes above.
Keep an eye on the weather! The bottom of the canyon can flash flood during heavy thunderstorms.
The initial descent into the canyon has some ladders and scrambling, but nothing especially scary or death-defying.
Following the floor of the canyons can take a little longer than anticipated because of sand and brush.
I did not seek out and find the rock art at Kachina Bridge. In fact, Kachina Bridge must have struck me as entirely non-photogenic, since I don’t seem to have recorded an image of it.
The main canyon has a large pourover near the Kachina Bridge, but this is easily bypassed via the trail that climbs out to the rim (Drop back into the canyon to continue the loop hike).
All marked trails (with the exception of following the canyons) are either signed or cairned. Stay alert and watch for cairns marking the exit routes near the natural bridges.