As you start to descend toward Natural Bridges National Monument, the groundcover becomes more luxuriant and the trees taller. You cannot see the chaotic landscape of Natural Bridges from the highway, tucked away as it is off to the north.
The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument, located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds', massive Kachina means ‘dancer', while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence'. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails, some with metal stairs, lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.
There is ample evidence that ancient people occupied this complex system of canyons from about 500 BC until around AD 1270. The earliest inhabitants probably lived in pit houses on the mesa tops, while the later Ancestral Puebloans built cliff dwellings that can still be seen today. They likely farmed up on the broad mesas, not in the narrow canyons. Cass Hite explored the region in 1883 while on a gold-prospecting sortie from his camp on the Colorado.
Given its remote location, it’s no wonder the park has some of the world’s least light-polluted night skies. The International Dark Sky Association named Natural Bridges the world’s first “International Dark Sky Park.” Accordingly, park rangers not only give interpretive discussions on astronomy but also changed out the park’s light fixtures to reduce their own light pollution.
There are few facilities at Natural Bridges and no services at all; a small fee is charged to enter. At the visitor center (open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct through Mar and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Apr through Sept) you will find nice interpretive displays to introduce the area and describe the attractions of Bridge View Drive. An attractive (but spartan) 13-site campground here has no water, but campers can fetch up to five gallons per day from the visitor center. It has the only drinking water within the monument, so fill your water bottles here. It is also requested that you leave trailers here rather than pull them along the Bridge View Drive.
Bridge View Drive is sensibly organized as a one-way loop, so you can rubberneck all you want and not worry about head-on collisions — not that you can see much from the road. The paved 9-mile drive leads to overlooks and trailheads above the three bridges that are the park’s chief attractions. The easiest hike is to the last bridge, Owachomo. Whatever else you do, leave a little time at the end of the drive and walk the half-mile trail to stand under its massive span.
Fees, Hours and Information
Entrance Fee: $6 car $3 on foot/bike, park open year-round
Sites at the campground are $10 per night
Visitor center open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during main season
There is no cell phone service in Natural Bridges
Leashed pets in campground and paved overlooks only
Natural Bridges National Monument
HC-60 Box 1
Lake Powell, 84533
(435) 692-1234, ext. 16
Some information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press), which includes driving directions and maps for 28 of the best auto tours in the state. See the Bicentennial Byway Scenic Drive for more information on things to see in the area.