Exploring Utah's First National Monument: The Natural Bridges Hiking Loop

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Utah’s first National Monument, Natural Bridges sits atop Cedar Mesa in San Juan County, northwest of Blanding and Monticello, the basecamps for the area. The monument’s attractions are its three massive sandstone bridges, named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu. Sipapu is the second largest natural bridge in the world (nearby Rainbow Bridge is the largest).

For thousands upon thousands of years water has eroded places along the canyon walls—particularly during flash floods—until the rock wall is undercut and a new stream bed flows underneath what is now a bridge. Over time, the bridge will increase in size. A bridge is different from an arch in that water does flow under it.

At each of the three main bridges in Natural Bridges trails descend into the canyons from the loop road to each bridge destination. However, a longer, 8.6-mile loop trail provides visitors a way to see all of the wonders of the park.

What Makes it Great

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At 8.3 miles, the Natural Bridges loop trail is the perfect distance for adventurous couples or families with some athletic adolescents. Along the trail, you’ll spot all three major bridges and gawk at the natural feats that nature has created. This longer trail meanders along the canyon bottoms, through oak and cottonwood groves,  and offers plenty of beautiful places to rest and enjoy nature.

The three bridges have Hopi Indian names. Sipapu means "the place of emergence," Kachina means "dancer," and Owachomo means "rock mounds." Many hikers will begin their loop trek at Sipapu Overlook and take the trail to Owachomo, before taking the trail over the mesa back to Sipau.

Other than the bridges, you’ll also encounter Horsecollar Ruin, which takes its name from two granaries with uniquely shaped doors. This is an ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling in a large alcove.

Other fun things you’ll come upon are staircases and wooden ladders, which help in ascending and descending to and from the canyon floor. Worthy of note, there are several of these stairs and ladders on the way to and from Sipapu, which is the steepest approach in the park.

What You’ll Remember

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The argument you have with your family about which bridge was the best and why. Or maybe the vote will be unanimous about which of the three landmark bridges you all like the best. Truth be told, they are all pretty wonderful.

Who is Going to Love It

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Folks who love a good, long jaunt with many points of interest along the way. Compared to many popular destinations in Southern Utah where tourists simply peer at nature from viewpoints, this is a great hike to go out and really experience it by being in nature and experiencing it hands-on.

GPS Coordinates, Parking and Regulations

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GPS Coordinates
(37.609271, -109.976966)

The park is open year-round. The best times to visit are spring through fall. Temperatures can become excessive during the summer, especially while hiking the mesa portion of the trail as it’s more exposed than the cooler canyon. So it’s advisable to begin this portion of the hike early in the morning, or plan accordingly with a shuttle to avoid it altogether.

There are 13 no-reservation campsites priced at $10 per night. Entrance to the park is $3 per person, per week (or $7 per carload); entrance is included with a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.

Park at the visitor’s center and at designated pullouts. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails and must be kept on leash at all times when outside of a vehicle, such as in the campground, at overlooks and pullouts, and along the paved drives.

Park website: http://www.nps.gov/nabr/index.htm

Difficulty: 2.5, due to length and some steep sections of the trail.

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