Natural Bridges National Monument has a scenic drive that allows for some aerial views of some of the largest natural bridges in the world. But to really experience these massive rock formations you will need to venture into the remote desert canyons. Visitors are able to hike directly underneath all the natural bridges but the park’s service prohibits climbing on the bridges. The paths we recommend here can be both challenging and dangerous so it is extremely important to come prepared. That’s why we decided to write this guide for hiking Natural Bridges National Monument.
Where is Natural Bridges? Where can I stay? What else is there to do in the area? Are there any good restaurants? Check out our guide to Natural Bridges National Monument to find the answer to these questions and more.
The Dangers of Hiking Natural Bridges National Monument
Hiking Natural Bridges National Monument is so undertaken at your own risk. This is desert country with no reliable water sources. The paths to Sipapu and Kachina are very steep with cliff exposure and aren’t recommended to anyone with serious vertigo issues. The bridges continue to be shaped by the elements and rockfalls have occurred in the park’s history. In 1992 a 4,000-ton piece of rock sheered off the Kachina Bridge enlarging the arch. The debris from this fall can still be seen lying underneath the bridge. Flash floods are common in the canyons of Utah and you should be aware of the signs and immediately seek high ground in case of emergency.
Hiking Natural Bridges National Monument
The park’s service lists six trails in Natural Bridges National Monuments. Altogether there are less than 12-miles of trails inside the park. The two trails listed here are the best trails that combine the best this monument has to offer. The Sipapu to Kachina Loop combines four of the six trails (Sipapu, Loop, Kachina, & Mesa Trails) into one loop while the Owachomo Bridge Trail is best experienced on its own as a short out-n-back hike.
Sipapu Bridge to Kachina Bridge Loop
- Type: Loop
- Rating: Difficult
- Distance: 6-miles
- Elevation Change: 5,00′
- Recommended Time: 3 hours
The poorly named Loop Trail follows the creek bed from Sipapu Arch through White Canyon to the Armstrong Canyon Intersection and then follows Armstrong Cayon to Owachomo. This trail is an unmaintained trail and overgrown so we recommend only the Sipapu to Kachina section. This allows hikers to see the Horsecollar Ruins up close, especially if you are willing to scramble up the canyonside as the ancients would have.
Where to Start?
The trail into the canyon at the Sipapu Bridge is steep with some challenging sections. If you are uncertain of your ability to complete the obstacles, we suggest starting your loop journey from the Sipapu Parking Area so that you can easily turn back if the trail becomes too difficult. For everyone else, we suggest starting the journey from the Kachina Bridge Parking Area. Either way, we suggest hiking counterclockwise so that you descend the more difficult Sipapu Trail.
The Mesa Trail Section
Once parked at the Kachina Bridge Trailhead turn away from the canyon and hike over the Mesa on the apply named Mesa Trail. The trail is surrounded by an extremely important and fragile desert echo system. It is important to stay on the trail and not disturb what is known as desert varnish, the black crust of broken earth. This stuff is the basic building block of life and is easily killed underfoot. The trail can be hard to follow at times as there are many unofficial paths that the park’s service is attempting to regenerate. As a general rule, follow the cairns and don’t step over logs that block faux paths.
We recommend going over the Mesa first because it is exposed with little tree cover and is much easier to cross in the morning than in the heat of the day. After about a mile of crossing over the desert, the trail will top the mesa and a sign will direct you left towards Sipapu. The next mile will descend slightly and then climb over a granite slope. Again, please stay on the trail and follow the cairns. At the end of the Mesa Trail, the path will descend to the road. Follow the road to the right where you will find the Sipapu Bridge Trailhead.
Sipapu Bridge Trail
The Sipapu Bridge Trail is the steepest in the park and it is steep in general. It descends 500′ in 3/4 of a mile. The hiking trail clings to the cliffside in a precarious nature for much of the descent. During the descent, two wooden ladders are used as well as stone steps carved into the cliffside. There is a large ledge located about halfway down the descent that provides some of the best views of Sipapu Bridge. Lower down the canyon the path follows a steep slope of granite but there are iron handrails there to assist in the descent.
Once on the canyon floor, you are led directly under the massive bridge itself. Sipapu Bridge rises 220′ above the canyon floor and spans 268′ across. It has a 31′ foot width across the bridge and is 53′ thick (top to bottom) at its narrowest point. It is an astonishing piece of natural engineering and the second-largest natural bridge in the world.
White Canyon Loop Trail
To continue on the Sipapu to Kachina Loop Trail you will follow the creek bed, which often has a sandy trail running adjacent to it, southwest through White Canyon. The path is non-descript but beautiful as it follows the canyon floor. The floor of the canyon is covered in Gambel’s Oak and other lush desert trees and plants. The path can be hard to follow at times through this undergrowth but if the creek is dry you can always default to hiking the creek bed.
After following the creek for a mile keep your eyes peeled for the Horsecollar Ruins on the right side of the trail. Like many Pueblo ruins, they are somewhat hidden on a bench about 30′ above the creek in an alcove. Once you spot the ruins, if you choose to, you can scramble up the canyon wall to the bench where they are hidden and get a closer look. If you do choose to scramble up, do not disturb the ruins in any way. This includes climbing into or on any of the structures. Many of the ancient buildings are in remarkably good shape so let’s keep them that way for future generations to see.
The Southern Ruins
There are two sets of ruins on the ledge. The northern ruins are the ones that can be spotted from the creek and are in good shape but the southern ruins have the granary whose doors look like a horsecollar and is where the ruins derive their name. The adjacent square Kiva still has a roof and looks to be fully intact. Very unique to this site there are also the ruins of a circular Kiva at the site and is to my knowledge the only place both styles of Kiva exist together.
Onwards to Kachina
Back in the creek bed, the loop trail proceeds to follow the floor of the canyon as it meanders through the desert for another mile and a half or so. Along the way, you will see a small rock arch perched high on the cliff walls. This isn’t one of the three natural bridges. After 2.5-miles on the canyon floor, you will come to the Kachina Bridge which spans the creek bed.
Considered to be the newest bridge in the park, Kachina Bridge is a behemoth. It rises 210′ above the creek bed but is also an astonishing 93′ thick. It has a 204′ span across with a width of 44′. When you walk through it, it feels like you are passing into another part of the park. In a way, you are, as the other side is where the White Canyon meets the Armstrong Canyon. Do not proceed down the White Canyon as it meanders its way deeper into the desert and away from the park. Instead, once you’ve passed underneath the bridge turn left and head up Armstrong Canyon (there is a sign to direct your path).
The Kachina Petroglyphs
Before you proceed, stop to take in the grandness of the Kachina Bridge. Ancient Pueblos must have revered this natural wonder as well as they left many petroglyphs along its eastern wall (left as you approach it). The petroglyphs can be seen above a ledge on both sides of the bridge (north and south along the eastern wall). Also, take a moment to notice the pile of rubble on the north side of the creek under the bridge. This is a 4,000-ton section of the bridge that broke away in 1992. You may not want to linger here too long. 🙂
Once you’ve taken in the petroglyphs (do not touch or add to them) proceed up the Armstrong Canyon creek bed a short distance to the Katchina Trail intersection that climbs out of the canyon. If you proceed up the canyon too far then you will arrive at the Knickpoint Pour-off which is a pool of water at the base of a tiny slot canyon. During heavy rains, a red waterfall can be seen pouring into the canyon here. If you arrive here turn back as there is no way forward and you missed the trail marker.
Kachina Bridge Trail
Climbing out of the canyon on the Katchina Bridge Trail is a 400′ ascent over 3/4 of a mile. While slightly easier than the Sipapu Descent this is still a steep ascent with sheer drop-offs. Along the way, you will ascend a short wood ladder but with a far less precarious perch than the one found on Sipapu. You will see a small rock arch directly to the left of the trail. You will also have some great aerial views of the Armstrong Canyon and the Knickpoint pour-off.
The Loop to Owachomo Bridge
If you are looking to continue the loop trail all the way to Owachomo Bridge you will want to keep your eyes open for the sign that points the way. It is found about halfway up the ascent as the trail rises into the part of the canyon above the Knickpoint pour-off.
Finishing the Sipapu to Katchina Bridges Loop
As the Katchina Trail nears the top it will curve around the south point of the top of the canyon before finishing the ascent at the concrete path that leads to the Katchina Overlook. Take a left and proceed to the overlook if you wish to read about the formation of the Katchina Bridge. However, the overlook provides a lesser view of what you have seen along the Sipapu and Katchina Bridges Loop. Take a right and hike the short concrete path back to the parking area from whence you began this epic journey.
- Type: Out-n-Back
- Rating: Moderately-Easy
- Total Distance: 0.5 mile (0.25 one-way)
- Elevation Change: 180′
- Recommended Time: 20 minutes
With a height of 106′ and a 180′ span, the Owachomo Bridge is the smallest of the three in the Natural Bridges National Monument. However, with a vertical thickness that narrows to only 9′ this rocky bridge gives the illusion of delicately floating over the desert floor. Out of the three bridges found when visiting Natural Bridges National Monument, this was arguably our favorite.
Owachomo Bridge Trail
The trail to the base of the Owachomo Bridge is a very easy jaunt in the desert. We rate it at moderately-easy but this is only due to the path having some uneven footing. The trail is graded well so that the 180′ is descended and then re-ascended with very little exertion.
Natural Bridge Original Entrance
When at the base of the bridge, look across the canyon and you will see an old stone wall descending into the canyon. This is the original trail people visiting Natural Bridges National Monument took to hike into the park. The original visitor center and the entrance were located in that corner of the park until Bridge View Drive was completed making access to the bridges much easier.
Extending the Loop Trail to Owachomo
You could also arrive at Owachomo Bridge by continuing to follow the creek bed in Armstrong Canyon while on the Loop Trail. That would extend that 6-mile trek to almost 10-miles total. Unless you desire to be in the canyon longer we recommend visiting Owachomo as an out-n-back..
Hiking Natural Bridges National Monument
Hiking to the base of the three natural bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument can be challenging but is the best way to fully experience all that the small park has to offer. Owachomo Bridge is easy enough and should be attempted by anyone visiting the park that is open to a little walking. Hiking into the canyons at the Sipapu Bridge or Kachina Bridge is a much more difficult undertaking and you should be prepared for the challenges found on the trail. We hope that this guide to hiking Natural Bridges National Monument helps you prepare for that journey.