In 1908 with the stroke of a pen and an “I so declare it,” President Theodore Roosevelt signed Utah’s first National Monument and the state’s first park into existence. Was it one of Utah’s big 5? Nope. It was the little known and seldom visited Natural Bridges National Monument. The remote location of this natural wonder hid its discovery from the western world until 1883 when a prospector stumbled upon the amazing natural structures. Even today visiting Natural Bridges National Monument in this remote landscape is often overlooked. This keeps the attendance down and makes it an ideal park for those seeking beauty and seclusion.
Bridge or Arch
Utah’s Arches National Park is home to Landscape Arch and with a span of 290-feet, it is officially the longest arch in the world. Natural Bridges National Monument on the other hand has three amazing bridges–Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo. Sipapu with a 268-foot span is the longest in this park and the second-largest natural bridge in the world. The largest span of any natural bridge is the Rainbow Bridge inside Glen Canyon which is also located in Utah. This begs the question of what exactly is the difference between a rock arch and a natural bridge?
Natural Bridge vs. Rock Arch
A natural bridge is formed when flowing water (a stream or creek) cuts through the rock creating a bridge. An arch is formed by other forces of natural erosion. This is typically the freezing and thawing of water in cracks that break away rock creating an arch.
Natural Bridges National Monument is located in the southeastern quadrant of Utah. This is remote country where large towns are scarce so make sure you fill up your gas tank every chance you get. Surprisingly the few roads that do cut through this remote section of Utah are in very good shape. The park’s roads are also paved well. The only road you might have an issue with is the Moki Dugway coming up from the south near Monument Valley and Mexican Hat. This gravel road is more akin to a hiking trail with the number of switchbacks leading down Cedar Mesa but it is beautiful. It is not suitable for any vehicle longer than 26′ in length or those who have a fear of ledges. As the ranger put it to us, “if your passengers have vertigo, we sell blindfolds in the gift store.”
How Much Time Do I Need When Visiting Natural Bridges?
With a handful of overlooks along the park’s 9-mile Bridge View Drive Loop Road and only 10-miles worth of hiking trails, Natural Bridges National Monument can be fully explored by the most adventurous souls in a single day. For most people stopping at the overlooks and perhaps a short hike will be sufficient and half a day will be more than adequate. We recommend starting the day early while it is cool and the light is optimal for the overlooks.
Scenic Drive Overlooks
The 9-mile Bridge View Drive is a one-way road that is very curvy with limited parking at each of the overlooks and trailheads. The park service recommends unhooking any tow vehicles and leaving them in the visitor parking lot before exploring the park. The road is driven counter-clockwise so that is how we will list the various viewpoints. These are not all the stops along the road but are the best viewpoints. Some of these spots double as trailheads for the hiking trails.
Sipapu Bridge Overlook
A short paved walk leads to an overlook of the largest of the three natural bridges, Sipapu Bridge. According to the park’s service, Sipapu is pronounce seé-pa-pu and means “place of emergence.” The Sipapu Bridge View is located directly to the east of the natural bridge so it is best viewed in the early morning light. Even if you plan to hike down to the bridge this viewpoint is a must-see.
Horse Collar Ruin Overlook
The Horse Collar Ruin Overlook requires a short and relatively easy 0.3-mile walk to an overlook of the ancient pueblo cliff dwellings. The overlook has some information boards about the ruins as well as the ancients who lived there. Bring your binoculars as the ruins are a good distance away from the viewpoint. Spot the granary doors that give the site their name. Several of the buildings, including one of the two Kivas, are in incredibly good shape. If you plan on hiking into the canyon on the Loop Trail between Sipapu and Kachina you will have the opportunity to see the ruins up close.
Kachina Bridge Overlook
To get to the Kachina Bridge View overlook from the parking area is a short easy stroll along a concrete path. The overlook has some information graphics about how the massive natural bridge was formed. It has a 204′ span but is chunky with an impressive 93′ thickness. The viewpoint isn’t the best as the arch is located far away and is somewhat shrouded by trees near the base. This is one arch that is best viewed by hiking into the canyon. The viewpoint does have a pretty good view of the Knickpoint pour-off which is a waterfall that plunges into a pool at the base of a small slot canyon. The reportedly red waterfall is often dry and is best viewed after heavy rains.
Owachomo Bridge View
The final viewpoint is an easy and short stroll along a concrete path from the parking area to the overlook. With a 180′ span Owachomo is the smallest bridge you will see when visiting Natural Bridges National Monument. Despite its smaller size and thinner girth (9′ thick), it is a beautiful natural formation and was arguably our favorite of the three. It rises above a stream that is no longer active and sits so that it faces the north and south so it is well lit any time of day.
Natural Bridges’ Best Hiking Trail
While all three bridges can be seen from the canyon rim above via the short concrete paths found along the scenic drive, we prefer the trails that lead into the canyons. These trails can be difficult but allow visitors to take in each arch at the base as well as providing additional stunning ariel angles along the way. Our favorite hiking trails in the park are the 6-mile loop from Sipapu to Katchina and the 0.5-mile out-n-back hike on the Owachomo Bridge Trail. The Owachomo Trail is relatively easy but the Sipapu to Katchina Loop should only be undertaken by those fit for the challenge.
Logistics for Visiting Natural Bridges
Much of Natural Bridges National Monument sits above 6,000′ making this area of Utah cooler than much of the surrounding desert. For this reason, winters are cold with average temperatures reaching well below freezing at night. This can make the steep terrain of the trails slippery and that much more dangerous. These cold nights can last from November to April.
Summers can be hot with July’s average temperatures reaching into the 90s according to the park’s service. The heat when visiting Natural Bridges in the summertime is less of a concern than when traveling to other areas nearby.
Late April to Early June as well as September and October are the nicest months to visit the park. Autumn brings a bit of fall color to the park in October but it is also the rainiest month and monsoons can occur. Although according to the park’s service the average rainfall is still only 1.48 inches. It would be nice to witness a monsoon flood assuming you are safely out of the canyon when the torrent of water passes through.
Restaurants as well as gas stations, hotels, and grocery stores along with every other semblance of civilization are limited in this area of the country. The nearest place you will find any of these oases of civilization is in the town of Blanding, Utah. Blanding is an hour drive east from the park and your options are still limited.
Pop’s Burritos is our pick for the best source of sustenance in Blanding, Utah. It is similar to a Chipotle and the food is very tasty.
Like food, lodging too is a hard thing to come by when visiting Natural Bridges National Monument. The easiest way to find a good night’s rest is to either bring a tent or some form of RV. Not only does this keep you from having to spend precious time commuting to the nearest town, it will allow you to spend a night underneath the dark desert sky. This area of Utah has some of the darkest sky in the world and it is ideal for stargazing.
The Natural Bridges Campground is the most convenient place to camp as it is inside the park. The 13 campsites are open year-round and are first-come, first-served. The sites have a 26′ max length so larger RVs will need to look elsewhere. The sites fill up most days so arrive early.
If you arrive at the park and the campground is full, don’t worry, this is Utah and there are plenty of boondocking sites nearby. Check with the ranger for recommendations or have a spot ready to go. There is no cell service in the area so know where to go or have an app like maps.me that works offline. While there are several spots very close to the park we actually recommend making the 33-mile drive south to Muley Point. It sits on a ledge overlooking the San Juan Canyon and Monument Valley. This is one of the best boondocking spots in the country. Unfortunately, the parking area is rough and isn’t suitable for large RVs.
If you must have the security and luxuries of a hotel with a hot shower look no further than the Blue Sage Inn & Suites in Blanding, Utah. It is a nice, affordable spot from which to explore many of the wonders found in the southeastern corner of Utah including Natural Bridges National Monument.
Other Great Places Near Natural Bridges
The four-corners area (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, & Colorado) of the United States is some of the most remote and difficult to explore. While the few roads that traverse this area are well maintained they are indeed very few. When you make the effort of coming to this area of the country we recommend taking the time to explore it fully. Here is a shortlist of other spots you should definitely check out relatively nearby.
- Goosenecks State Park
- Monument Valley
- Valley of the Gods
- Canyonlands National Park
- Arches National Park
- Goblin Valley State Park
- Mesa Verde National Park
Visiting Natural Bridges National Monument
Visiting Natural Bridges National Monument should be on anyone’s list when visiting the southeastern area of Utah. The natural rock bridges are beautiful, the roads are well maintained with gorgeous overlooks and the hiking trails are well laid out while maximizing the unique beauty of the canyons as well as the mesa found in the park.