The Power of Nature at Natural Bridges National Monument
The diverse roster of national parks is filled with extraordinary and unique places, but few offer a more striking landscape than Natural Bridges National Monument.
Formed by the power of water in a place where water is all but absent, these three stone bridges in the Utah desert have been protected as a national monument since 1908, but their history goes back much, much farther.
How are natural bridges formed?
The three bridges of Natural Bridges National Monument are thought to be about 5,000 years old — practically brand new in geological terms. They are geologically different from natural arches like the ones found 100 miles away at Arches National Park, and they are formed by a different process. While the arches were carved by years of seeping water and frost, the landscape of Natural Bridges National Monument was shaped by running water.
Rain is scarce in the Utah desert, but when it does fall, it often creates fierce flash floods that tear away at the canyon walls. The curved, meandering path of the floodwaters gradually undercuts the stone, and when two parallel streams undercut the same rock formation from opposite sides, they eventually break through and meet in the middle — and a bridge is born.
The three bridges
National Geographic publicized the natural bridges in 1904, and President Theodore Roosevelt declared Natural Bridges National Monument four years later, creating Utah's first national park unit in 1908. The bridges themselves have been named and renamed several times over the years.
The names that stuck were "Sipapu," "Kachina," and "Owachomo." In honor of the Native Americans who once made this area their home, the three names are derived from the language of the Hopi people.
- Sipapu, or "the place of emergence," refers to the entryway through which the Hopi believe their ancestors arrived in this world. Sipapu is the largest of the bridges, and the second-largest natural bridge in the world.
- Kachina gets its name from the rock art that adorns the bridge, resembling symbols often seen on kachina dolls. The thickest of the three bridges, Kachina is probably the youngest.
- Owachomo means "rock mound." This bridge gets its name from the distinctive rocky feature atop its east abutment. The narrow profile of Owachomo suggests that it has eroded more quickly than its neighbors.
Visiting the bridges
Each of the three bridges is accessible via hiking trails. Each trail is less than 1.5 miles in length and takes less than an hour to complete. An 8.6-mile loop trail connects all three of the bridges, allowing visitors to experience them all in one circuit starting at the visitor center.
Hikers at Natural Bridges National Monument should plan for rocky terrain and hot conditions. Bring plenty of water, along with sunglasses, sunblock, and appropriate footwear. The cooler months offer more agreeable temperatures. Other attractions at the national monument include:
- Camping: 13 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Historic ruins: The Puebloan cliff dwellings of Horsetail Ruin are included in the 8.6-mile bridge loop.
- Scenic driving: A paved, 9-mile scenic driving loop is open year-round.
- Interpretive programs: Ranger-led activities take place spring through fall, including guided walks, overlook talks, and evening programs.
Nature's power is on display for all to see at Natural Bridges National Monument. The bridges are a clear reminder of how important it is that we continue to protect our rich landscapes.
Interested in learning about other unique treks to explore in parks across the country? Get your free copy of “Happy Trails,” our Owner’s Guide featuring 25 unforgettable national park hikes.