With all of the national parks that Utah has to offer, it's easy to overlook some of the 'smaller' sites in the area. Make no mistake though - Natural Bridges National Monument is every bit as impressive as many of the bigger parks. If it were found in any other state, it would very well have been given a different designation. When it comes to hiking, it provides some unique challenges and incredible beauty.
Located about an hour east of the Canyonlands NP Needles District, Natural Bridges is home to three massive land bridges formed in the White and Armstrong Canyons. Entrance into the park is $15 (we used our Annual NP Pass) for a private vehicle with the visitor's center open from 9am to 5pm daily. Open year round, there are also 13 campsites to choose from.
A nine mile, one-way, scenic drive guides visitors to the Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo bridge overlooks as well as to trails that descend into the canyons. While hikers can trek down at each, the depth of the canyons (500ft, 400ft, & 180ft respectively), make a loop hike an nice option to consider. Trails on the upper portion connect the three bridge parking areas allowing guests to create their own trek based on their preferred bridge or hiking ability.
Arriving early in the morning, we decided to drive and leave our car at Kachina, hike 1.8 miles back to Sipapu, and walk the unmaintained canyon path back (3.9 miles). This meant that the more exposed hiking was done in cooler weather and that we could find shade in the canyon for breaks as needed.
The top portion of the hike had both flat and larger, boulder sections to navigate. The path was narrow, but well marked with many desert plants around. We also walked past tons of cryptobiotic dirt - essentially, fragile living soil that helps retain the infrequent rainfall. You can recognize it by the dark, raised nature of the soil. Mind your step though, it takes decades to grow. Living dirt - who knew?
Making our way down the 500 foot canyon to Sipapu Bridge was no stroll. Stairs, boulders, and even wooden ladders are utilized to get visitors to the bottom. That said, this was our favorite and most scenic arch with beautiful blue skies above. The hike through the canyon was unique and very beautiful.
The trail is reasonably easy to find until it crosses the riverbed. Along the way, you can look for some ruins inhabited by Native Americans centuries ago. Horse collar Ruin is the one that is on your map but we were told there are others too. The temperature inside the canyon during the mid day is hotter than above, but the lighting for pictures is better. With at least one other canyon intersecting White Canyon, you can't completely blow off the possibility of getting lost. Needless to say, after nearly 4 miles of hot hiking, we were excited to see Kachina Bridge. Much more massive than Sipapu, it is all the more impressive but much harder to photograph.
Though we finished off our final water bottle on the ascent to our car, we both agreed that we should have taken significantly more. The high desert masks how much water you are losing and you might not realize how dehydrated you are until you're in trouble.
All told, we enjoyed this unique hike very much. It rare that you will find such a steep canyon with a one way trail option like this. There were very few people in the park with us and we didn't see anyone during our time hiking between bridges. After seeing Owachomo from the overlook, we decided not to hike down and to be on our way. While probably not worth more than a day or two, we highly recommend checking out this lesser known gem in southeast Utah!