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June 3, 2011

National Monuments: Natural Bridges

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument (HDR)

The Southwest’s Grand Circle is chock full of magazine cover worthy sights.  The most iconic of these lay within the boundaries of the regions National Parks.  Yet outside the National Parks, along the scenic byways and in the State Parks, National Monuments, and Indian Reservations are other front-page worthy attractions.  They seem impossible to just drive past.  The scenery of the Southwest resists fast travel.

Our passage through the Southwest was slowed by Utah’s first National Monument, Natural Bridges.  Natural Bridges is well off the Interstate.  Indeed the Monument was difficult to visit for decades after it was established in 1908.  Only when roads were built in the region during the uranium boom of the 1950’s did tourism become practical.  Even in 2010 fewer than 100,000 visitors made it to Natural Bridges.  This National Monument feels remote.  Reaching the park via the lesser-traveled back roads, including Moki Dugway, just increases the sense of isolation.

White Canyon

Natural Bridges sits at the junction of the White and Armstrong Canyons.  This drainage feeds the Colorado River near the head of Lake Powell.  Over millenniums water has carved narrow steep-walled goosenecks through the distinctive white Permian sandstone of the Cedar Mesa Formation.  Natural bridges form when floodwaters penetrate the rock walls of the canyon’s horseshoe bends shortcutting the goosenecks and sometimes creating the rock spans.  The Monument’s natural bridges are amongst the largest in the world.

The Natural Bridges’ nine-mile loop drive provides viewing access to all of the park’s rock viaducts.  A short visit allowed time to motor around the loop, gawk at the bridge-view overlooks, and hike down to and under Owachomo, the smallest and thinnest of the natural bridges in the Monument.

Owachomo Bridge may be the most diminutive of rock spans in the park but it is still massive.  When viewed from below Owachomo is particularly impressive.  So much rock suspended so high over the ground seems so improbable.  Just past the Owachomo Bridge is White Canyon’s bottom.  The erosive blast of the periodic floodwaters has left the gorge with peculiar hydrodynamically shaped sandstone formations.  It is an exhibit-worthy collection of white rock abstract sculptures. The canyon beckoned us further in but we’d leave a hike along the base of the gorge and under all of the Monument’s rock bridges for a future visit.  There was not enough time.  A trek along the floor of White Canyon must be the best way to experience Natural Bridges.

At Natural Bridges National Monument we departed with plans to return and experience more.  National Parks and Monuments are not museums.  At the end of the tour, you never exit through the gift shop certain with the knowledge that you’ve seen all there is to see.


  1. […] intersection is Natural Bridges National Monument.  We stopped for a couple hours to explore the National Monument; Natural Bridges is worth a longer […]

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  2. […] a lot of the scenery in the southern part of Zion National Park; Hickman Bridge is reminiscent of Natural Bridges National Monument.  The scenery in Capitol Reef is familiar to Southwest travelers.  Is Capitol Reef the Cliffs […]

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