Natural Bridges

  • *There are 8 sites in Mule Canyon, home to ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art, all within 4 miles.

    *There are day use fees and pay stations located in different areas of the mesa. Backcountry permits are required for camping along the mesa, obtainable at the Kane County Ranger Station, on UT-261, from 8:00 a.m. to 12 Noon.

    *Muley Point is overseen by the National Parks service, however there is no camping fee.

    horse collar ruin in natural bridges
    Horse Collar Ruin by Aaron Webb

    the citadel ruin
    The Citadel Formation by Aaron Webb

    xan grand canyon
    Citadel Ruins by Xan Aintablian

    grand canyon power boat ride
    House On Fire Ruin by Aaron Webb

    grand canyon power boat ride
    Desert Wildflower by Xan Aintablian

    By Xanthe Aintablian, September, 2017

    I remembered many times standing at the tip of Muley Point, up from the Moki Dugway and above the Valley of the Gods. We’d venture out of our way up to Cedar Mesa as a long-way home, after spending time in Monument Valley. Some of these trips were with many of my extended family, caravaning together up the treacherous switchbacks of the dugway. Sometimes the trips were just with my father.

    As a child, I’d always get out and just stare at the view. I loved the colors and shadows of the valley below. I’d run around the big pot holes at the top of Muley Point, and jump on the giant stone slabs, layer to layer. I wanted to stay longer, every time, but we always had a destination further up the road.

    For over a year my brother and I talked about a scouting trip to the mesa as a way to explore and look for kid-friendly hikes we could take each of our own young families. My brother had similar recollections to mine, but told me of another favorite memory in the area.

    He once hiked a canyon near the mesa where he remembered seeing an enormous peninsula, of white sandstone. It looked like a giant stone fortress, and he thought he’d remembered seeing ruins on top. He and my father had hiked to a ruin below it, but he had always remembered how badly he’d wanted to go explore that castle.

    We set out on a friday to revisit a piece of our childhood. We left much too late, which we should really just accept of ourselves now, and due to stopping in Moab for dinner and gear, we arrived driving west on UT-95 just as the sunlight was receding behind the mountains.

    Cell service was in and out but in a moment of clear satellite signal, my father called and spoke to my brother. He described the castle area he remembered, and my father recognized the description and guess it was Road Canyon. My father also might have mentioned that it was the very same place I’d broken his expensive camera lense many years ago. Like I said, I’d had too much fun as a child jumping from rock to rock - not a good idea when I’d been entrusted to carry a camera strapped around my neck. I’d not remembered it had been in Road Canyon, nor did I remember the peninsula that had intrigued my brother so much.

    Mule Canyon

    We decided to hike Lower Mule Canyon at first light the next morning, so we pulled off and camped beside that access road. I slept outside under the stars and awoke several times that night with a range of moods. Sometimes amazement, as my eyes immediately were caught by the bright Milky Way and billions of jewel stars right in front of me. Sometimes in awe of the orange setting moon, and wishing I could see more moonsets. Once I awoke to annoyance, a lucky annoyance as I see it now, as the lone solitary mosquito pestered me for a few minutes. And once in fear as I heard the sound of coyotes howling and yelping around me. I just tried to remind myself that coyotes were probably harmless and fell back asleep.

    When I awoke in the light of the morning, I was eager to start out early. I woke my brother so we could pack up and hike Mule Canyon in the cool morning air. The trailhead was only about a quarter mile from our camp. We quickly grabbed what gear we needed, and set off.

    The wash was thick with wet, clay mud, cracking on the surface. Tiny toads bounced along everywhere we walked, startled by our sudden presence. Colorful wildflowers bloomed everywhere, which I was surprised to see in early September, and colorful sunlight was beginning to bounce and shine off the redrock walls.

    We hiked to House on Fire ruins, located on the east (right-hand) side on the canyon .9 miles from the trailhead. The ruins, fairly large and well-preserved, were impressive. The name is derived from the colorful and unique streaking of the rocks and cliffs surrounding the ruin. We’d read that when illuminated in sunlight, around 10 or 11 in the morning, the site can almost appear aflame. Since we’d reached the site at about 9 a.m., we decided to continue hiking up the canyon to the next ruin, before making it back to House on Fire for the morning illumination.

    We hiked for what seemed like about another mile, but didn’t see the next ruin. We had left our area guidebook back in the car, and since we didn’t remember how much further the next site had been, we decided to turn back to House on Fire again. Look back, the next site is located 1.9 miles into the trail. We’d probably been so close. We sat at House on Fire for an hour, now also hosting four other visitors. We chatted and watched the sun rise up from behind the canyon. It perhaps wasn’t quite as dramatic as I’d heard it described, but the sun did light up the cliffs, creating contrast to the interesting “flame” markings.

    Road Canyon - The Citadel  

    When we had sat and seen enough, we hiked back out of the canyon, and continued on our way. Stopping in at the Kane County Ranger Station seemed like a good idea. We checked and followed their recommendation on how to access Road Canyon. We followed UT-261 south, took Cigarette Springs Road for about 3.5 miles to the parking and trailhead.

    Road Canyon has several hikes that drop down into the canyon, including Fallen Roof Ruins, a shorter, moderate hike, and Seven Kivas, a long, rigorous trail. We wanted to reach the Citadel, the fortress above the canyon. We followed the trail along the top of the rim, easy and flat, though hot in the afternoon sun.

    I had never seen such a thick crust of cryptobiotic soil anywhere. It was inches thick, undisturbed, and allowed to grow black with white growths all along the trail above the red dirt. Except for the narrow trail, the black crust was only disrupted by the white stone canyon rim. Along the rim, we kept our eyes scoping the canyon walls for ruins across the way. My brother spotted three tiny windows which gave away a ruin far across the canyon and high up. From our distanced vantage point, we tried to consider the ways the ancient Anasazi climbed down to it.

    Eventually, I spotted the peninsula, or more the narrow bridge leading to the Citadel, that my brother described. When we got close, we didn’t spot any cairns leading the way, but the direction was clear enough. We had to backtrack a few hundred feet when we realized we couldn’t climb down. It was a steep scramble down several ledges. We kept realizing we needed to be down one more level, the closer to the bridge we came. My brother had no issues, but my slightly-paralyzing fear of falling kicked in and I had to take several deep breaths before crab-crawling on my hands and feet, back to the wall, down the white rock.

    Once you are on the bridge level, it is once again an easy flat walk, straight across to the citadel. There are several ruins on two different levels around the Citadel. They were excellently preserved, like House on Fire, and conveniently provided a lot of shade. We rested for a long time. There was such a good view of the canyon from all sides, it was easy to imagine the ancient people defending and watching from up there.

    On the way back, seeing what I’d already scrambled down made me even more nervous, as I had an even better view of the steep fall. I searched long and hard for the route back up that I felt most comfortable with (and may have let my brother help me quite a few times). The walk back was flat and easy again - probably close to 2 hours worth of hiking.

    Muley Point

    After we returned from Road Canyon and left Cigarette Springs Road, back on the pavement of UT-261, we decided to make a quick visit to Blanding to restock some ice before heading to Muley Point. That was my pick. I wanted to camp there, experience sleeping on the edge of the mesa, and really just get to spend more time there. We were just 5-10 miles south of the point when the sun set behind the mountains, which was a disappointment. I had wanted to sit at the edge watching the shadows and light run across Valley of the Gods. However, the next morning’s sunrise made up considerably.

    I had a spectacularly clear night, the moon a little too full for terrific stargazing (and I made a mental note to come again on a night with no moon), but still an amazing and full night sky. The 3 a.m. half-asleep peep at the sky provided another glowing orange moonset, and a darker sky more full of stars. I slept only about 30 feet from the edge of the mesa, and I felt the exact kind of excitement I thought I would have felt as a child, sleeping in my favorite spot, 1,000 feet above the valley floor. When I woke in the morning, the sun climbed higher and higher moving light across the valley, as I’d hoped I would see the night before.

    I don’t often run and jump around the rocks anymore like I did as a child, mostly because even in my late 20’s, I already feel more aches and stiffness, but something about the energy of that area for me just powered me up. I ran along the edge of the cliffs back and forth several times, stopping to glance at how the light changed things. I felt like a kid again. We took some photos while the sunrise remained, and I soaked in some moments before we packed up our sleeping bags and headed to our next destination.

    Sipapu Bridge, Horse Collar Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument

    My father had recommended that if we had any time remaining in our trip, we hike to Horse Collar Ruin in Natural Bridges to take some photos for him. From Muley Point we heading back north on UT-261, took a left going west on UT-95 to Natural Bridges. The Horse Collar Ruin is located along the same trail as Sipapu Bridge, about a mile past the bridge.

    The hike down to Sipapu Bridge is steep, descending down to the bottom of the canyon. The park provides stairs, ladders, and chains to aid in several places. Once at the bottom of the bridge, the trail to the ruins follows the bottom of the river bottom, flat and easy. The ruins are on the right-hand side, up a sloped wall from the bottom.

    There is a cluster of some well-preserved and unique cliff dwellings. Hikers can see it well from the river bottom, or choose to scramble up closer to them.

    While the trail to Sipapu Bridge is more crowded in the peak seasons, the remaining trail to the ruins was fairly deserted. Hikers can also complete the entire loop, continuing past the ruins instead of returning, to the other two major bridges in the park, an 8.6 mile hike. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to hike the full loop, so we returned to Sipapu and hike back out.

    It was a quick, but terrific glimpse into the national monument.

    The entire trip was a quick glimpse into the Cedar Mesa area. I feel we accomplished a lot of what we’d hoped to find in the two nights and day and a half of visiting. We each revisited a place special to our memories.

    We’d reacquainted ourselves with the area a bit more, enough that we could confidently take our children to hike with us. The older kids (8 and up), my nieces and nephews, could have hiked anywhere that we’d gone and been fine with a little help from their dad. My littler ones (3-5) could have hiked Mule canyon with a little help from me, and at Natural Bridges.

    All in all, a successful mission.

  • By Golden Webb
    (Published May, 2001, Utah Outdoors magazine)

    It’s just a little  place, really, a rugged loop of canyon tucked away into a small cove beneath the Bears Ears and Elk Ridge. But in terms of beauty and natural wonders per square foot, few places in the Southwest can compare with Natural Bridges National Monument.

    The monument’s eponymous natural bridges are among the finest examples of ancient stone architecture nature has produced. Sipapu. Kachina. Owachomo. Three massive rock spans, carved out of Permian-age Cedar Mesa sandstone by the mercurial flux of desert streams . . . stone bows stretched taut against a turquoise vault of sky. Nowhere else in the world have bridges on such a scale formed so closely to each other.

    Natural Bridges is located in southeastern Utah, on a pinyon-juniper-covered mesa bisected by White Canyon and her upper tributaries, Deer, Tuwa and Armstrong canyons. Because of the monument’s beauty, ease of accessibility and user-friendly accoutrements, Natural Bridges is one of Utah’s most attractive family hiking and camping destinations. The setting is wild and woolly, but the Park Service has done a great job of providing easily negotiable trails to the bridges and in setting up interpretive displays and placards that explain the area’s rich natural history as it unfolds to the visitor.

    It hasn’t always been this way. As late as 1926, Utah’s first nationally designated park unit could be reached by horse or not at all. White Canyon lies 30 air-miles west of Blanding, the nearest town, with serried ramparts of cliff wall and forested ridge thrown up between. The high desertlands north of the San Juan and south and west of Blanding were the exclusive province of cattlemen, miners and wealthy desert “dudes” — East Coast businessmen in vests and fashionable knickers who paid top dollar to be molded in the “stern and fiery crucible of the desert,” as Zane Grey put it, with a little help from such legendary guides as John Wetherill and Zeke Johnson (who became Natural Bridges’ first ranger and custodian).

    It was probably some anonymous local cowboy who first laid European eyes on the bridges, but the recorded right of discovery goes to Cass Hite, Scotty Ross, Edward Randolph and Indian Joe, who in September 1883 came up White Canyon from Dandy Crossing on the Colorado looking for gold. The prospectors named the bridges “President,” “Senator” and “Congressman” (in order of decreasing size), then promptly forgot about them.

    Twenty years later, a stockman who had ranged cattle in the area, J.A. Scorup, led a Colorado River gold dredger named Horace J. Long to the bridges. The account of their trip ultimately led to a notice, “Colossal Natural Bridges of Utah,” published in National Geographic magazine in 1904. To many, the story seemed unbelievable. Three stone bridges. Clustered together. Far bigger than anything previously discovered or even imagined. This was something people had to see.

    One person who saw was the English-born H.L.A. Culmer, an artist who visited the bridges in 1905 and who produced oils and beautiful prose that helped to prominently fashion the popular perception of the canyon country — a sort of fin de siecle Ed Abbey. Erosion in southern Utah, Culmer wrote,

    [has]created scenes of magnificent disorder, in savage grandeur beyond description. The remnants of the land remain of impressive but fantastic wildness, mute witnesses of the powers of frenzied elements, wrecking a world. These were the powers that fashioned those monoliths that rise like lofty monuments from the southern plains; that shaped those enormous bridges in the rim rock region of San Juan… and they strewed over a region as large as an empire such bewildering spectacles of mighty shapes that Utah must always be the land sought by explorers of the strange and marvelous.

    In keeping with a certain peculiar American penchant, the bridges have been assigned three different sets of names since their discovery. Scorup and Long renamed them after people they knew: “President” became, of all things, “Augusta,” after Long’s wife; “Senator” became “Caroline” for Scorup’s mother; and “Congressman” became “Edwin” for Edwin Holmes, the sponsor of their expedition.

    The bridges’ present names, derived from Hopi words, were assigned by a United States Surveyor named William B. Douglas, who mapped the area in 1908. Sipapu (SEE-pah-poo) means “place of emergence,” an opening between worlds by which the Hopi believe their ancestors entered the present terrene sphere. Sipapu is the largest and the most spectacular of the Monument’s bridges. It’s considered middle-aged, older than Kachina but younger than Owachomo. Kachina (ka-CHEE-na) is named for the Hopi katsina spirits that frequently displayed lightning snake symbols on their bodies. Similar snake patterns carved by prehistoric people can be found a hundred feet south of Kachina Bridge on the west side of the canyon. Owachomo (o-WAH-cho-mo) means “Flatrock mound” and was named for an outcrop on its east side. Because Owachomo no longer straddles the streams that carved it, the bridge actually resembles an arch. What’s the difference? Bridges are formed when flowing water bores through a canyon wall. Arches are the product of frost action and seeping moisture.

    The three bridges and the world famous Horse Collar Ruin can all be seen from viewpoints along or just off the monument’s loop road, but you won’t truly experience the hidden beauties of Natural Bridges unless you get away from the pavement. A series of trails drop into the canyons and wind through the pinyon-juniper forest atop the mesa. Hikes vary from easy half-hour strolls on relatively flat terrain to an all-day loop that connects White and Armstrong canyons together.

    Starting at any of the bridges, the Bridges Loop takes you to all three bridges, past Horse Collar Ruin, and back across the mesa top to your starting point. The entire loop is approximately 8.2 miles long and requires about five to six hours walking time. If you don’t have enough time to do the entire loop, hiking between two of the three bridges shaves a few miles and cuts the time to 3 to 4 hours. Or you can do what a lot of people do and simply drive to the three major trailheads located almost on top of each of the bridges. Ladders and rails have been placed to help you over the steep spots.

    Any of the various combinations of trails into and out of the canyons should be considered strenuous, requiring ascents and descents of up to 500 vertical feet. Since monument elevations range from 6,000 to 6,500 feet above sea level, you’ll be a little short of breath getting back to the rim. Keep in mind that hiking the trails during winter can be hazardous due to accumulations of ice and snow, especially the sections entering or exiting the canyon at Sipapu and Kachina bridges.

    If you go

    Distance from Salt Lake City: 315 miles

    Getting there: Natural Bridges National Monument is located in southeastern Utah just off Hwy. 95, about 40 miles west of Blanding and 50 miles east of Lake Powell’s Hite Marina.

    Best time: As with most places in southern Utah, the best time to explore Natural Bridges is in the spring or fall, though visiting the monument in the dead of winter or the peak summer months translates into more solitude. Whatever the season, bring varied clothing layers. Mild winter days make hiking in light clothing possible, but at 6,505 feet above sea level, below zero temperatures are not unusual in the colder months. Rain is possible at any time, especially in spring and late summer, so also bring along some rain gear.

    Camping: The monument’s 13-site campground is open year-round but is not cleared of snow in the winter. The camping fee is $10 per night. No reservations are accepted and there’s no group site available. Fires are permitted in the fire pits, but no wood gathering is allowed inside the monument. Vehicles over 26 feet long are not allowed inside the campground. The sites typically fill by early afternoon from March through October, but rangers at the visitor center can give directions to alternate camping areas located nearby.

    Entrance fees: $6 per vehicle, $3 per person (bicycle, motorcycle or walk-in). National Parks, Golden Eagle, Golden Age and Golden Access passes are accepted and available for sale. Annual passes for Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, Arches and Hovenweep are also accepted and available for $25.

    Contact: Natural Bridges National Monument, HC 60 Box 1, Lake Powell, UT 84533; (435) 692-1234; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (for general information).

    Maps: Trails Illustrated Manti-La Sal National Forest Map, and USGS Moss Back Butte and Kane Gulch Quads.

    Guidebooks: On area history: C. Gregory Crampton, Standing Up Country: The Canyon Lands of Utah and Arizona, University of Utah Press; Jared Farmer, Glen Canyon Dammed: Inventing Lake Powell & the Canyon Country, The University of Arizona Press. On hiking: David Day, Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails, Rincon Publishing Company; Dave Hall, Hiking Utah, Falcon Press Publishing Company.