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Natural Bridges
The Edwin Bridge.
Photo by A. E. Demaray.

Three natural rock bridges of great size and beauty, occurring within a few miles of one another near the head of White Canyon, are included in this monument located in San Juan County, Utah. The monument was created by presidential proclamation dated April 16, 1908, and was enlarged and the boundaries defined by proclamations of September 25, 1909, and February 11, 1916. The total area of the Natural Bridges National Monument at present is about 2,740 acres.

The Owanchomo (Rock Mound Bridge), so called from the conical rock mound upon it, is probably the oldest, for it has been carved and chiseled by erosion until its span is comparatively a narrow strip of rock. Viewed at a distance, one is surprised that it supports its own weight. It is the smallest of the three bridges, and yet it has a span of 194 feet, being 35 feet wide on top but only 10 feet thick in the center. It rises 108 feet above the stream bed of a short, unnamed canyon at its confluence with Armstrong Canyon. This is locally known as the Edwin Bridge.

Three miles down Armstrong Canyon, at its junction with White Canyon, the Kachina or, as it is better known, Caroline Bridge, is reached. A symbol carved on this bridge, recognized as that of the Kachina, the sacred dancers of the Hopi Indians, gives it its name. This is the most massive of the bridges; rough hewn, it gives an impression of great weight and strength. The huge fragments of rocks and piles of sand and gravel in the canyon in the immediate vicinity are in harmony with the bridge, as if the master workman, not yet having finished his work, had not thought it necessary to clear away the débris. This bridge has a span of 186 feet. a width of 49 feet, and a thickness of 107 feet at its smallest part. It rises to a height of 205 feet above the stream bed.

About 2-1/2 miles above the Kachina in White Canyon is the Sipapu, the Portal of Life. All Pueblo Indians believe they come into this world from a lower world through a hole or opening, called by the Hopi, "Sipapu." After death, they return through the opening to the lower world, where they remain a period before going to the sky to become "rain gods." The Sipapu, or as it is also known, Augusta Bridge, is the largest. It has a span of 261 feet, is 128 feet wide, and 65 feet thick at its smallest part, and rises to a height of 222 feet above the stream bed. It has been so carved and smoothed and is so beautifully proportioned that it is difficult to realize its great size. Nature has carried out the general scheme by providing a more beautiful setting than in the case of the other two bridges.

There are numerous ruins of cliff dwellings in the vicinity of the bridges perched in the canyon walls in almost inaccessible places. The monument also includes two large caves which are separated some little distance from the bridge region. The larger, Cigarette Spring Cave, is in the face of a cliff under the rim rock of a canyon wall. It is about 150 feet wide, 20 feet high, and gracefully decreases to a terminus about 50 feet from the entrance, forming a sort of half dome. There is a spring in the farther recess of the cave which forms a stream that winds its way around the edge of the cave and sinks into the sand at its mouth. The vista looking into the canyon from the depths of the cave is a magnificent one.

The natural bridges are the result of stream erosion in an elevated region. Doubtless thousands of similar bridges have been formed and destroyed in past ages, and many more will be made and later destroyed in the ages to come.

The sandstone in which these bridges were cut resulted from a great sand deposit laid down long ago near sea level, and later covered with thousands of feet of sediments of various kinds. After being buried for millions of years, this sandstone and the overlying rocks of the plateau were raised and the elevated surface exposed to erosion. Then, as now, the rain formed rills, rivulets, and rivers. These cut into the slowly rising surface of the rocks, and valleys of various kinds were developed. In general, where the rise was slow, and especially where soft rocks were present, broad shallow valleys were eroded; and where the rise was relatively rapid, or the rocks hard, deep narrow canyons were cut. The form was also influenced by the rate of elevation of the region, which varied from time to time, and when the uplift was slow or had ceased the streams tended to broaden their valleys and to meander widely over the evenly graded bottom lands.

In this way White Canyon was eroded, and as the surface rose these streams cut their channels deeper and removed the rocks at the sides. During the long ages that these processes were acting thousands of feet of rock were removed from the plateau region.

In the course of its down-cutting the little stream which carved White Canyon meandered widely, carrying away the soft material of the red rocks that once covered the white sandstone. When in its downward course it reached this hard sandstone it found erosion more difficult. But its meandering course was established, and it cut its trench into the sandstone. along its previously determined course. Its lateral cutting continued, but little headway was made toward broadening the canyon in the hard rock. Thus were formed the in-trenched meanders, such as those at Caroline and Augusta Bridges.

At each of these two bridges the stream in its meandering course formed a loop resembling an oxbow and flowed about a peninsula of rock which had a narrow neck. This neck was at the point where the stream was obliged to turn sharply in order to flow around the end of the peninsula. Also on its return to the other side of the neck, it made a sharp turn in the opposite direction. It is the law of streams that they cut into their banks on the outer side of curves. Thus the neck of the peninsula was undermined by the floods that surged against it from both sides. In time they broke through the neck and took the short cut through the hole thus formed. The end of the peninsula was left as an island, and the upper part of the neck remains as a bridge binding the island to the mainland.

The natural bridges lie about 55 miles west of the town of Blanding, Utah. Blanding is reached by automobile road from Colorado points via Mesa Verde National Park and from Thompson, Utah, on the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway and the main line of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. There is automobile stage service from Thompson to Blanding, a distance of about 130 miles.

A road leads from Blanding to within a short distance of the Edwin Bridge, so that private motorists may make the entire trip to the monument by automobile. The road extends west across a series of canyons and, climbing a high mesa, passes through Elk Ridge between two buttes called the Bear's Ears, altitude 9,040 feet. Elk Ridge is heavily timbered with giant western pine and makes an ideal camping country. The road then swings south and ends on the south side of Armstrong Canyon, about a quarter of a mile from the Edwin Bridge. The most spectacular scenery passed en route is the head of Arch Canyon, seen from the Bear's Ears.

As the three bridges are located about 4 miles apart, saddle horses or mules will be needed by those not accustomed to hiking if they wish to go on to the Augusta and Caroline Bridges. Zeke Johnson, of Blanding, custodian of the monument, is an excellent outfitter and guide. From him may be obtained saddle horses to make trips to the other two bridges, and he also furnishes meals and accommodations for those who wish to stay overnight. These facilities are available after May 1.

Visitors coming to Blanding by stage or train may make the entire trip from there to the monument either by stage or saddle horse, both of which are furnished by Mr. Johnson. The trail and road follow the same route until a point about 6 miles southwest of the Bear's Ears. Here the trail branches off and descends the west face of Elk Ridge to the head of White Canyon, where the bridges are located. White Canyon enters the Colorado River about 38 miles west at Dandy crossing. On the opposite bank is the town of Hite, which has one lone resident. From Hite it is 50 miles by trail to the nearest settlement, Hanksville, Utah, from which point a road may be traversed by automobile to the main road system of western Utah.


Last Modified: Thurs, Oct 19 2000 10:00:00 pm PDT

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