Monday, 16-June – Canyonlands Needles Outpost → Natural Bridges National Monument
Trip miles: 107 miles
Route taken: UT-211 E → US-191 S → UT-95 W → UT-275 W All roads today had a good surface with good signage for the National Park. Speeds ranged from 65mph to 45 mph through populated areas.
Average Gas mileage: 27.9mpg
Weather: warm (70F) in the morning, hot (86F) with strong gusts and breezes in the afternoon
Elevation: 4960ft -> 6500ft via a climb over a 7110-foot mesa
- driving through the lovely little town of Blanding, UT
- getting a great campsite at the Natural Bridges campground
- hiking the trails to the three bridges in the National Park
- using the compass on our phone for the first time to pick a campsite with afternoon shade on the tent
Last night was very gusty and so warm that the black flies were up as early as us this morning. After removing the rain fly, we found two big, fat caterpillars that had crawled up onto the tent. While focusing on shaking them off and struggling with the tent in the wind I somehow ended up with one on my neck. Thinking it was a black fly I swatted it, resulting in squishy green caterpillar guts on my hand and neck. Yuck! The caterpillar's day was ruined, mine got better. The scenery during the drive was not as spectacular as some of our drives but there were some interesting sights to see in this high desert landscape. Most interesting were the hints of how people interact with this environment. Monticello is a very small town with basic amenities. Blanding is a little bigger but still small. Most of the homes near the main highway were well-kept and had lovely gardens, an unusual sight in these arid desert towns. There are a few larger stores in Blanding.
We reached Natural Bridges National Monument by 9:30 and were picking our first-come-first-served campsite by 10:00, the checkout time for last night's campers. To find the optimum site for afternoon shade we used the compass on our phone to find west. This campground is primitive, with only vault toilets and no water. However, water and flush toilets are available 24x7 at the Visitor Center, about a mile away. The road through the campground is paved but there is still plenty of red dust between the campsites. There is a length limit of 26 ft on camping vehicles. Vehicles longer than that will not fit in the parking spaces. The campsites have sand-filled raised tent pads, decent picnic tables and are quite large. Pinyon Pine and Juniper provide some privacy and shade for most sites. Using the compass paid off -- Site #3 had shade on the tent as early as 15:00. After fighting the gusty winds to set up the tent we returned to the Visitor Center for trail information and to refill our water bottles.
Our itinerary originally planned for us to hike the 8.5 mile Bridge Loop trail but now that we had some experience with canyons we learned from the Ranger that at least half the trail followed a mostly dry creek bed with little shade and mostly sandy or gravelly surface (my hiking nemesis). The other half was across the mesa through sagebrush. The trail passed under all three natural bridges in the park. Instead we opted to hike to each of the three bridges from the park's one-way Scenic Drive loop for a total of about 4 miles. This option involved more elevation changes, hiking from the rim of the canyon to the floor three different times, but would keep us out of the hot afternoon sun more. The trails down into the canyon are easier than those we hiked yesterday, providing beautifully cut steps and even stairways and ladders to get across steep slickrock. We liked our choice. It was a pleasant way to see the bridges and we were back at the campsite eating popcorn in the shade by 15:00.
With the gusty winds the tent had accumulated quite a bit of red sand that had to be brushed out before we could make the bed but when the winds were calm the black flies were bothersome so we were happy to have the wind. With limited water we made a one-pot dinner of Trader Joe's vacuum sealed pre-cooked brown rice, a can of green beans and a packet of Kitchens of India Spinach and Cottage Cheese sauce. The Trader Joe's rice is the best pre-cooked brown rice product we have tried so far for camping. One packet is supposed to be 3.5 servings but by adding other food we can stretch it to make dinner for two nights.
After washing the few dishes, rinsing out our Railriders hiking shirts to use again tomorrow and washing ourselves off we had to go back to the Visitor Center to get water for tomorrow's breakfast and cleanup. At 19:00 there were still available campsites – different from the 'campground full' conditions at the National Parks nearby.
About the bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument: There are three main bridges in Natural Bridges – Sipapu, Kachina and Owachromo. In addition there is one Ancestral Puebloan ruin, Horsecollar Ruin, visible from a viewpoint off the Scenic Drive. Sipapu Bridge is the second largest natural bridge in the world after Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon, Utah. Kachina Bridge is the youngest of the three bridges and is still being shaped by the water flowing around its base during the rainy season. During a rain event in 1992 a 4000 ton chunk of rock broke off the bridge. Owachomo Bridge is the oldest of the three and perhaps the most stable, since the water source which formed it, Tuwa Creek, has changed course and no longer flows under the bridge. The original Natural Bridges Visitor Center (a platform tent) used to be across the canyon from Owachomo and the original trail to the bridges came across the canyon and right up under this bridge. The bridges have had several names since being discovered in 1883 by a prospector looking for gold in White Canyon. In 1909, when the National Monument was enlarged to protect nearby Puebloan structures they were given the Hopi names they have now. Sipapu or 'Place of Emergence' reflects the Hopi belief that their ancestors came to this area through an entryway. Kachina Bridge has rock art symbols at its base, similar to the symbols on many Hopi Kachina dolls. Owachomo or 'Rock Mound' is a feature on the top of the east abutement of that bridge.
From the Scenic Drive there are short but challenging descents to walk under each bridge. The 1.2 mile (RT) trail to Sipapu Bridge is the steepest, with an elevation change of 500 ft. However, a viewpoint halfway down provides a look at the bridge for those who don't want to make the climb all the way back up. The trail is made easier by a long metal staircase and two wooden ladders, plus many even stone steps, which eliminate steep sections of slickrock trail. It is interesting to note the tall pine tree beside the long staircase, which was the way down this section for the early park visitors. The trail to Kachina Bridge is a little longer at 1.4 miles (RT) but only descends 400 ft. There is some rock art on the base of this bridge. There are some small pools in the wash here, especially at the base of where a muddy red waterfall tumbles in the rainy season. There is a small bridge about halfway down the trail. The trail to the Owachomo Bridge is only .4 miles (RT) with a small elevation change of 180 ft. Be sure to walk under the bridge and along the ledge above the dry wash to see where the old trail used to be. The view from this side is what early visitors would first see when walking from the original Visitor Center.
To view the Horsecollar Ruins walk the .6 mile (RT) almost flat trail to the rim of the canyon. It is an unusual Ancient Puebloan site because it has both round and square kivas, which represent two different architectural styles from two different cultures. This site indicates there were cultural exchanges very early in the history of human habitation here.