Thursday, August 02, 2012

Natural Bridges National Monument

Our visit to Utah continued to Natural Bridges National Monument about two hours southwest of Moab. We arrived from the south after driving through Monument Valley on Highway 163.
Just past the town of Mexican Hat - named because of a curious rock formation outside of town that looks like a Mexican hat - we took a left on Highway 261 for the 40-mile drive to Natural Bridges.

The road is restricted to passenger vehicles without trailers because of a 3-mile section called the Moki Dugway. It's a gravel stretch of switchbacks that climbs precariously at a 10% grade. Guard rails - I don't think so.

There are three good reasons to visit Natural Bridges.

1. A nine-mile loop road takes you to three natural bridges.
2. View ruins of the Anastazi people from 1-1300 AD
3. Some of the darkest skies in the United States

The Bridges

We saw plenty of arches on our trip, and we saw these three bridges. The difference - bridges are formed by water rushing through the rocks and eroding them. Arches don't span water.

The loop drive takes you first to Sipapu bridge, the tallest and longest of the bridges. It's 220 feet tall and spans 268 feet. Each of the bridges features an overlook just a short walk from the parking area or the opportunity to hike down to the canyon and see the bridge up close and personal.

If you're up for some real adventure, you can hike to all three. It's about 8.6 miles to do that.

We opted to do just one hike, selecting the second bridge, Kachina, which is 210 feet high and spans 204 feet. The sign advertised a strenuous hike, and it wasn't lying.

 We descended 400 feet on a 3/4-mile trail that included steep stretches of switchbacks, slickrock, steps and a wooden ladder. But we made it to the bottom and had a fun time exploring the base of the bridge and the canyon floor.

Anastazi Ruins

Anastazi is a name given to native people who lived in the area between 1-1300 AD. Some ruins are viewable via a 1/3-mile trail to an overlook. Those are viewed from a distance, but other ruins are nearby. Ask a park ranger, and they may tip you off on how to see additional ruins up close.

Dark Night Skies

Natural Bridges is located in the middle of nowhere. Not even small towns are nearby to offer up any light pollution. As a result the park was the first to be designated an International Dark Sky Park. As such, the park offers a ranger led astronomy program on Wednesday and Thursday nights from the spring through the fall.

We visited on a Thursday specifically to take part in that program. As city dwellers, I wanted my kids to get the opportunity to see thousands more stars than they normally would.

As luck would have it, our visit came two days after a full moon, so star gazing was as optimal as it might have been, but it was still spectacular. We couldn't see the Milky Way, but we did see a lot of stars and several planets before the moon came up over the horizon.

The ranger's powerful telescope was trained on Saturn, and it offered a picture-perfect view of the planet. The rings were crystal clear, and we could even count four of Saturn's five moons.

Natural Bridges is a bit out of the way, but it is well worth the visit.