Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Natural Bridges National Monument

On the morning of my third day (May 23rd) at Mesa Verde National Park, Mother Nature decided to allow me to experience another side of her personality! I awoke to the sun rising through a beige-colored sky and strong winds – it was a dust storm. Or rather, a sand storm. My plans for the day had been to hike several of the trails in the park but instead I went to the library in Cortez and was able to get a few blog posts written and scheduled. I also checked the weather report for the next day – it was to be more of the same and included most of southeast Utah and southwest Colorado.

That evening the wind died down somewhat and the sky cleared up a little. But by the next morning the sand storm had returned. Since I was going to attend the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree in June I didn't want to go any further east or north into Colorado (I plan on returning to Colorado later this summer) and had decided to go back west, to Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. It wasn't that far and it was more or less in the right direction.

As I left Mesa Verde, the wind was gusting to 40 miles per hour. Visibility was okay but I kept seeing a “wall” of sand several miles ahead. I continued to drive down the highway and the wall of sand continued to appear in the distance. Then it dawned on me, I was “in” that wall. After just a little over an hour of driving, I decided to stop for the day. The closest campground on the way was at Hovenweep and that is where I went!

There were only five sites in use when I got there and two of those campers left within an hour of my arrival. That left three others and me. One of the other campers said she now knows a little about how it felt during the dust bowl days of the 1930s. True, but we got just a small taste of what it was like. I can't imagine dealing with that for weeks and months at a time. The sky didn't get blackened out by the dust and there were no huge dust clouds as shown in the photos of the dust bowl, but the sky was light beige in color and the dust was everywhere. The inside of my van was covered with a light layer of gritty sand. It permeated every opening it possibly could.

It was hot. It was dusty. It was windy. I didn't do any hiking. It was a quiet day. Not much was going on, other than the howling wind and the sound of sand blowing against the van. Near sundown, not that you could actually see the sun, the wind died down and the sky started to clear. The front had moved through and along with it came cooler temperatures.

The morning of May 24th arrived with clear blue skies, bright sunshine and cold temperatures. I drove west from Hovenweep to connect to US 163/191 then north to Utah Highway 95, which went through the mountains. As I gained elevation, it got colder and a few snow flakes drifted down from the now gray and gloomy sky. Soon the snow was falling thick and fast, reducing visibility. Big flakes of snow, lots of them. And they were sticking to the ground. Forty-five minutes later, and about two hours after leaving Hovenweep, I saw the turnoff for Natural Bridges National Monument.

This is another of those parks that I knew nothing about except that it was on the map. Because of the weather, my intent, when I turned off the main highway into the monument, was to simply drive through to see what it was. When I got to the visitors center it stopped snowing and I could see the sun trying to come through the thick layer of clouds. But it was cold and windy and quite uncomfortable.

There is a nine-mile scenic loop drive which takes you to viewpoints and trailheads for the three natural bridges. The difference between a natural bridge and an arch is that the natural bridge is created by water, specifically a stream or river gouges its way through the rock. Once the river has done its job of creating the opening, then the wind and rain enlarge it through erosion similar to the way those elements carve out an arch through solid rock.

Despite the chilly temperature, the hike to the Sipapu Bridge was so much fun that I decided to hike down to view the other two bridges also. But first, I drove back and picked out one of the few sites still available in the 13-site campground!

Sipapu Bridge seen from about halfway down the trail.

Sipapu Bridge is the second largest natural bridge in the world (only Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon is bigger). In Hopi mythology, a “sipapu” is a gateway through which souls may pass to the spirit world. The trail to the canyon bottom below Sipapu is the steepest in the park. A staircase and three wooden ladders aid in the descent as does a series of switchbacks.

One of the ladders used to descend/ascend to/from Sipapu Bridge.

The view from beneath Sipapu Bridge.

A zoomed-in view of Kachina Bridge from the the overlook.

Kachina Bridge is massive and is considered the "youngest" of the three because of the thickness of its span. The relatively small size of its opening and its orientation make it difficult to see from the overlook. The bridge is named for the Kachina dancers that play a central role in Hopi religious tradition.

Portions of the trail to Kachina Bridge.

Kachina Bridge.

Owachomo Bridge.

Owachomo means “rock mound” in Hopi, and is named after the rock formation on top of the southeast end of the bridge. From the overlook, the twin buttes called “The Bear’s Ears” break the eastern horizon. Tuwa Creek no longer flows under Owachomo like it did for thousands of years.

Owachomo Bridge is presumed to be the oldest of the three bridges because it's delicate form suggests that it is has eroded more quickly than the other bridges.

In addition to the impressive natural bridges, the monument has one of the darkest skies in a national park in the country. The stars were brilliant. Even with the moon shining brightly, the night sky was really, really dark! The number of stars that could be seen was incredible. In my book it ranks right up there with the night skies of Big Bend National Park and the Grand Canyon!

And the weather that day? It was a little chilly, but the sun did break through the clouds and it warmed up a little. I did have to add some layers of clothing for the night but it really didn't get uncomfortably cold. The bridges were immense, the trails were fun and challenging, and the views were fantastic! All in all, it was a great day.

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