Often overlooked by visitors seeking memorable experiences at Utah's iconic "Mighty Five" national parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, and Zion), the lesser-known Natural Bridges National Monument showcases three stunning natural bridges: Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo. In comparison to the sights found in the Beehive State's more popular parks, that may not sound impressive. However, this quiet alternative offers something the others do not: the chance to hike beneath the world's second-largest natural bridge.
Ranking behind only the breathtaking Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Sipapu Bridge stands impressively within White Canyon at 220 feet (67.1m) tall and with a gigantic 268-foot (81.7 m) span. According to Hopi legend, the sipapu refers to a portal through which their first ancestors emerged from the underworld onto Earth. In honor of the Hopi presence in the Cedar Mesa area in the southeast corner of Utah, surveyor William Douglas named this geological wonder "Sipapu Bridge" as Theodore Roosevelt established the park in 1908. Today, descending the park's steepest - and most exciting - trail, the Sipapu Bridge Trail provides hikers an adventurous gateway to emerge beneath the bridge for an unmatched view.
Lace up your sturdy hiking shoes in the Sipapu Bridge parking area and begin meandering down the well-marked trail atop the striking white Cedar Mesa Formation sandstone. Rock cairns guide the way along this exposed section. Within the first 0.2 miles (0.3 km), carved rock steps, two flights of strategically-placed metal staircases, and a wooden ladder firmly bolted to the rock slab aid your descent-allowing hikers to easily navigate sheer cliff faces otherwise impossible to negotiate without climbing gear.
Once below the first lip, continue following the dirt trail along the smooth, overhanging cliffs stained with dark desert varnish streaks and framed by pinyon pines. As you traverse the ledge for another 0.2 miles (0.3 km), a small Indian ruin tucked into an alcove comes into view. Though much of what remains is reconstructed, taking a minute to ponder how the ancient ones arrived to this spot - from either the top or the bottom - without the modern conveniences you have used thus far might leave you scratching your head.
Those short on time or who have experienced enough adventure for one day can saunter along the flat slickrock to an informal overlook with a stunning view of the bridge and White Canyon. Use caution along the way, though, as there are no hand- or guardrails to prevent a fall.
The creek currently flowing beneath the bridge once traveled in a horseshoe shape around the span we see today (from this viewpoint, the abandoned creek bed appears to the right of the bridge). Experts are not certain when the unrelenting water shifted and began eroding through the sandstone to create the opening, but some estimates suggest the event started in the Pleistocene Epoch, in between approximately 1.64 million and 10,000 years ago.
To get a true sense of the magnitude of this majestic bridge, intrepid hikers and bridge aficionados will want to proceed another 0.2 miles (0.3 km) down steep dirt switchbacks, two wooden ladders, stone steps, and more carved foot holds in the slickrock (with metal handrails) to reach the canyon floor. With much of the trek being exposed to the elements, shade from groves of gambel oak and cottonwoods as well as the refreshing feel of trickling water in the wash along the canyon's floor presents a welcomed oasis and well-earned respite for your efforts, especially on hot summer days.
From the base, the natural wonder takes on a new appearance. An elegant sandstone form soars across the cerulean sky while dwarfing on-looking mature cottonwood trees. Zebra-like stripes of desert varnish drip from the smooth sides. A short walk along the creek bed in either direction allows visitors to fully appreciate the grandeur.
Once you are ready to re-emerge to the parking area, simply retrace your steps - a task easier said than done, considering the heart-pumping 500-foot (152 m) climb you will face up the ladders and slickrock in a quick 0.6 miles (1 km). Alternatively, spry and ambitious travelers can continue southward down White Canyon and along the Loop Trail to view Horsecollar Ruin, Kachina Bridge, and Owachomo Bridge. The full loop - including the stroll along the creek bottom, ascent to the rim along the Loop Trail, and walk along the Mesa Trail back to the Sipapu Bridge Parking Area - totals 8.6 miles (13.8 km).
If You Go
Trailhead: Sipapu Bridge Parking Area along Bridge View Drive
Distance: 0.6 miles (1 km) one-way
Elevation Change: 500 feet (152 m)
Difficulty: Moderately stressful; not a trail for those with a fear of heights
Best Season: Spring, summer, and fall. In winter, the trail may be impassable due to snow and ice.
Maps: Prior to your hike, download the Natural Bridges Visitor Guide at www.nps.gov/nabr/planyourvisit/upload/NABR-English-Visitor-Guide.pdf%20 and pick up a park map at the Natural Bridges National Monument Visitor Center.
Don't Forget: Ample drinking water and snacks, sturdy hiking shoes with good treads, wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen. Practice Leave No Trace principles. Do not enter or disturb archeological sites.
Photographer Colleen Miniuk-Sperry, though based in the Southwest, also has enjoyed three stints as an artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park in Maine, roles that led to her photography guide on Acadia.