Walking an unmaintained trail in Natural Bridges National Park

Some places will stick in my mind and heart more than others. Mesa Verde National Park in Southwestern Colorado is another place that I didn’t want to leave. But I knew that the next park would be as interesting and its staff as engaged. To me, a friendly, knowledgeable group of people behind the desk is almost as important as the resources themselves.

We stocked up our cooler in Cortez and drove into Utah to Natural Bridges National Monument. This was a real out-of-the way destination. But most national parks do require a long drive on small backroads. I had done my homework this time and knew that we were going to a park that focused on natural resources, as opposed to history.

The tiny park protects three natural bridges over a canyon. As the visitor center explained, the words, arches, bridges and windows, are really the same-opening in a body of rock created by water. We could have driven a nine-mile loop and see the three bridges from overlooks. Or we could take a partly unmaintained trail that traversed a canyon to see the bridges from different angles. We took the trail.

The trail started at 6,500 feet at Cedar Mesa at Owachomo Bridge. The trail avoided the bridge at this point. The first two miles were on good but rocky trail down to Sipapu Bridge. We climbed down on a ladder and held on to a ramp that had been stuck in the rock.

Once in the canyon, we were on an unmaintained trail. We followed a line through bushes, footsteps and just my compass; we had to go southwest. Lots of social trails crisscrossed our paths or what we thought was our path. It seemed that every few steps we had a discussion on where the trail was. It was slow going because of the wayfinding. The trail was on sand much of the time.

The canyon could have been a geology lesson with its striped rocks of various colors. We crossed the wash, a western term for an intermittent watercourse. Finally we saw the third bridge, Kachina, and walked under. We were back in civilization. A trail sign showed us how to get up to the road. We were only 2/3 around the loop. It was getting late and we decided to climb back up to the road.

Ladders, handholds, and steps helped us up to the top. I was ahead of Lenny and told him that I was going to work on a ride back to our car. The trick to hitchhiking is to ask personally for a lift. Just a thumb out doesn’t work as well. Sure enough, I got to the top and saw a young man coming back to his car.

“Hi,” I said. “Isn’t it a beautiful bridge?” He agreed. I told him that we had walked into the canyon. “I can sweet talk you or I can ask outright. Can I get a lift to my car?”

“Sure,” he said. By then, Lenny got to the top and he gave both of us a ride. We never got to see that last bridge.

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