|[Photo: Sipapu Bridge, October Afternoon].|
Why? At first glance it might seem somewhat unspectacular. No massive canyons or mountain peaks nearby. Some distinctive buttes. Mostly flat high desert terrain, with Pinyon pine and Utah juniper for well spaced forest cover. It only takes an hour to stop in at the friendly, uncrowded Visitor Center, watch the ten minute video, and drive the one-way paved loop drive to the overlooks. Done, on to the next National Park in amazing southeast Utah ("Life Elevated").
What's more, you can't see the three stone bridges very well from the overlooks. You look down at their tops. What gives? Well, you have to hike down into the canyons from the overlooks to really get it, to see them, to get great photos. The first two bridges, Sipapu and Kachina, take an hour each round trip, dropping down 500 feet vertically for Sipapu and 400 feet for Kachina, in just a half mile. That's steep. But quick. And they are beautiful, interesting hikes down. Switchbacks across slickrock (i.e., bare) sandstone cliff faces, steps cut into the rock, rock steps built up onto the stone, even a few short ladders to climb down (bolted safely to the cliff, of course). So they are very fun, very photogenic along the way.
Then you have to climb back up to your car. That's the strenuous part. Great exercise. If you're not acclimated to 6,500 feet in elevation, maybe very strenuous. Just not for the out of shape. But well worth it.
As an alternative to down-and-up hikes to each bridge, loop hikes make it even more fun, getting to see the canyons (White Canyon and Armstrong Canyon) along their stream courses. You can do two of the bridges, via the north loop and south loop, or all three via the total loop.
Natural Bridges, the hidden gem. Spend an hour, a day, a week. Well worth it.
Photo location: Sipapu Bridge (the largest and middle aged of the three in the park), Natural Bridges National Monument (first unit in the National Park System in Utah, declared a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1908), San Juan County, southeast Utah. Thirty five miles west of Blanding, UT.