Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Perfect May Day at Natural Bridges

Visitors at Kachina Bridge overlook, Natural Bridges National Monument.
Mid May at Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah. For the most part it's been a fairly cool, wet spring. Lovely. The serious canyon hikers have again been out in force, knowing that this is the best time of year (although October is probably even better, because of drier dirt roads into the backcountry). Though spring is the time for the widest variety of wildflowers. 

Cedar Mesa from the Natural Bridges entrance road (Highway 275), looking southwest toward Moss Back Butte and Navajo Mountain.

But the rather wet weather has made things a bit hit and miss for some visitors that come here counting on Utah's trademark deep blue skies.

Today, though, was perfect, I believe. Not hot, not cold. A likely threat of rain showers, but not that high. Spring wildflowers still loving the moisture. Something for everyone.

A visitor walking up the trail from Owachomo Bridge.

At a U.S. National Park unit Visitor Center, the staff get mostly the same questions over and over, depending on the park. At Natural Bridges, they can be boiled down to:

1. Where is the nearest gas station? (35 miles, if you're driving east).

2. Can we buy coffee here? (No.)

3. Is there cell phone service here? (No). 

4. Is there Wi-Fi service here? (No).

5. Where do you all live? (A two minute walk down there to the park's residential housing. Yes, we live here.). 

I'm purposely skipping over "Where are the restrooms?" because most figure it out on their way in. 

Colorado Bladderpod (Physaria rectipes, Mustard family) blooming at Natural Bridges.

So, being out in the middle of nowhere, a small park that was in fact the first national monument in Utah (1908, thank you President Teddy Roosevelt), there are basic visitor needs that need to be quickly sifted through. 

The second level of questions are the basic ones about the park itself. Most concern how much time will it take to see anything? We have answers for that. And much more, especially those that have done their homework and want to see some really cool things, especially those able and interested enough to hike down into the canyons. To those we give special treatment.

A visitor ponders Owachomo Bridge from below.

But not everybody is ready for that. My own first experience with each new national park or other special wild area is that it's in effect a scouting trip. You either never allow enough time to do it justice, even for a first visit, or you've underestimated it and say to yourself: Wow, I'm going to have to come back here. And if you're fortunate, you do. With a lot more time to appreciate it.

Which somehow brings me back to those visitors who don't have much time, or even the physical ability for hiking. It has been designed for both. 

I love hiking down into the park's canyons, beneath the three mighty bridges and the Ancestral Puebloan ruins. I've been here a year and a half, but still feel like I've only dipped my toe into the waters. 

Claretcup hedgehog cactus blooming at Natural Bridges National Monument.

This day I was free of the Visitor Center for a few hours, and the weather was exceptional. Threatening of rain, but that meant gorgeous cumulus clouds in the high desert Utah sky. Sun, shadow, clouds. A bit breezy, but that served to move most of the haze out. Sweet.

I decided to drive the loop road to the natural bridges overlooks, to get new springtime photos to show the visitors before they go out there. 

The first stop was the Sipapu Bridge overlook. Looking down onto the second largest natural bridge in the Americas (and sixth largest in the world). I admired the mid-afternoon light, the glowing bright greenery of the riparian (streamside) tree foliage far below in the rugged canyons of Cedar Mesa Sandstone.

Sipapu Natural Bridge, sixth largest in the world, 500 feet in elevation below the overlook in White Canyon.

Then it was on to Kachina Bridge, the youngest and most massive of the bridges, since it still has the most stone mass left to lose. At the overlook there were several visitors admiring the view. Because it's not just the natural bridge far below. In fact, some can't even pick it out without help. It's because of the stunning scenery of the canyons below. And the cliffs above them. So when we encourage them to "just" go to the overlooks, they will still have an incredible experience.

Kachina Natural Bridge from the overlook, where Armstrong Canyon enters White Canyon.

Finally, the third bridge: Owachomo. The easiest one to hike down to, by far. The longest name, the shortest hike. Probably the oldest one, geologically. Certainly the most photographed one, because of its ease of access, and its wide open southern exposure for midnight starry skies photography. 

Owachomo Natural Bridge (left center) from the overlook, with Moss Back Butte and the Red House Cliffs in the distance.
Owachomo Bridge, from below in Armstrong Canyon.

The final pullout on the park's loop drive road is a panoramic wide toward Elk Ridge, with the Bears Ears Buttes and Maverick Point.

The Bears Ears Buttes, Maverick Point and Elk Ridge from the Bridge View Drive loop road.

So there you go, a brief nine mile driving loop road through Natural Bridges National Monument. Even a brief tour is so rewarding. But don't be surprised if you'll want more.

Even if you live here.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg