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I peer over the edge of the sandstone cliff at my five-year-old daughter below. She’s gripping the rungs of an iron ladder bolted into the side of the escarpment, gradually making her way down. With 25 feet between her and the rock below, she giggles as she descends the vertical wall. “This is so much cooler than those other hikes,” she says to her dad and me.
Looking out at an impressive 268-foot wide natural bridge—called Sipapu—looming on the horizon in front of me, I can’t help but agree. Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument, located in the southeastern part of the state, is not only a sight to behold, but is also one that you’ll often be seeing in a state of solitude. Only about 100,000 people each year visit this mesmerizing landscape.
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It’s the first weekend in July, and we’ve driven from our campsite in Bears Ears National Monument to explore its lesser-known neighbor, roughly 10 miles away. After perusing a trail map for a few minutes, we identify a 5.6-mile hike that loops between Sipapu and Kachina bridges, two of three sandstone bridges in the monument. Jazzed to begin our descent into White Canyon, our crew of four adults and four kids exits the parking lot and steels ourselves for the downgrade. We need not have summoned the courage: The descent into White Canyon is essentially a mini via ferrata. No, hikers don’t clip into carabiners and harnesses; instead the “trail” is littered with bolted ladders, metal staircases, and cabled sandstone slabs.
The fun isn’t over once we reach the canyon floor. We get a slight reprieve from climbing as the path meanders from Sipapu to Kachina, and that’s when we’re able to revel in the full historical grandeur of Natural Bridges. The region is steeped in Indigenous history, with various peoples having occupied the mesa tops beginning as early as 7,000 BCE. In more recent years, Navajo (Diné) and Paiute tribes lived here. As we hike toward Kachina along the sandy trail, our daughter catches a glimpse of the Horse Collar Ruins, one of the best preserved Ancestral Puebloan sites in the area.
Although the 5.6 miles feels a little longer in the heat of July, before we know it we’re climbing back out with the Kachina Bridge to our backs. The kids are exhausted but happy. The parents are counting that as a win.
How to Plan a Trip to Natural Bridges National Monument
Founded in 1908, Natural Bridges National Monument is Utah’s first national monument, but it’s tucked far away from any urban area. It sits roughly 35 minutes west of the small town of Blanding, Utah, or three hours from Durango, Colorado. If you’re visiting Moab, Utah, Natural Bridges is situated two hours to the southwest.
When To Go: Spring and fall are the busiest seasons in Natural Bridges, thanks to the temperate weather (and the wildflowers that bloom in the spring). But keep in mind that “busy” at Natural Bridges is relative; you won’t find crowds here like you will at Utah’s five national parks. While summers are definitely warm, they aren’t unbearable—that is, if you dress appropriately and bring plenty of water.
Permit Info: There is an entrance fee to get into Natural Bridges, just like other National Park Service units ($10 per pedestrian/bicyclist or $20 per car). This fee covers your entrance for up to seven days. If you have an America the Beautiful: National Park Interagency Pass ($80), that will get you in, too.
There is one frontcountry campground in Natural Bridges, and it sits near the visitor center. With 13 sites, the campground isn’t big, and it doesn’t have running water, electricity, or hookups. Sites cost $16 per night and are available on a first come, first served basis. The campground is open year round. Sorry, backpackers: There is no backcountry camping allowed in Natural Bridges National Monument.
Trailhead: From Moab, head south on US 191 for nearly 80 miles. About four miles after you pass through Blanding, you’ll take a right turn onto UT 95 north. Follow this for 4.5 miles before heading north on UT 275, which will take you into the park. Once there, continue past the visitor center. When the road forks, stay right on Bridge View Drive. After 2.5 miles, you’ll see the Natural Bridges Loop trailhead on the right side of the road.
Packing Tips: Hiking in Natural Bridges is similar to recreating in other high desert environs, which means it can be toasty during the day and chilly at night. Here are a few things to consider:
- Don’t forget sunscreen, lip balm with SPF protection, sun hats, and sunglasses. Sun clothes with UPF protection to cover your arms and legs aren’t a terrible idea either.
- Services are scarce near the national monument, so bring snacks with you. Pro tip: Don’t forget the salty stuff, as it’s a great way to replenish electrolytes after sweating.
- Bring water. Other than at the visitor center, there is no H2O in the park, so be sure to bring what you need. A good rule of thumb is to have a half-liter of water per person for every hour you’re hiking.
- Bring a map and/or a navigational app. There is no cell service in the park, so this will be all that you have to guide your hike.
- The nearest gas station is 50 miles from the monument. Be sure to fill up on your way into the park.