After my horrible night of sleep in the rental car, I wanted to get an early start. I prepared a quick healthy breakfast, also known as ramen noodles. Then onward along the nine mile loop road on top of the mesa that encompasses Natural Bridges National Monument and connects the three bridges.
First an explanation about natural bridges. I'm sure most people have seen aerial images of the Mississippi River where it has eroded a shortcut through a gooseneck bend. Natural bridges are formed by the same process, except instead of just eroding the river bank, it erodes the rock wall. This obviously takes an extremely long time, especially since the area gets maybe eight or nine inches of rain per year. Natural arches, while similar looking are formed by a different method. If it was formed by erosion from a river, it's considered a natural bridge.
The first stop along the loop road is Sipapu Bridge, the second largest natural bridge in the world. There is a trail that follows the canyon connecting all three bridges within the park. I was tempted to hike it, but the end of the trail is on the opposite side of the loop and I had no desire to retrace my steps just to return to my car. As it turns out, that was probably a good decision.
Next along the loop road was the trail to Horsecollar Ruins overlook. While walking out to the overlook along the cliff, I could hear voices in the canyon hiking the trail I decided not to take. Horsecollar Ruins are a well preserved ancient Puebloan granary and kiva. I set up with an equivalent 630mm lens and took a few photos from across the canyon. The voices caught up with me and I got to observe the elusive outdoor enthusiast in their natural habitat.
Beyond the ruins a small side canyon joins the main canyon. Here I found some interesting eroded features, but the side canyon blocked further exploration. Next along the loop was Kachina Bridge, the second bridge. I took the hiking trail nearly a mile down into the canyon. I saw evidence of previous flash floods as I walked through the dry riverbed. Grass was clumped together leaning downstream and debris was stuck in the trees. Once in the canyon, it was a quick walk to the bridge. The bridges continuously erode; the opening gets larger and the span becomes thinner until it collapses. Kachina is the youngest bridge in the park as you can tell by the thickness of the span.
I hiked past the bridge to try a different view and ran into my first mishap. The normally dry riverbed had a few feet of standing water which I went around on a small ledge. I found what I thought was a three foot drop to the riverbed with footholds, short enough to drop down and climb back out. Well, my judgement of vertical distances was way off. It was closer to five feet. Those extra two feet meant I couldn't get my foot anywhere close to the first hold. I always had the option of sloshing through the standing water, but who wants soggy boots? The ledge continued along the river so I went further into the canyon until a found a steeply sloped patch of slick rock back up to the ledge. It took me a few minutes, but I was able to find holds and scramble up. Mishap averted!!
I returned to camp for lunch and to get out of the sun. This was the worst part of the day, too hot to do anything. I ended up sitting in the shade of the car catching up with my travel journal. The storm that had been approaching for the past few hours finally arrived. I added a few extra stakes to the tent, just in case, and retreated back to the car. Cars are still the best place to be in a lightning storm. The lightning strikes got very close, much less than a mile, but the storm passed quickly. And did nothing about the heat.
I went back to Kachina Bridge because the storm was bound to cause flooding in the canyon. Going back to that good decision from earlier; the hiking trail that connects the bridges was now dangerously close to the flood as you can see in the before and after picture. I may have been able to hike the entire path and get out of the canyon before the storm, but I couldn't have made it back to the car. I chose wisely.
The next day before I left the park I drove out to Owachomo, the third and final bridge. Owachomo is generally considered to be the oldest bridge in the park because its span is only nine feet thick. It's a bit unnerving to walk beneath it since chunks occasionally do fall off, but I think it's the most impressive of the three.
I left the park for another long day of driving. And an unexpected run in with Mother Nature. Dun dun dun.