Natural Bridges preserves some of the finest examples of natural stone architecture in the southwest. Streams in White Canyon and its tributaries cut deep canyons, then floodwaters sculpted the bridges by gouging tunnels between closely spaced loops in the meandering canyons.
You can distinguish a natural bridge from an arch because the bridge spans a streambed and was initially carved out of the rock by flowing water.
In the monument, these bridges illustrate three different stages of development, from the massive, newly formed Kachina Bridge to the middle-aged Sipapu Bridge to the delicate and fragile span of Owachomo. All three natural bridges will continue to widen and eventually collapse under their own weight.
Nine-mile Bridge View Drive has overlooks of the picturesque bridges, Anasazi ruins, and the twisting canyons. You can follow short trails down from the rim to the base of each bridge or hike through all three bridges on a nine-mile trail loop.
The National Park Service offers a visitor center (435/692-1234, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Apr.-Sept., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct.-Mar., $6 per vehicle or $3 per person or bicyclist) and a small campground ($10).
A large solar electric power station sits across the road from the visitor center. This demonstration system, the largest in the world when constructed in 1980, has a quarter-million solar cells spread over nearly an acre and produces up to 100 kilowatts. Batteries, located elsewhere, store a two-day supply of power. The monument lies far from the nearest power lines, so the solar cells provide an alternative to continuous running of diesel-powered generators.
The nine-mile drive begins its one-way loop just past the campground. You can stop for lunch at a picnic area. Allow about 90 minutes for a quick trip around. To make all the stops and do a bit of leisurely hiking will take most of a day.
Sipapu Bridge viewpoint is two miles from the visitor center. The Hopi name refers to the gateway from which their ancestors entered this world from another world below. Sipapu Bridge has reached its mature or middle-aged stage of development.
The bridge is the largest in the monument and has a span of 268 feet and a height of 220 feet. Many people think Sipapu the most magnificent of the bridges.
Another view and a trail to the base of Sipapu are 0.8 mile farther. The viewpoint is about halfway down an easy trail; allow a half hour. A steeper and rougher trail branches off the viewpoint trail and winds down to the bottom of White Canyon, probably the best place to fully appreciate the bridge's size. Total round-trip distance is 1.2 miles with an elevation change of 600 feet.
Horse Collar Ruin, built by the Anasazi, looks as though it has been abandoned only a few decades, not 800 years. At 3.1 miles from the visitor center, a short trail leads to an overlook. The name comes from the shape of the doorway openings in two storage rooms. Hikers walking in the canyon between Sipapu and Kachina Bridges can scramble up a steep rock slope to the site.
Like all ancient ruins, these are very fragile and must not be touched or entered. Only with such care will future generations of visitors be able to admire the well-preserved structures. Other groups of Anasazi dwellings can be seen in or near the monument, too; ask a ranger for directions.
Kachina Bridge viewpoint and trailhead are 5.1 miles from the visitor center. The massive bridge has a span of 204 feet and a height of 210 feet. A trail, 1.5 miles round-trip, leads to the canyon bottom next to the bridge; elevation change is 650 feet. Look for pictographs near the base of the trail. Some of the figures resemble Hopi kachinas (spirits) and inspired the bridge's name. Armstrong Canyon joins White Canyon just downstream from the bridge; floods in each canyon abraded opposite sides of the rock fin that later became Kachina Bridge.
Owachomo Bridge viewpoint and trailhead are 7.1 miles from the visitor center. An easy walk leads to Owachomo's base—a half-mile round-trip with an elevation change of 180 feet. Graceful Owachomo spans 180 feet and is 106 feet high. Erosive forces have worn the venerable bridge to a thickness of only nine feet. Unlike the other two bridges, Owachomo spans a smaller tributary stream instead of a major canyon.
Two streams played a role in the bridge's formation. Floods coming down the larger Armstrong Canyon surged against a sandstone fin on one side while floods in a small side canyon wore away the rock on the other side. Eventually a hole formed, and waters flowing down the side canyon took the shorter route through the bridge. The name Owachomo means "flat-rock mound" in the Hopi language; a large rock outcrop nearby inspired the name. Before construction of the present road, a trail winding down the opposite side of Armstrong Canyon provided the only access for monument visitors. The trail, little used now, connects with Highway 95.
Bridge View Drive is always open during daylight hours except after heavy snowstorms. A winter visit can be very enjoyable; ice or mud often closes the steep Sipapu and Kachina Trails, but the short trail to Owachomo Bridge usually stays open.