Natural Bridges NM

Natural Bridges National Monument

Saturday, July 1, 2006 … 0 Camper Miles – Total 3,218

Hot, mid 90s, and sunny.

This morning, Sandy was up at 6:30 to do a 3-mile walk with Tanya before Fred & Tanya went off to work. They are volunteer rangers, a National Park role they have played for several years in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii and now Utah. They work a 40-hour week, greeting visitors and answering their questions at both the Visitor Center and near hiking trails. They also create and present programs during evening hours for campers. In exchange, they get a small salary, free housing and the ability to explore exotic locations nearby during days off. We stopped by the Visitor Center and met some of the other staff before starting off on our own exploration of the area.

Solar Panels at Natural Bridges

An interesting aside about the Natural Bridges facility is that it is solar powered. This location is remote and difficult to provide with electricity. For that reason and the fact that most days are quite sunny, it was chosen to be a solar power demonstration site. The photovoltaic array (a group of interconnected solar cells) was the second largest in the world when it was installed in 1980. It can provide up to 50 kilowatts of DC electrical power. Energy is stored in lead-acid storage cells, similar to those in your car except that they fill a large room. The battery bank has enough capacity to store energy to sustain the facility of about a dozen residences, visitor center and maintenance facilities for two days in case the sun decides to take a vacation. DC energy is converted to standard household AC electrical power by a large, rotating inverter. There is also a standby diesel generator to provide power if the sun decides to hide for too long or if there is a problem with the main system.

Sandy is Dwarfed by Overhang Climbing Down to Sipapu Bridge

The big attraction at Natural Bridges is, of course, three of the four largest natural bridges in the country. (The largest is Rainbow Bridge at nearby Lake Powell.) We drove the nine-mile loop through the park and hiked the rather strenuous trails to all three bridges, Sipapu Bridge, 500 ft vertical drop in 0.6 miles, Kachina Bridge, 400 ft vertical drop in 0.7 miles, Horse Collar ruins lookout, and Owachomo Bridge, 180 ft vertical drop in 0.2 miles. At the end of it all we were very impressed! The bridges are really cool and so big that when you finish the climb down to them you are sometimes unaware that you are even under them and have to remind yourself to look up to see them.

Portion of Trail to Owachomo Bridge
Owachomo is Oldest of Three Largest Bridges

We even saw some little-known, early Indian ruins that Fred told us about near one of the bridges.

Portion of a Ruin Down a Canyon from a Bridge
Our First Petroglyph Sighting near the Ruin

It was really hot, though, and we were exhausted by the end of the day!

Another interesting tidbit is the prevalence of European visitors to the park. Fred and Tanya had mentioned it and it certainly seemed true that day. Talking to a large family group from Denmark, we may have stumbled on a reason why. Savvy travel European agents may be sending their clients to many less visited places like Natural Bridges (there’s never a crowd) for a quality experience without the crowds. Also, Europeans LIKE to hike. Most Americans, it seems, like to see sights from the windows of their cars … can’t do that at Natural Bridges.

For dinner that night Tanya made one of her patented, beautiful salads and we prepared a Thai noodle, veggie and chicken stir fry from a kit we got at the health food store in Durango. Bill chose the kit and, oops, it wasn’t gluten free! Fortunately, Sandy doesn’t seem to have suffered any acute, ill effects but we can’t let that happen again!

Natural Bridges National Monument

Sunday, July 2, 2006 … 0 Camper Miles – Total 3,218

Mid 90s, partly cloudy.

Today was our “Big Circle Tour”. At the suggestion of Fred & Tanya, we explored the area south and east of Natural Bridges. We were on the road for an exhausting eleven hours. (Touring this country is hard work, but somebody has to do it!) First stop was a 40-mile return to Blanding, nearest place to get gas. Next, we headed south to the tiny town of Bluff. Bluff is nestled at the base of a canyon beside the San Juan River. We stopped at the famous Twin Rocks to take a photo. Bill saw a man and woman with an old, sheet film, bellows camera who had found a great vantage point from which to take a picture. Bill clambered up the hill next to the couple and took about ten seconds to take his shot, accepting composition suggestions from the other photographer. Bill asked if he was a pro or an amateur. He responded that he’d like, someday to make a living at it.

Twin Rocks at Bluff

Next stop was the Mormon Homestead. This area was settled by Mormons. They took advantage of the reliable waters of the San Juan river to irrigate their fields. They arranged their homes in a square using the outside walls and fences between the houses for a protective perimeter. One house and a meeting house survive to tell the story of that early settlement.

Mormon Homestead at Bluff

Then we drove a couple of miles down the road to a petroglyph panel at Sand Island Campground and launch area along the river. The term, panel, refers to locations where a large rock face is sprinkled with many petroglyphs and/or pictograms. This panel stretches for, perhaps, 75 yards. Unfortunately, since it is next to a road, folks have seen fit to vandalize it in spite of a protective fence. Nevertheless, it’s neat to see.

A Few Petroglyphs at Sand Island

Wanna dance? The next attraction was Mexican Hat … the rock. One of, probably millions of balanced rocks in southeastern Utah, this one is large and flat and balanced on a fairly sharp point. It does, indeed, remind one of a Mexican hat. Taking his lead from Tanya’s suggestion, Bill did a little Mexican hat dance routine in front of the rock that Sandy caught on video. It was interesting to notice the many previous generations of “hats” lying in the talus (a pile of rubble at the bottom of the peak) below the position of the current hat.

Look Like a Hat to You?

Driving through Mexican Hat, the town, we next came to the road to Monument Valley on the Navajo reservation. Driving the 20-odd miles to the park’s location, we paid our admission and drove the 13-mile, rough dirt and gravel loop drive through the dozens of huge, magnificent rock formations. The park’s visitor center was very crowded with bus tours in addition to RVs. Significantly, we saw predominantly Asian visitors at this location and almost no Europeans. Since this is a park where nearly all the sights can be seen through the windows of a vehicle, might the distribution of visitors’ nationalities reflect a preference not to hike?

One of Many Monument Valley Vistas
Goats Along Road in Monument Valley

Afterwards, we stopped at Gouldings Trading Post. The Gouldings set up here many years ago to trade with local Indians, supplies for the Indians in exchange for art and craft objects. It happens that Monument Valley has been the location for many movies and the Gouldings subsequently befriended many celebrities. In addition to the trading post, they now operate a museum celebrating many of those movies. Especially prominently displayed are photos and artifacts from John Wayne’s Yellow Ribbon and, more recently, Back to the Future III.

John Wayne’s Cabin in Yellow Ribbon

Next stop was Goosenecks State Park. It consists, simply, of a small parking lot and an overlook. Oh, but what an overlook! It happens that the Jan Juan River is one of the world’s best examples of an entrenched meander. That means that the once meandering river is now caught in a huge canyon. The river carved the ever deepening canyon as the land rose up under it, freezing “forever” its serpentine path. From the overlook you look down into at least three of the huge canyon loops. It’s quite a sight.

One of the Goosenecks

It was time to begin heading back toward Natural Bridges and we chose to drive through the Valley of the Gods along the way. This is not a park. It is simply a 17-mile gravel road, in better condition, actually, than the one in Monument Valley and much less crowded. (We saw only two other cars in 17 miles!) Not quite as spectacular as Monument Valley, it does have many similarities and is very beautiful. Also, it’s FREE!

Driving through Valley of the Gods

At the end of that drive begins the “Moke Dugway”. Highway maps simply indicate state route 261 that runs from near Mexican Hat to near Natural Bridges. However, in the middle of that nicely paved, two-lane, 32-mile stretch is a spectacular narrow, gravel, switchback section that climbs about 1,000 feet, out of the Valley of the Gods to the plateau above. We’re glad to have driven up, not down, as we would have been a bit nervous. We’re not sure what the reaction that stretch of road got from several motorcyclists we saw heading the opposite direction.

Nearing Top of Moke Dugway

When we finally got back, Tanya had dinner ready, baked chicken with potatoes, salad and baked squash. Delicious!