Thursday, July 21, 2016

Natural Bridges National Monument: Sipapu Bridge

Sipapu Bridge
Natural Bridges National Monument.  Utah.  May 13, 2016
Copyright © 2016 A. F. Litt, All Rights Reserved

Photo of the Day by A. F. Litt: Day of Several Photos - July 21, 2016

Let's get this out of the way quickly...  Arches are dry; natural bridges are over water.  That's the main difference.  Because of this, the erosional processes that lead to their creation are a little different.  Generally, natural bridges form where creeks and rivers erode through the walls of incised meanders (think of the Goosenecks in the San Juan River...  in fact, bridges may eventually form there!), while arches are usual formed by erosion from wind, rain, and freeze/thaw cycles.  This is why bridges are usually in canyons and arches are usually up high on cliffs and fins.  Of course, this is the most basic geologic explanation possible, there are whole books on this stuff, but it should suffice.

Under Sipapu Bridge (Panorama)
Natural Bridges National Monument.  Utah.  May 13, 2016 
Copyright © 2016 A. F. Litt, All Rights Reserved
At Natural Bridges National Monument, you must hike the canyons!  Period.  No excuses.  The views are fine from the scenic Bridge View Drive, and worth checking out, but to really understand the scale of these things one must climb down to them, stand under them, sit in their shade on a hot day...  Of course, if you only have time for the drive, it's still worth a visit, but know that it is just not the same.

Unfortunately, I broke a huge rule of hiking when I climbed down into the canyons at Sipapu.  I accidently left my map behind and wandered down the wrong canyon at Kachina Bridge.  The trails in the canyons are vague at times, and a vague trail led down White Canyon when the actual trail climbed up into Armstrong Canyon where Owachomo Bridge is located.  I was lucky that the vague trail turned into no trail pretty quickly and the rough terrain around the creek grew so difficult (not impassable, by any means, but tough enough to suggest to me that I was off trail) that I finally figured it out and turned around.

The detour, though, burned too much time and energy, so I climbed out of the canyon at Kachina and took the overland trail back to the Sipapu Trailhead.  I shall return, sooner than later, I hope, to finish the hike.

Oh, and a "pro tip."  Park where you want to end your hike and then take the overland trail to the trailhead where you want to descend.  The trail is nice enough, pretty enough, but, well, its boring compared to the canyon, and it sucks hiking it when you are hot and tired and done.  I suspect the rangers tell people to do this at the Visitor Center, but I failed to talk to them about this hike before I dove in...  Another oops.

As for the bridge...  This is the biggest in the park, the second biggest natural bridge in the U.S. (after Rainbow Bridge), and the fifth largest arch in the U.S.  It was originally reported (1908) to have a span of 268 feet and a height of 167 feet, which would have made it the seventh largest natural arch in the world, but revised measurements (2007) put the span at approximately 225 feet and a height of approximately 144 feet.  Rankings of size are disputed, but The Natural Arch and Bridge Society currently ranks Sipapu as the 13th largest arch in the world (based on span), and, by my count off of their list, the seventh largest natural bridge in the world.  

Wikipedia points out, "Since the closure of the trail leading under Landscape Arch due to safety concerns, and the voluntary prohibition placed on passing under Rainbow Bridge in deference to (often debated) Navajo and Hopi spiritual beliefs, Sipapu is now the longest natural arch in the world to have an active trail beneath it that visitors may pass under, affording spectacular views of the underside of the arch."  This is not entirely correct based on updated measurements of several arches and bridges in China, but you would have to travel to China or Chad to walk under a larger one.

The name Sipapu comes from the Hopi word for the opening between worlds that the people emerged from in many Indian creation myths.  It was first named President in 1883 and Augusta in 1904.  The Sipapu name "was given by William Douglas, who led a government survey party to the bridges in 1908, mapping the exact boundaries of the new national monument." (NPS)

NPS - Natural Bridges National Monument

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