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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Chris Spots A Hidden Petroglyph In Natural Bridges National Monument That Rivals Anything We've Ever Seen

Bobbie and I have camped at Natural Bridges National Monument a couple/three times, back in the good ole days when you could just roll into a campground without making reservations a year in advance. We hiked the loop road on top, which, more or less, follows a deep, multihued canyon, well garnished with streaks of desert varnish. But for some reason, maybe because we were always in a hurry on our way to or from a higher prioritized destination. Until—what was it, 2016?—we made a date with Suzanne to get this hike in our respective "bags" and see the "bridges" from the bottom up instead of a "pull out." 

Natural Bridges is basically sandstone country, dotted with little plots of shallow soil enough to sprout fragrant sagebrush and an anemic forest of pinion/juniper. Without much soil to absorb runoff, flash flooding is common in sandstone country. Signs warn backcountry travelers to "get to high ground" during cloudbursts...and wait till the storm passes and water recedes before attempting to cross normally dry creek beds.   

Spirits were high on our hike with Suzanne, as well as expectations to bag the entire canyon trail as well as the loop back across the mesa to our vehicle...about 12 miles. But our 20 percent chance of showers disintegrated to a full-blown thunderstorm about two thirds of the way through the canyon trek. As rain increased in intensity, I recalled the flash flood warnings. 

Ultimately, we arrived at a trail junction just beyond Kachina Bridge. One bail-out route headed up to the rim, the other continued on through the canyon to the third and final bridge, Owachomo. I told Bobbie and Suzanne that we should consider bailing. But they opted to finish, hoping thunder storms would pass like they usually do. Soaking wet and getting wetter by the second, I headed up to the rim with a warning the gals that if and when creek-crossings become river crossings, turn around. 

Not five minutes after we parted ways, lightning struck in-canyon wigh a resounding simultaneous boom of thunder. The gals caught up with me on the second switchback. Guess they changed their minds. :)

In spite of rain jackets, we were soaked to the bone by the time we reached the rim. It was still pouring so we took shelter in a restroom facility to wait it out. But it was the lightning and thunder that kept us pinned down, even as the rain relented. Bored, and tired of the smell, we finally decided to slop out the last 3 or 4 miles to our vehicle, come Hell or high water. 

We got both, Hell and High Water. Every little crease and crevice on the mesa-top had swollen into roaring creeks. About half way across we came to a river. It raged with full blown rapids that sweep over a 15 foot fall. I waded out to my knees before chickening out. If you stepped into a pothole, you'd be a goner. 

We vowed to come back and finish the canyon hike someday. It was disappointing to leave it undone, having had a taste. 

But the forecast for Natural Bridges this time around was 100 percent chance of full sun and warm temperatures. Pal Chris would be joining us for this hike, and we were lucky enough to find a boondock right outside the Monument entry gate. With a 12 mile loop waiting, we got an early start, so early in fact the canyon was still in full shade. Oh well, time to drop in...

Sunrise on Sipapu Bridge

The descent was dramatic, to say the least. Light and shadow cavorted with reckless abandon, while we, on the other hand, watched our steps.

Eventually, a brilliant sunrise flash flooded the canyon...lighting up cottonwood candles that warmed our hearts. Rose colored walls streamed with tears of desert varnish. Shadows retreated.

Unlike the last time with Suzanne, the creek was dry as a bone. I thought about a muddy fall Suzanne took, wondering if she ever got that stain out of her hiking pants. 

Chris spotted a cliff-side ruin perched overhead. It was still in shadow, but he was pressed to have a look. The approach was steep, and we all went our different ways, trying to figure a route up. It was a long fall if you slipped... 

Here comes the sun

Now, if we can just get down...


Bobbie examines petroglyphs under massive Kachina Bridge

This is near where we bailed out of the canyon on the last trip, the one that got rained out. Not today, baby! New dots from here on out.

A dry pour-off


The footing was often sketchy, easy to turn an ankle.

The day stretched on, the trail alternating between craggy creek bed and begrudging beach sand. Progress was slow and tiring, but worth every ounce of effort. Especially when eagle-eye Chris spotted a petroglyph high up on the canyon wall. We all go our separate ways again, looking for a way up to have a closer look.

It took a while, but if one is willing to wade bent over through a foot of rattlesnakey oak brush leaves while getting hung up on branches that rip your skin to shreds, it's possible.

I'm so thankful Chris spotted this petroglyph. It was in prime condition and had some strange etchings we hadn't seen before. Then Chris spotted an ammo box at the base of the cliff. He opened it, pulled out a piece of paper, and read aloud:
Congratulations! You have stumbled upon one of the best preserved and little known petroglyphs in Natural Bridges National Monument. Cool!!!

Trudging along, hot, tired, enthusiasm waning, we spy the third and final bridge, Owachomo. It's more delicate, not as thick and massive as Sipapu and Kachina. Additionally, it does not span the main canyon, but rather a side drainage.

A half mile beyond Owachomo, we popped out at a parking lot and stopped to take a last look back at the canyon. 

Drive-by Tourists clad in flip flops and other inappropriate shoes crowded toward the overlook perch en mass, trying to see and photograph the bridge. Seeing our packs and sweaty faces they would ask us one by one if it was worth the hike down to actually see the bridge. Moody by now, ready for a beer and shade, I said, "No...it's no big deal."

Peace out,
Mark, Bobbie and Chris, Bringing the outdoors to your living room. 


  1. Having only accomplished shorter hikes you make us jealous of your endurance.
    Great pictures of Petroglyphs and Scenery.
    Be Safe and Enjoy those steep slopes.

    It's about time.

  2. Well you are sure making our "arm chair travels" a journey not to forget. Man that was a beautiful experience .
    Stay Thirsty My Friends....you are probably in the safest place in America right now :)
    D & A

  3. We didn't see this beautiful pictograph panel when we did the loop. Guess we need revisit the loop again to find the panel.

  4. This post is exceptionally exciting! Loved your captions of explanation too, dry pour-off, choked stone, rattle-snakey brush, etc. all very educational. And when the shadows went away, all that beauty! Rose-streaked walls and bridges! Thank you for sharing Mark, and bringing a wonderful place in the world to our COVID-restricted living rooms.

  5. All the pictures were gorgeous, especially the header one. What a distant view! The only adventures we will probably have this "germy" winter is through blogs like yours. Thanks!

  6. So epic! wowwowow! Also, Dad I see you are wearing that shirt you bought in Tucson when we were together last ;)

  7. I think we're both still around because we make decisions like you did in your 2015 visit with Suzanne. Err on the side of caution and don't push your luck too far. There always seems to be another time to complete the hike.

  8. I don't know if I got the stain out so much as I just added a few more to even it out. ;-) I still remember how brave I felt in that storm right up until Thor threw down that bolt and split the sky! Glad you had a flash flood of only sunshine this time around. And glad I got to see the final bridge, if not in person, at least through your lens. Thanks for the memories.

  9. Fascinating hike!!! Thanks for taking us along with you!


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