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Sunday, September 6, 2015 : Natural Bridges, Goosenecks, Mexican Hat

 

This morning in Blanding, the weather is really fine. That's a big change from last night, when we arrived minutes after an otherwordly storm.

 

Today's schedule is kind of busy :

 

 

We nevertheless take some time for a Skype chat with the family back in France, then we have breakfast. The buffet is not too highly supplied, which is consistent with the hotel category. More worrying, all tables are busy. We end up on a small table in the lobby. 

 

We then leave the hotel. Considering that today's driving is rather long, that we are crossing mostly deserted areas, and also for Marie's comfort, I refill the Camaro at the service station where I bought the pizzas last night, although it is far from empty.

 

Just outside Blanding, we leave US Route 191 and take Utah State Route 95, which crosses beautiful southern Utah scenery.

Comb Ridge, Utah State Route 95, near Blanding, UT

Comb Ridge, Utah State Route 95

 

Less than 15 miles later, we cross what blatantly looks like a fault, though Colorado Plateau is not supposed to have any. This is Comb Ridge, a monocline (well, a fold) created 65 million years ago by movements in the underlying tectonic plates.

 

We stop and take a few pictures of this straight as well as unexpected geological formation. On the right of the picture, we can quite clearly see the dip of the plateau. From the parking lot, the view of Comb Ridge and the plateau is stunning.

 

As usual, I go for a chat with the people in the big SUV parked next to us. They are a Russian family on a road trip a bit like ours. We see them again a few more times during the day.

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Natural Bridges National Monument entrance

Natural Bridges National Monument entrance

 

Less than 40 miles from Blandng, we reach Natural Bridges National Monument visitor center, where I can ask a ranger on duty the question that had been keeping my mind busy for a while : what is the difference between a National Park and a National Monument ?

 

There is more than one answer :

 

 

After the visitor center, we drive the one-way circular road that links the three natural bridges, plus a number of overlooks. The road follows the rim of the plateau without going down into the canyons. It is 9.5 miles long.

 

In theory, Natural Bridges National Monument can be visited in a few hours. The place is not that large.

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Sipapu Bridge, White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Sipapu Bridge, White Canyon

 

Natural Bridges National Monument is located at the confluence of two small canyons, White Canyon, the largest, which is shown on the picture, and its tributary Armstrong Canyon. The first two bridges are in White Canyon, the last one is in Armstrong Canyon.

 

Our first stop is at the overlook at some distance of Sipapu Bridge, the first bridge, shown on the picture.

 

Another question pops into my mind : What is the difference between a natural bridge and an arch ?

 

  • A natural bridge is supposed to pass over some water stream,
  • An arch may be anywhere.

 

So, to determine whether you are facing a natural bridge or an arch, you have to look for water.

 

Here, it seems that we can see natural bridges, as the name of the park or, rather, the monument, shows. But it is the end of summer and all rivers are dry. Later in the day, we cross a few times the riverbed at the bottom of White Canyon, and I can assure you we did not get our feet wet. The distinction is therefore a little subtler than it looks.

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Sipapu Bridge seen from above, Natural Bridges National Monument

Sipapu Bridge seen from above

 

We have now reached Sipapu Bridge. From the parking lot, at the top of White Canyon, the sight of the bridge is not exactly enough for us, and we set out to walk the trail going down to the river.

 

At the start of each of the three trails (one per bridge, logically), a sign warns about the difficulties to expect. We missed the sign for Sipapu Bridge Trail and, at about one-third of the trail, after a relatively high flight of slatted metal stairs on the edge of the cliff, Marie is suddenly struck by height scare and gives up, waiting for me in the shade. Though occasionally also victim of height scare, I nevertheless proceed with the camera.

 

Sipapu Bridge trail is not very long, but it is steep and, at places, pretty close to the edge of the cliff. I do not recommend it to people with hip or knee issues.

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Ancestral Puebloan granary, Sipapu Bridge Trail, Natural Bridges National Monument

Ancestral Puebloan granary, Sipapu Bridge Trail

 

Shortly after I leave Marie, the trail follows a flat path along the rock that leads to a natural alcove in the side of the canyon. Here, I can see this Ancestral Puebloan ruin. It is obviously a granary, which we can tell by its circular shape and its lack of openings.

 

At the end of the flat path in the rock, a viewpoint provides a closer, roughly mid-height, view of Sipapu Bridge. I then have to walk back a few dozen feet to resume my walk down.

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Ladder, Sipapu Bridge Trail, Natural Bridges National Monument

Ladder, Sipapu Bridge Trail

 

Marie's choice not to go along proves wise. A little further on the way down, the trail goes thru three ladders like the one on the picture. They are sturdy, there is no specific risk, but this part of the trail is not recommended for people with height scare or who have difficulty to move.

 

A little lower, a section of the trail crosses an absolutely bare rock, where I recommend to firmly hold the railing, or risk slipping in the canyon. Since we are almost there, this part is less a source of height scare.

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Sipapu Bridge seen from underneath, Natural Bridges National Monument

Sipapu Bridge seen from underneath

 

I am now exactly under Sipapu Bridge, roughly in the middle of what is supposed to be a riverbed. I take a few pictures of the bridge seen from underneath.

 

From here, a trail leads to the second bridge, Kachina Bridge. It is about 6 miles long, along the dry riverbed.

 

I only stay there a short time. I climb back up to meet Marie, and we walk back up to the parking lot. Only at this moment do we notice the sign at the trailhead, which precisely lists all stairs and ladders. Too late.

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Horsecollar Ruin, Ancestral Puebloan site, Natural Bridges National Monument

Horsecollar Ruin, Ancestral Puebloan site

 

A little further down the road, we make a stop at Horsecollar Ruin, a small Ancestral Puebloan site. The ruin is on the other side of White Canyon, there is no direct way to visit it, we have to satisfy ourselves with seeing it from a distance. Fortunately, Marie has brought along a pair of binoculars.

 

The site owes its name of Horsecollar to the unusual slightly curved shape of the openings of the two houses that can be seen on the right of the picture. On the far left, we can see a kiva that, exceptionally enough, has kept its original roof.

 

As we can see, Ancestral Puebloans had settled a vast region, far beyond Mesa Verde, about 150 miles east of here. And as anywhere else, nobody knows where they went after year 1300 a.d.

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Kachina Bridge seen from above, Natural Bridges National Monument

Kachina Bridge seen from above

 

Still in White Canyon, we stop at Kachina Bridge, the second bridge. And like at Sipapu Bridge a moment earlier, we are going to the bottom of the canyon.

 

Now that we know where to find the signs and what they are for, Marie can make an informed decision about whether to go or not, and this time she comes with me.

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Limestone formation, Kachina Bridge Trail, Natural Bridges National Monument

Limestone formation, Kachina Bridge Trail

 

Kachina Bridge Trail is longer than Sipapu Bridge's, but way less steep and without much difficulty, with the exception of a few steps at the beginning and a moment of hesitation near the end. The trail, which was so far very clearly marked, at some point gets somewhat lost in the tall grasses on the banks of the riverbed. I cross the river, look for a short while, and yes, the trail is here, on the other side.

 

The trail goes down into a slightly wider section of White Canyon. About half-way, at some distance, we can see this strange limestone formation of undertermined origin, most likely the result of some erosion that clearly differentiates limestone layers according to their hardness and salt content, as in Arches National Park.

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Kachina Bridge seen from below, Natural Bridges National Monument

Kachina Bridge seen from below

 

We are now under Kachina Bridge. The canyon is very narrow again, and the bridge is the only possible way for water to pass thru ... well, that's when there is any water at all. Today, all we can see are a few muddy patches, probably left after some recent storm, but nothing even remotely looking like a river but its bed.

 

Right in front of us, we can see the trail that comes from Sipapu Bridge. On our left, another trail leads to Owachomo Bridge, the third bridge.

 

We do not spend too much time at Kachina Bridge. Today's schedule is still kind of packed.

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Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument

Owachomo Bridge

 

Natural Bridges National Monument circular road now follows Armstrong Canyon to Owachomo Bridge.

 

Among the three bridges, Owachomo Bridge is the thinnest and most slender one. It is located in a wider part of the canyon, which gives it a much less obstructed view.

 

The trail that leads under the bridge is short and easy. Anyway, to mitigate her sciatic, which had kind of woken up, Marie does not go with me. I walk under the bridge and take a few pictures. I see our Russian friend again, and we chat for a minute.

 

We then make a short stop at the visitor center, or rather at its restrooms, and we eventually leave Natural Bridges National Monument for good. We take the road to Valley of the Gods.

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Muley Point Overlook, Moki Dugway, Utah State Route 261

Muley Point Overlook, Moki Dugway, Utah State Route 261

 

Utah State Route 261 is a wide and straight road, in great condition. That is why I pay no particular attention to the many signs that warn of a coming quite steep grade. Suddenly, the nice road loses its pavement and turns into a trail, wide and in good condition, but with no tarmac. At first, I suspect there might be some construction ahead, but no, wrong pick, there are no signs for roadworks.

 

I find the explanation long later, while doing the research for this article. Utah State Route 261 includes a section of an old road used in the 1950s to link a long closed uranium mine. Moki Dugway, the route from Muley Point Overlook down to the plateau at our feet, was indeed never paved at all. For ore trucks, this is no issue. For us as well as the other tourists, it is highly surprising. I was absolutely not expecting more than 3 miles of unpaved road.

 

We stop at Muley Point Overlook, a viewpoint on the edge of the cliff, more than 1,000 feet above the plateau at our feet. It is neither a fault nor a monocline. It is one of the steps of the Colorado Plateau that mark the point where a set of limestone layers has been fully eroded, to the point of completely disappearing. The mesa facing us is about 12 miles away.

 

The place is well-known. Even at the end of the season, the parking lot is almost full.

 

Driving down the unpaved road is not too challenging. As on any moderately difficult road, some caution should be taken, and that's it.

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Between Valley of the Gods and Goosenecks State Park, UT

Between Valley of the Gods and Goosenecks State Park, UT

 

Once we reach the plateau, tarmac resumes as if nothing had happened. We very quickly reach the crossroads into Valley of the Gods, also an unpaved road, that crosses a beaufitul natural site, lined with rocks bearing the names of deities venerated by the Navajo.

 

The road itself is in a less than divine condition. After about a quarter-mile, I make a U-turn. Once again, I am absolutely unwilling to risk rubbing the underside of our rental Camaro on the rocks of a terrible road.

 

Wise move. Of course, at the moment, I can't be aware of this, but after we're back, while researching for this article, I learn that, at some places, the road is in really bad condition, and therefore should be reserved to appropriate vehicles. This is one more place where we should come back with a 4x4.

 

A little further, while Marie and I take turns snapping pictures along Utah State Route 261, a big SUV stops next to us. Surprise, it is the Russian family whom we have already seen more than once today.

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San Juan River bend, Goosenecks State Park

San Juan River bend, Goosenecks State Park

 

Minutes later, we arrive at Goosenecks State Park, a small park that overlooks a spectacular series of meanders of San Juan River. This river is one of the main tributaries of Colorado River, which it meets at Lake Powell, a few dozen miles from here.

 

Here as at Dead Horse Point a few days ago, our America The Beautiful Interagency Pass is absolutely useless, for the same reason : this is not a National Park, but a Utah State Park.

 

The site is stunningly beautiful. The river winds into half a dozen bends following each other, not unlike Horseshoe Bend multiplied by 6 (but without the almost surreal beauty of the orange rocks at Horseshoe Bend, according to Marie).

 

This place is kind of frustrating for photographers : unless you have a really wide-angle lens, there is no way to get the entire site.

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Goosenecks State Park

Goosenecks State Park

 

A narrow path follows the mesa rim on part of the site. We walk along, trying to find better angles for pictures.

 

There are also picnic tables with, as often in the United States, a barbecue close by. You just have to bring along your charcoal and meat, and clean up after usage. It goes without saying that all barbecues are absolutely immaculate. Is it permanent maintenance or civility ? I am leaning toward the second option.

 

The rock on the garbage can is simply to keep it closed when the wind blows. And it must blow hard at times, to have a chain link between each box and its lid !

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San Juan River bends, Goosenecks State Park

San Juan River bends, Goosenecks State Park

 

We do not have a killer-really-ultra-wide-angle lens. Marie is able to take a picture on which we can decently see three bends. We are not able to do any better.

 

I take a walk beneath the main overlook, not too much, because the cliff is right there, pretty close. But I come closer to the bends, not farther, and from where I am, I am not able to take the whole site in picture. Too bad.

 

It is now time to leave. We are still 150 miles away from Page, with a few more points of interest along the way.

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Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

 

From Goosenecks State Park to Page, there is only one road, US Route 163, which we already know for having traveled it the other way 5 years ago. So we cross Mexican Hat again, 31 residents at 2010 census.

 

The famous balanced rock is still there. We leave US Route 163 for a few minutes, on an unpaved trail of about a quarter-mile, to get closer to the rock for a few pictures.

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Monument Valley seen from Forrest Gump Point, US Route 163

Monument Valley seen from Forrest Gump Point, US Route 163

 

Less than 10 mi. after Mexican Hat, our attention is attracted twice - first, by the perspective in the picture, which we have already seen somewhere, and almost instantly by a wide hard shoulder on the right side of the road. We stop.

 

Just facing us is Monument Valley. If we remember the movie correctly, it is at this very place that Forrest Gump ends his run, after spending three years crisscrossing the USA coast to coast. And, as a matter of fact, a sign mentions that we have reached Forrest Gump Point. Not bad, for an almost entirely fictional character !

 

Even without any movie reference, the sight of Monument Valley from US Route 163 is quite a point of interest in itself.

 

We take the road again and, opposite Monument Valley, we turn right for a short drive to Harry Goulding's Trading Post, which he opened in the 1920s to trade with the Navajo. If we remember history correctly, Harry Goulding introduced Monument Valley to John Ford, who in turn, with some help from John Wayne, introduced it to the rest of the world. We easily find the trading post, but only pay a very short visit. The place seems to have lost its authenticity.

 

We take the road to Page and cross the Utah-Arizona state line. We set our watches one hour back since, with the exception of the Navajo Nation, Arizona does not apply daylight saving time.

 

Meanwhile, the sky has gotten very dark and storms are threatening. The light is now too dim for pictures. At some point, while driving, I realize that we are surrounded by storms and, without a miracle, we are going to be absolutely soaked wet. The miracle happens, and we make it to Page without taking a single raindrop, under a sky that pretends to be clearing up.

 

Once settled at the hotel, we walk back outside for food. It's going to be Taco Bell for me and McDonald's for Marie. While we eat, like every night, I attempt to upload the day's pictures, but wi-fi reliability leaves much to be desired. I also have trouble updating the blog.

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