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Friday, March 25, 2016

Moki Dugway and Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument is never the first park you hear about when someone mentions Utah.  I bet many travelers haven't even heard of this place, and I will admit, it was a new name to me. Utah's Mighty Five (the five National Parks) really steals the spotlight in the NPS system for the state of Utah.  However, tucked away in the southeastern corner of the state, by the four corners of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado lies Utah's first National Monument. 

First impressions:  This National Monument is definitely worth a visit.  The problem is, it's pretty far from Salt Lake City (about 5.5 hours).  While there isn't a ton to do at this park (with only one long hike and three natural bridges), there is a lot of history with the Indian ruins, and the beautiful natural bridges do not disappoint.  Another issue is this parks location from civilization.  It is really far from the nearest town.  But with that being said, if you want to see the stars, this is THE place to do it.  The park is cheap, at only $10 a car and your NP Pass will work here. However being a National Park, dogs are only allowed in the parking lots and not on the trails. 

 Because of its location, I will likely never be back to this park. BUT I definitely think its worth visiting once for its natural bridges, solitude and star gazing.  Pair this park with at trip to Goosenecks State Park and Monument Valley, and a visit to the four corners to make for an awesome Southeastern Utah adventure.  

Moki Dugway - en route to Natural Bridges 

Moki Dugway certainly isn't a term you hear every day and sort of sounds like a bad movie title. Alicia first mentioned the term I looked at her a little funny. But after she pulled up a picture I was excited to see this area. If you are in Southeast Utah, and on your way to NBNM, this is the way to go. 

So, whats in a name? 
"The term moki is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.' Source

The Moki Dugway is the graded, intense switchback road winding along the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. You can expect to drive up 3 miles of steep, unpaved (but well graded switchbacks, 11% grade), which will climb 1,200 feet from the floor of Valley of the Gods to Cedar Mesa. It is located of Highway 261, about 8 miles from Mexican Hat, Utah.  It is well graded and any sort of vehicle that isn't too low should make the drive just fine. 

Looking down at the switchbacks of the Moki Dugway. 
There are a few spots where you can pull over to catch a picture of the Moki Dugway, and see just how close your car was to the edge of a cliff.  If you are like me, you will spend a lot of time silently willing the car to stay on the road and not shoot off the side of the cliff. 

If you have time, you can stop at Muley Point at the top of Moki Dugway, which will give you amazing views of the Goosenecks and Valley of the Gods.  We were short on time on this fun filled weekend and headed straight to Natural Bridges National Monument from here.  You will be amazed how the scenery goes from open dry desert, to a wooded brush area on top of Cedar Mesa 6,500 ' above sea level. 

NBNM really has a special spot in the National Park System. It was Utah's first National Monument and was declared so in 1908. It was also the world's first International Dark Sky Park (IDSP), some big claims to fame for such a "secret" park.

 To be a IDSP, you must be " land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. The land may be publicly owned, or privately owned provided that the landowner(s) consent to the right of permanent, ongoing public access to specific areas included in the IDA designation." Because this park is so far away from everything, it is known for being nearly void of light pollution and is one of the darkest parks in the lower 48 states of the US.  Read more here.

The Milky Way over Owachomo Bridge
at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah. Photo by Jacob W. Frank.
 While the park is known for its dark nights with amazing views of the stars, its biggest claim to fame its its natural bridges.  Specifically, NBNM is home to the second-largest natural bridge in the world! The three large natural land bridges are named "Kachina," "Owachomo" and "Sipapu" in honor of the Native Americans that once made this area their home. The park also has a rich history associated with the area. The area was repeatedly occupied and abandoned during prehistoric times 

7000 B.C. to A.D. 500: Natural Bridges was first used during the Archaic period. Different native peoples occupied and left the area until 1883: prospector Cass Hite wandered up White Canyon from his base camp along the Colorado River in search of gold. What he found instead were three magnificent bridges water had sculpted from stone. In 1904, National Geographic Magazine publicized the bridges, and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt established Natural Bridges National Monument.

Arch or bridge... What's the difference? 
Flowing water is required to carve a hole through a rock wall to form a bridge, 
while an arch is freestanding and does not span a watercourse.  

After stopping for a entrance sign photo (we all have our weird travel things, right?), we went right to the visitors center to use the bathrooms and talk to the ranger.   I can't stress enough how valuable it is to go in and talk to the rangers. Tell them how much time you have and what you want to see, and they will give you some great ideas of what to do and see in the park. The ranger working when we went was so so knowledgable, giving us great information on the loop hike we wanted to do, showing us pictures of all the areas we should look for.  Alicia at Girl On A Hike taught me a little fun fact about all National Park visitors center. They all have a little stamp section where you can stamp your National Parks Passport which I thought was too fun. I don't have a NPS Passport so I stamped my travel diary and called it a day. 

Trail lunch!  Adult "lunchable" with dates and nuts on the side 
It is important to know that NBNM has no restaurant or lodge. The nearest food service is in Blanding (40 miles). So make sure you have a full tank of gas, and bring snacks and lunch with you into the park.   Below, you can find the visitor's center hours. Good news is that the bathrooms are outside the visitors center, and are open even when the visitors center is closed. There is also an area to fill up your water bottle in the visitors center. 

October 18 - November 30   -   9 am - 5 pm
December 1 - March 2016   -   9 am - 4:30 pm
April 2016   -   8 am - 5 pm
May - September 2016   -     8 am - 6 pm
* Closed on Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1.

FEES Below, are the fees for the park. Your National Park pass will work here, so make sure to bring it in to the visitors center with you. All passes are good for 7 days.
  • Private vehicle: ($10) 1 private non commercial vehicle (15 passenger capacity or less) and all its occupants. 
  • Motorcycle:  ($5) 
  • Per Person: ($5) Individual with no car (biker, hiker, pedestrian
  • 15 and under:  Free 

SCENIC DRIVE:  If hiking isn't available to you, then there is a scenic drive through the park that will give you a good taste of Natural Bridges National Monument.  Bridge View Drive leads to overlooks and trails for the three natural bridges and ruins.  The paved one way loop is nine miles long and each overlook has limited parking.  If you are towing a trailer or other vehicle, it is recommended that you unhook it and leave it at the visitor's center. 

There is a 13-site campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. Sites will accommodate up to eight people and one vehicle. There is a 26-foot length limit. Gathering firewood is prohibited. Each site has a fire grill, picnic table and tent pad, but no running water, electricity or hookups. There are two vault toilets at the campground; flush toilets are available 24-hours a day at the visitor center (1/4 mile walk). Water is available year-round at the visitor center, limited to 5 gallons per person. Evening programs are offered during the summer; check bulletin boards for a schedule. The fee for camping is $10.00 per night; valid federal lands passes are honored. Overflow primitive camping is available on BLM land outside NBNM.

Start of the Loop Trail

The park is relatively small when it comes to hikeable trails.  This was our longest hike of the trip (and we had all day) so we decided to do the 8.6 mile loop trail (which ended up being 12 miles with a few of our detours).  If you want to see a majority of the park and have some time, hike the entire loop trail to get a great feel of the park.  If you are short on time or want to keep your distances shorter, hike the individual trails below down to the bridges and overlooks.  Like nearly all National Parks, dogs are not allowed on the trails. 

Trail Map 

Sipapu Bridge Trail   1.2 mi/1.9 km. elevation: 500 feet/102 m. time: 1 hour
Kachina Bridge Trail  1.4 mi/2.3 km. elevation: 400 ft/122 m elev. time: 1 hour
Owachomo Bridge Trail  0.4 mi/0.6 km. elevation: 108 feet/55 m. time: 30 minutes
Horsecollar Ruin Overlook Trail  0.6 mi/1.0 km. elevation: 30 ft/9 m. time: 30 minutes
Loop Trail  The 8.6-mile loop. elevation: 560 ft time: 4-8 hours

Ladders on the Loop Trail
Loop Trail
The 8.6-mile loop trail provides visitors an excellent way to experience the wonders of this park.  The full loop passes all three bridges, but shorter loops between only two bridges are also possible. The loop trail may be started at any of the bridge parking areas. Visitors wishing to hike the full loop must follow the trail up the left side of the canyon after passing Kachina Bridge in order to skirt the “Knickpoint” pour-off.  The trail is obviously a loop, and the ranger recommended the direction starting at the Mesa Trail and ending at the Owachomo Bridge.

There are a few technical aspects of the trail, including ladders and bars, but overall the trail is only moderate to difficult, with stairs and hand rails in the steeper section to guide you.  You will cross a stream a few times, and will need to take off your shoes to cross at the end.  
If you want a full detailed guide of this hike, head on over to Girl On A Hike's awesome detailed guide to this trail.  Below you will find a quick overview and awesome pictures below! 

Following cairns along the trail 
Following the trail.  Alicia pointed out the fragile cryptobiotic soil growing on the side of the trail (good eye Alicia!). 
 It is very delicate and important to the desert ecosystem so stay away from it and on the trail.

Following cairns up the slick rock - first mile of the trail 
The trail crosses the road a few times 
Natural Bridges National Monument loop trail
Alicia descending down to the Natural Bridges along the trail. 

Sipapu Land Bridge 
Some trail signage, generally, you had to pay attention to the cairns and the trail was poorly marked in some areas. 
Alicia passing under Kachina Natural Bridge 
Alicia and Dave before the Kachina Natural Land Bridge 
Stream crossing on the loop trail 
Horse Collar Ruins at Natural Bridges National Monument
Horsecollar Ruin site - Natural Bridges was first used during the Archaic period, from 7000 B.C. to A.D. 500.
Horse Collar Ruins at Natural Bridges National Monument
Ruins on the trail
Views from natural bridges national monument
View looking down the canyon from Horse Collar Ruins

Views from natural bridges national monument
Nearing the end of the trail (or so we thought).  
But still another 3 miles to the end of the trail. 
Owachomo Bridge
Owachomo Bridge at the end of the hike

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