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Carved With Water on Stone

At Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, visitors can ponder the power of water in a landscape that’s usually defined by its absence. 


Unlike Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park or California’s Yosemite National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah rarely features as a “must see” on tourist itineraries.

Debra Jenson remembers “hot” as the first word that came to her mind when she went hiking there with her dad in May, a few years ago. Jenson’s dad, a huge parks enthusiast, encouraged her to visit the monument. “The Natural Bridges National Monument has a lot of incredible things packed into a small space,” says Jenson, assistant professor of journalism and communication at Utah State University. “Unlike the Dinosaur National Monument, which is huge, Natural Bridges is overwhelming because there is so much in such a small space.”

The monument is a part of the Colorado Plateau and has been molded by erosion by the streams of the Colorado River. There are three natural bridges in the monument: Kachina, Owachomo and Sipapu. These names reflect the history of the Native American tribe whose ancestors once inhabited many parts of the U.S. Southwest, including the Natural Bridges area. It was established as a protected area in 1908 making it the oldest national park site in Utah.

The drive to the monument through Bridge View Drive, a paved loop road, offers several views of the three bridges. Unlike the Arches National Park, about three hours’ drive away, which has over 2,000 natural stone arches, the monument has only three bridges. But geologically, bridges are considered rarer than arches and Natural Bridges is a fascinating structure.

 

Explore the trails
Hiking is the best way to discover the wonders of the national monument. The Kachina Bridge is the youngest among the three bridges while Owachomo is likely the oldest. Sipapu is the largest and most spectacular. It is the first introduction to the splendor of the bridges and has an interesting hike down to the riverbed and canyon floor.

Temperatures in summer can often go beyond 38 degrees Celsius so spring and fall are its busiest seasons, says a guide from the visitor center. Temperatures are moderate, wildflowers bloom and it is a popular time to camp. Visitors also come to stargaze. As the U.S. National Park Service website says, “National parks preserve some of the darkest skies in the country.” The International Dark-Sky Association certified Natural Bridges National Monument as the first International Dark Sky Park in 2007. The goal of a Dark Sky Park is to preserve the skies and educate the public about light pollution and how they can make a difference.

 

Savor the stories
Natural Bridges is a popular hiking destination, but is still relatively isolated. This has helped preserve Horse Collar Ruin, located between the Sipapu and Kachina bridges. It is named after two structures with doorways that resemble horse collars. Discovered in 1936 by Zeke Johnson, the park’s first custodian, Horse Collar Ruin is among the best preserved ancestral Puebloan sites in the area. Its original roof and interiors remain nearly untouched. Describing the abandoned settlement, Johnson had written, with wonder, about a “ledge full of houses, within 80 yards of the trail…. There is one large kiva with the roof almost complete and a fine ladder standing in the hatchway with the small willows still holding the rungs in place.”

 

Nature walk
Natural Bridges is home to a wide variety of wildlife. But, as desert animals are either inactive during daytime or wary of humans, sightings are not common. Hummingbirds, desert cottontails and lizards are seen by most visitors. Among large mammals, mule deer are commonly spotted, while mountain lions, bobcats, American black bears and coyotes are rarely seen.

Cell phones generally do not work here and there is no Wi-Fi. So, visitors must make sure to download necessary maps and not stray away from the marked trails out. Food, gas and other supplies are not available at Natural Bridges. Visitors can buy these at nearby towns like Blanding and Monticello in Utah, and Cortez in Colorado. Utah has other U.S. National Park Service sites like Arches National Park, Canyonland National Park and Hovenweep National Monument, which visitors can explore.


Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.


 

Root Bridges

In India, in certain areas, where rainfall is heavy, and nature is allowed to flourish relatively undisturbed, bridges are not made; rather they grow out of strong roots of Indian rubber tree. For a long time, Cherrapunji in Meghalaya held the title of being the wettest place on Earth. The mostly tribal population of the area realized that the strong roots of the Ficus elastica could be twisted by hand and encouraged to fuse together to grow into sturdy structures. Sometimes wood and bamboo are used as a sort of scaffolding to encourage the roots to grow in a particular direction. They take 10 to 15 years before they can actually be used as bridges but once the roots fuse together, they form extremely strong structures. Some of these root bridges can carry 50 or more people at a time. It is said that this a project no man will complete in his lifetime. Some are centuries-old and have grown so thick that they are known as “double deckers.” The trees also protect the area from landslides and other water-related erosion. As an article in National Geographic mentions, these bridges “…regularly withstand flash flooding and storm surges that are common in the region—a low-cost and sustainable way to connect remote mountain villages scattered throughout the steep terrain.”

The living root bridge near Pynursla in Meghalaya is over 50 meters in length and is among the longest known root bridges in the country.

—P.P.