The vast 1 million acres of Cedar Mesa are filled with thousands of miles of canyons, most of which are below the flat tableland of the mesa. Hidden in these canyons are thousands of Puebloan ruins and artifacts, new discoveries of which are still being made by hikers today. Many sites were also discovered by the many prospectors looking for gold, uranium, and other valuable minerals. One such prospector, Cass Hite, was exploring White Canyon in 1883 looking for gold when he found a treasure of a different sort, three magnificent natural bridges, some of the largest in the world. Decades later, in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt established Natural Bridges National Monument.
This park is really easy for the visitor to explore, and there are several choices one can make regarding how much hiking to include in that exploration. The three bridges are each viewable from overlooks on the 9-mile scenic drive, but the views looking down are less than spectacular. To really see the bridges, it is necessary to hike at least part way down the canyon. Each bridge can be reached by a path ranging from moderately easy (Owachomo) to moderately difficult (Sipapu and Katchina). One excellent way to see the bridges from the ground and also explore a splendid Cedar Mesa canyon in relative safety is to hike down to Sipapu Bridge, follow the canyon floor down to Katchina Bridge, and hike up to the parking area. There is a 2 mile connecting trail back to the Sipapu parking area (making a 5.6-mile loop), or a car shuttle could be used to save the 2 miles.
The hike down to Sipapu Bridge drops about 500 feet in 0.6 miles, using stairways as a few wooded ladders fashioned after the ones used in the pueblos. The scale and beauty of Sipapu cannot be appreciated from above, and it is stunning at canyon floor level. The hike down canyon is fun and interesting, crossing the creek several times and passing under spectacular rocks and cliffs. The power of flash floods is evidenced by the massive trees that are jammed into the rocks and the erosion on the bank over 20 feet up the side of the canyon.
The sight of the little window in a cliff signals the proximity of Katchina Bridge ahead. This bridge is the youngest of the three, and it is truly massive: the span is nearly 100 feet thick and 204 feet wide. Just under the bridge and up the talus hill to the right is a lovely archeological site with plenty of wall art, a beautiful kiva, and other structures. Be very respectful of this site and all such sites in the Southwest. A steep 0.7-mile trail leads up the side of the canyon to the Katchina parking area. For those who love walking the canyon, the trail continues another 3 miles down to Owachomo Bridge and its parking area.