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All day hike to see all three bridges.
Natural Bridges National Monument is well known for its spectacular collection of three enormous natural bridges, spanning across White Canyon and a side canyon of Armstrong Canyon. The best way to experience all three bridges is not to drive to all three view points, but to make the Sipapu-Owachomo Loop.
The Loop can begin at either Sipapu Bridge or Owachomo Bridge. I have always hiked it starting from Sipapu, so that is how it will be described here. Either way you are going downcanyon for half the hike, and upcanyon for the other half.
The trail starts off heading towards Sipapu Bridge across a sloping plain of slickrock. It takes some switchbacks, and then the trail follows a bench below the rim. This section of the trail is the same route as the Sipapu Bridge Trail, as you need to reach the bottom of White Canyon at Sipapu Bridge for your first destination. Be careful going down the metal staircases, especially in colder weather when snow and ice may be present. Use caution as well as you cross over the slickrock and ladders near the base of Sipapu Bridge - some of these can be exciting, even in dry warm weather.
Sipapu Bridge towers over you from the oak grove, while White Canyon continues both up and downstream. It is here that you diverge from the Sipapu Bridge Trail, and begin making the loop. The trail heads downstream, down the arroyo bank under Sipapu, and follows the wash bottom, generally. During times when the creek in White Canyon is flowing, you can also make crossings of the creek and hike along the benches, where the trail can also be found. When the stream isn't flowing, however, I prefer to hike in the creek bed. You will find occasional pools of water behind boulders, populated with small frogs or toads. Petrified wood, rounded by the action of the water, pokes out of the sand and rocks often.
As you are hiking, either in the creek bed or on the benches, keep an eye out for Anasazi remains. The Anasazi frequented this area, and if you know where to look you can find their rock art and their dwellings with a little work.
One such spot is Horsecollar Ruin. As you continue heading downcanyon, you will pass a side canyon on the right (west) side of White Canyon, about .6 miles past Sipapu Bridge. This is Deer Canyon. Not long after this, on the west side, Horsecollar Ruin can be seen. It blends into its surroundings well, so you may have to look hard. It is also not terribly easy to reach, with either a decaying log or a slickrock scramble being the best ways, but if you are energetic and have the time, it does make a nice side trip.
About 2 miles after leaving Sipapu Bridge, you arrive at Kachina, the middle of the three bridges. If you've kept your eyes open, you likely will have noticed several Anasazi remains along the way here. Now at Kachina, take a chance to look at the rock art on the bridge abutments. Kachina Bridge derives its name from these designs, as early government surveyors thought (correctly) that the folks who made the designs, the Anasazi, were somehow related to the modern Hopi.
It is at Kachina that the opportunity arises for getting lost. After you pass under Kachina, a broad canyon opens to the right, and seems like the right way to go. Kachina Bridge marks the confluence of White and Armstrong Canyons, and while the trail has been following White Canyon to this point, at Kachina it heads to the west and out of the park. From this point on, the trail will be following Armstrong Canyon, climbing gradually as you work your way upstream. Keep to the left-hand canyon as you exit Kachina.
It is also important to keep to the left hand side of the canyon as you begin heading up Armstrong. Not far past Kachina, an enormous pourover thwarts the way. During the summer monsoons or the spring snowmelt, this can create an awesome waterfall. During other times, there is often a deep pool of stagnant water at its base. To avoid this blocking your way, you will need to climb up on the trail leading out of the canyon towards the Kachina Bridge parking lot. There are several switchbacks on this part of the trail. There is also a sign, where the trail diverges, that points the way onward to Owachomo. Follow the trail to the right, and soon you will find yourself at the top of the pour off. This provides an excellent photo opportunity back down into the canyon.
Armstrong Canyon is narrower than White Canyon, but still quite beautiful. If you are keeping a watchful eye out on the canyon walls, you can find still more rock art and ruins. Make sure you keep an eye on the trail, too. Armstrong has more side canyons than White, and while the trail is still well defined, it would be easy to get turned around if you were not paying attention.
Before you reach Owachomo, there is another pour over that blocks your passage upcanyon. The trail brnaches off to the left (north) just before the pourover, but the last time I was there, it was somewhat hard to find. If you go past the trail, in the canyon bottom, you find a nice photo opportunity, with the cliffs, Owachomo, and the pourover. You probably can't get to this point to view the waterfall when the stream is flowing however. There are no banks at the section of the canyon - not the place to be in a flash flood! There is also a pitchfork, the last time I was there, embedded in the sand of the wash bottom. I do not know why, but if you reach the pitchfork, you've probably gone too far (if its still there).
The trail leads up the side of Armstrong Canyon and flattens out on a bench below the rim. As you round a bend, you see Owachomo Bridge ahead and on the left, with Tuwa Canyon straight ahead and Armstrong Canyon continuing off to the right. You have reached your last bridge, and the smallest. From here, follow the trail up towards the parking area. If you have arranged a car shuttle, this would be the end of your hike. Otherwise, look across the parking lot and road for a trail leading into the pinon-juniper forest. This trail leads back across the mesa, to the Sipapu Bridge parking area. There is also a branch trail that leads to the Kachina Bridge parking area, so that you can do a loop hike between only two of the bridges. There is lots of well-developed cryptobiotic soil along this section of the trail, so make sure that you follow along only on the trail, to avoid damaging the crust. The trail also crosses the loop road a couple of times. While the road is signed for pedestrian crossing, make sure that you use extra caution at this places - not everyone may see the signs, or be paying attention to the road.
While water can usually be found in potholes and under pourovers along the trail, it is highly recomended that you bring all the water you will drink yourself. You can fill up your water bottles at the visitor's center.
Note: while the visitor's brochure claims that the hike is only 8.6 miles, it is very easy to get this hike over 9 miles with a little exploring for ruins and such.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.