|500 ft AEG|
||no linked trail guides|
|This is a beautiful hike, with sweeping vistas, claustrophobic canyons, towering rock formations, and of course Rainbow Bridge. While Rainbow Bridge is impressive, this is not just a “destination” hike: this would be a fantastic hike even without Rainbow Bridge.
My friend Sam and I took six of our kids (ages 10-17) plus a friend on this hike. We hiked it as an out-and-back, taking two days each way. I would not have wanted to hike it in less time. We hiked it out-and-back because the one-way trip with the lake and van shuttle was too expensive for us (too many kids!), and we didn’t have enough vehicles for the north-to-south trail loop. I’m not a huge fan of out-and-back hikes, but this one had so many things to see that the hike back was as enjoyable as the hike out.
The end of March was a good time for this hike. Navajo Mountain is visible throughout much of the hike, and it was covered with snow when we did the hike. Being able to see its snow covered peak offered some relief (if only mental) from the heat in the canyons below. And, all of the creeks were running from the snow runoff.
We drove north from Flagstaff to get to the trailhead. We bought our permits in Cameron on the way. The Navajo office in Cameron is a small pink structure at the roundabout – easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. The drive took about 4-1/2 hours, including buying permits, stopping for directions once, and backtracking once after a wrong turn.
We used the directions on the National Park Service Rainbow Bridge North Trail pdf (you can find it online) to locate the trailhead, though it turns out that these directions are outdated: Indian Road 16 has more paving, the Navajo Mountain Trading Post no longer exists, and there are more forks in the road than are mentioned. If I had to give directions to the trailhead, I would say to follow Indian Road 16 all the way to the community of Navajo Mountain (about 35 miles past the turnoff from 160), and then go straight through the four-way intersection where Road 16 appears to end. You will immediately be on an unmaintained dirt road. Follow this road straight through several intersections in “town” and then when the road forks thereafter always follow the larger road or, if both roads are about the same size, take the left fork. The road to the trailhead basically hugs the base of Navajo Mountain in a counter-clockwise direction, so if you stay as close as possible to the mountain you can’t go too wrong. After several miles you will see a high ridge on your left that looks like an earthen dam (though it’s obviously a natural formation), and a small road will branch left toward it. Take this road up and over the ridge, to the trailhead. Sam and I both drove four-wheel drive vehicles on the road without a problem. The clerk at the Navajo permit office warned us to display our permits in the trailhead vehicles' dashes or the vehicles would get an "automatic tow", but we had a good laugh about that when we got to the trailhead. It would take one heck of a tow truck to get the vehicles towed out of that trailhead.
We also used the NPS Rainbow Bridge North Trail pdf as a trail guide. It was adequate, and the mileage seemed about right until mile 11.5, where the trail joins Bridge Canyon. Beyond that point the mileage figures given on the pdf are obviously wrong – it is definitely not 17.5 miles from the trailhead to Rainbow Bridge. I think the true mileage is 14-15 miles.
We found the trail to be well marked for the first four miles and somewhat spotty (though adequate) thereafter. The trail surface is rough throughout, even when well marked. This is not a groomed trail.
Day 1: Trailhead to N’asja Creek
We left the trailhead at about noon and hiked relatively slowly. We soon stopped in Cha Canyon and were in the middle of eating lunch when a herd of 14 hikers stampeded up through Cha Canyon toward us, and then turned and headed out on the trail ahead of us. I thought at the time that perhaps they had just gotten a little lost, but I figured out later that they were probably downstream viewing cliff dwellings as described in Gossamer Gear’s guide for this hike (google it, it’s excellent). The group was from the BCH Backpacking Canyoneering & Hiking club out of Phoenix. I wish I had read the Gossamer Gear trail guide more carefully before our hike – we missed the side trip to the cliff dwellings.
The highlight of the first day for me was Bald Rock Canyon at about mile 3.5. It’s full of neat sandstone formations, and it seems to come out of nowhere. You’re hiking along a broad ridge when suddenly there’s a deep canyon right in front of you. Water was running in the stream at the bottom and there were multiple places to camp. Several caves/overhangs in the cliff walls look like they would be fun to explore if you had the time. Unfortunately the trail doesn’t spend much time at the bottom before you have to climb out the far side, which was a bit of a grunt in the heat.
We arrived at Surprise Canyon/N’asja Creek at about 4:30. This is mile 6.5 or so. There’s a Surprise Canyon sign located about ½ mile up the trail from N’asja Creek, but according to the topo map N’asja Creek runs through Surprise Canyon, so I think the sign is wrong. (Someone else evidently thinks so too because they’ve written “No it’s not” and “Nope” on the sign.) There’s a nice (modern) horse carving on the sandstone wall on the left as you come into the N’asja Creek area.
The BCH group of 14 had already set up camp when we arrived. Luckily there is enough room at N’asja Creek for an army to camp comfortably, so that wasn’t a problem. I counted four or five fire rings in the area. We camped on the east side of the creek not far from an old sweat lodge. We spent a pleasant evening around the campfire, telling jokes. (My favorite was a Bil Keane pun: What do you call a “WEYATHIRE?” Answer: the worst spell of weather we’ve had in quite some time.)
Day 2: N’asja Creek to Echo Camp (& Rainbow Bridge & Lake Powell)
We started hiking about 9 am. The first mile or so of trail follows a canyon. Owl Bridge is about ½ mile up the canyon. An old hogan and sweat lodge are nearby. The trail has some impressive construction as it climbs up through the canyon and then out a narrow pass. A fair amount of labor must have gone into building this portion of the trail, unlike most of the trail.
Once through the pass the trail crosses a broad plain with expansive views of Glen Canyon to the north and Navajo Mountain to the south. It is quite a change from the narrow canyon just left behind. The trail has minor ups and downs for a couple of miles until you reach Oak Canyon at about the 10 mile mark. Like Bald Rock Canyon on the first day, this canyon came as a surprise. Unlike Bald Rock Canyon, it is not especially scenic. The treacherous trail in and out of the canyon is steep and covered with rocks varying in size from marbles to grapefruits. A small area at the bottom near the creek is free of rocks, and there’s a decent spot to camp if you can ignore the SUV-sized boulder perched on an inadequately-sized (in my opinion) dirt pedestal directly above the camp site. I would not want to be camped there in a rainstorm or during an earthquake.
Within a ½ mile or so after leaving Oak Canyon the trail starts its descent through the ravine that takes you into Bridge Canyon. The start of the ravine is not obvious, and I would have had trouble finding it without the footprints of those who had passed before to guide me. Even with the tracks, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just a side track until we came across an obviously human-built portion of trail after several hundred yards. The ravine turns into a canyon before too long, and this canyon was quite pretty. I don’t think the descent through this ravine/canyon is much more than a mile long.
There’s a nice shady camping spot where you reach Bridge Canyon. The BCH group of 14 was planning to camp here for the second night of their three-day hike to Lake Powell. We continued downstream though. We lost the trail several times in the canyon because it’s a typical canyon trail that gets washed away every time the canyon floods. For the most part the walk consists of trudging through sand or hopping from rock to rock. I ended up longing for a nice hardpack trail surface by the time we got to Echo Camp.
The junction with Redbud Creek and the South trail is probably about two miles downstream from where you enter Bridge Canyon. There’s a large cairn but no sign. Given that many other landmarks along the trail were signed, it seems strange that the one junction in the trail is not. If you’re coming back this way like we were, be sure to take a good look around so you’ll recognize the junction when you reach it coming from the other direction. It would be easy to take the wrong fork if you weren’t paying attention, like a couple people in our party did the next day.
The canyon really opens up after the trail meets the South trail. The deep canyon walls are truly beautiful. Within ½ or ¾ miles of the junction, the trail goes through a nice clearing with a fire pit. When I make this trip again I will want to set up camp in this clearing instead of at Echo Camp. It was in shade both times when we came through and it would be easy to drop the packs here and make a round trip to Rainbow Bridge, which is maybe a mile or so distant. The canyon walls tower overhead.
We got to Echo Camp at about 3 pm. It was hot, with the amphitheater of Echo Camp facing directly west into the afternoon sun. The kids explored the pond, climbed under the overhang to make echoes, and bounced on several of the more than dozen steel bed frames scattered around the camp. We rested about an hour and then headed downstream about ½ mile to Rainbow Bridge, which thankfully was cooler.
I don’t have anything to say about Rainbow Bridge that hasn’t been conveyed better in the hundreds of photos on of the Bridge on the internet. It’s neat. The leader of the BCH group had told us that there is a dinosaur track at the bridge, but we couldn’t find it. I wish I had known about it before the trip so I could have googled it to increase our odds of finding it. It is not obvious. There were only two lake tourists there when we were there.
The trail to the lake was so inviting that we all decided to visit the lake too. After two days of struggling over rough trail surfaces, the mile-long semi-paved tourist trail to the dock felt like a super highway. Several of us may have jumped off the dock to cool off (swimming is officially not allowed in Rainbow Bridge National Monument), but if we had, we would not have stayed long in the water because of some UFOs (unidentified floating objects) near the bathrooms on the floating dock.
We were all pretty tired when we got back to camp. We didn’t stay up too late. Two of our party slept on beds (one bed frame even fit in a tent).
Day 3: Echo Camp to N’asja Creek
We stopped on our way out of camp to gaze at Rainbow Bridge one last time while I read a semi-creepy meditation on the “real” Rainbow Bridge -- the bridge leading from pet purgatory to Heaven (it comes up in a google search for Rainbow Bridge). Most of us laughed but my ten year old daughter asked why it was funny.
Sam and I were a bit apprehensive about this third day of hiking after all the miles we had done the day before, but this turned out to be our easiest day. I guess our muscles were getting the hang of it. We left camp just before 9 am and got back to N’asja Creek by early afternoon. We considered going on to Bald Rock Canyon to camp there instead, but we ended up staying at N’asja Creek because of the heat. Sam and I did the lazy adult thing and laid around in the shade all afternoon, while the kids built a dam.
Day 4: N’asja Creek to Trail Head
We left camp at 8:30 and arrived at the trail head a little before noon. There was another large group camping in Bald Rock Canyon so it was just as well that we had stayed at N’asja Creek the night before. There would have been enough room for both groups to camp, but it’s always nice to have a camp spot to oneself. Nothing of note happened on this day except that we had to leave this wonderful place for the long drive home to Prescott and Tucson.