Rainbow Bridge National Monument
Rainbow Bridge
Utah
Sunday, April 20

Cliff Canyon, Navajo NationIt was a chilly night, and I slept with my head buried inside the bag. Several times I poked my head out of the bag to watch the stars, in their unpolluted clarity, for a few seconds before going back to sleep. As morning approached, birds began singing, and the bright light of dawn hurt my eyes. When I finally got up around 6:30, the outside of my bag was soaked. The entire canyon was in shadow, but I could see a single sliver of golden sandstone far off down the canyon where the sun was shining. The sky was cloudless. In the chilly morning air, I got dressed as Dave woke up. Due to the wet bags, we decided to wait until the sun was in camp to dry things out before leaving, contrary to the original plan of getting to the bridge as soon as we could. Therefore, I walked down the canyon to see if there were any good morning photographic opportunities. Very shortly on my walk downstream I came upon running water, coming from some unseen and unknown seep in one of the numerous side chutes winding up and out of sight on both sides of the creek. This has been described as a permanent spring called First Water by numerous authors, and has a couple of well-used campsites nearby. The running water provided suitable habitat for cat tails, Equisetum and tall reedy grasses, in addition to redbuds, box elders and willows. Some of the healthiest Ephedra plants Iíve ever seen reside here. In the jungle-like canyon bottom, I bulled my way down the narrow, overgrown trail, where off to the left sat a wooden outhouse, seeming very out of place in this completely remote area, but confirming that this area has historically been an overnight stop for hikers and packers.  An occasional mosquito would buzz in my face, but the bugs were surprisingly and pleasantly few. A little further down I found a side chute that looked shallow enough for my boots to grip, and walked up. Halfway, the pitch steepened, and I cached my camera on a ledge so I could use both my hands. I didnít go more than 50 or 60 feet up before I reached a dome that hung out over the creek. Hoping I could see camp from there, I got to the top, but the view up canyon was blocked by an intervening fin. I slowly scooted down and returned to camp. 

Upon my return, we discussed the timing of the day, and decided that since the sun had not yet even touched the top of the canyon walls, a considerable delay would be inevitable should we continue to wait for the sun to dry things out prior to leaving. We decided to leave, and dry bags out later. We Dave Burns in Cliff Canyonquickly packed up camp and took off. As we approached the side chute on the right of the canyon that I had earlier ascended, I pointed out a much more robust side canyon on the opposite wall that looked worth exploring. Dave agreed. We shed our packs right next to the trail and took off up the steep, grassy slope that led up like a stairway between two unscalable rock walls. The shadow-cloaked slope was very steep, and we dodged the yucca and cactus on our separate routes up. Giant angular choke stones, calved from the towering walls above perhaps before men walked on two legs, provided soil anchors that kept the entire canyon from being a smooth rock wash. Sweet-smelling redbud provided the most difficult obstacle to getting up as I bent and wormed my way under their low-hanging limbs.  After several hundred feet, the canyon forked, and we took the smaller, narrower left fork into a short box canyon that ended in an abrupt wall. The entrance to this canyon was no more than 6 feet wide, but opened up inside to about 15 feet. An overhanging spout, stained by metal oxides from centuries of intermittent water flow, hung directly over a perfectly smooth sandstone bowl filled with cold, dark water. The round pool was about 10 feet in diameter, hidden like a treasure in this indistinct and small cove. A side canyon of a side canyon of a side canyon of Glen Canyon. We backed out of the narrow opening, and continued on up the main drainage. We reached a spot after several hundred more feet where the slope converged with the left wall so that we could walk out on top of a huge sandstone dome. Far from being smooth, the surface of this dome was covered with tiny 1mm spikes that pricked my ass as I sat down.  From the vantage point, we could look down and see our starting point by the Cliff Creek, as well as ascertain that if time allowed, we could continue on up the side canyon indefinitely, perhaps all the way to the top of the towering cliffs at the top of the horizon. Time, unfortunately, did not allow such an excursion. Perhaps another day. With so many places to see in this world, and only 60 walking years to see it in (if one is lucky), I think the chances that I will go back to visit that particular side canyon in that remote corner of Lake Powell are slim to none. Such a sentiment compels me to take as many photographs and notes as I can on each place I visit, since I know I will visit few of them a second time. So many canyons. So little time. 

The trip back down the side canyon took very little time, and before we could turn around, we were back at the creek, chugging water and having a snack.  After hiking another ½ mile or so, we stopped again to filter water from Cliff Creek before leaving it to cross Redbud Pass. The water in Cliff Creek was good, and plentiful, but we didnít Cliff Creek Canyonknow what to expect in Redbud Creek. We also took the time to apply sun screen. Dave, who comes from upstate NY, and hasnít seen the sun in 10 months, burned his legs and elbows by not applying sun screen to those spots the previous day. I escaped such a fate, but had terrible blisters on my feet which he seemed immune to. To each his own. We skinned an orange and downed it, then continued on under a perfect, and I mean perfect, blue desert sky. I donít know if itís the contrast between the orange rock and blue sky, or whether the dry air makes colors more vibrant, but Iíve just never seen such a blue sky anywhere but in canyon country. 

Dave trekking up Redbud PassNear Redbud Pass, we noted an old wooden shelter, shaped like a teepee. Perhaps part of the Rainbow Lodge accommodations from the 1950ís? Who knows? There are no informational placards out here, and it is good to have some mysteries left unsolved.  As we turned right into Redbud Pass, Cliff Canyon continued on and out of sight around a right bend, quietly beckoning us to explore its lonely depths. Again, we had no time to do so. Redbud Pass still confounds me with its steepness. Looking at a highly detailed 7.5í quad map, I canít count more than 2 contour lines (at 40 feet each) that must be crossed to reach the top of Redbud Pass, yet the elevation gain is several hundred feet, at least. Probably the most dramatic narrow-canyon section of the entire route is that through Redbud Pass, where two massive, near-vertical walls frame a trail in places just wide enough to lead a horse through. The steepness is compounded by the loose sand trail, which makes it hard to get a good footing. The pass is aptly named, as hundreds of redbuds line the thin corridor. The sweet smell of their tiny purple blossoms freshened the air beyond description. Other flowers lent color to the pass. Indian paintbrush bloomed red in profusion, and I saw a single claretcup cactus in full bloom, its blood-red petals standing out like neon against the shadows of the juniper trees.  The sandy flats where the soil was deeper were covered with prairie wild onions, their numerous blooms appearing almost like purple and white striped ribbon candy, and there was no mistaking their pungent aroma. One could tell the trail was not well traveled since grass and lupine grew right in the middle of the path. 

Bridge Canyon, near Rainbow BridgeBy the top of Redbud Pass, marked by a wooden sign held up by a rock pile, my feet were in agony from blisters that had developed and intensified on my toes and the ball of each foot. I removed shoes to inspect the damage, found several blisters already ruptured, and decided there was little I could do but try to ignore the stinging. The way down Redbud Pass, toward Redbud Creek, was much more rugged than the way up. I had read that someone spent a lot of time trying to improve the trail with dynamite and shovel work back in the 1920ís to make it passable to pack animals. If at one time horses could descend this route, they would surely not be able to now. Several 6-7 foot drop-offs required cautious descents with all four limbs. To get back up I am sure one would have to do a bit of scrambling, but I have heard from those who were able to make it up without ropes and with packs just fine. Nevertheless, we began to appreciate even more the one-way design of our trip.  We slowly picked our way down a boulder field between the two rock walls, and I wondered if we had somehow lost the trail. No other conceivable route existed, however, so we continued down at a snailís pace, cautiously testing each step to make sure each rock wouldnít bound down the hill with one of us on it. As the terrain leveled, the distinct outline of the trail returned, and we were able to once again walk in comfort. The trail remained a track through a crack in the rock, almost like a tunnel, and truly a tunnel as it wound between a vertical rock wall on the left, and vigorous white oak thickets on the right that covered the trail from above. Flecks of sunlight scattered on the soft sand of the trail, and the cool shadows felt very refreshing. The temperature was rising as we were descending towards the river, or what is now the lake, and we were both sure to keep drinking plenty of fluids to fend off any uncomfortable side effects of dehydration. 

Redbud Pass drops hikers into Redbud Creek, which has a spectacular canyon of its own. I donít recall looking up-canyon, but that probably would be a great place to go explore. Once again, if I ever come backÖ. Hardly a stoneís throw from where the trail intersects Redbud Creek, Redbud Creek intersects Bridge Creek in Bridge Canyon, and the trail from Navajo Mt Trading Post, which was the original trail to Rainbow Bridge established in the teens after the white-man discovery of Rainbow Bridge in 1909.  This was the real sign that we were getting very close. Bridge Canyon was much wider than Cliff Canyon, and seemed to have taller walls, although I think this may just be a consequence of having fewer side canyons and corresponding ridges. The walls were mostly sheer and vertical, with numerous giant overhangs that sheltered inviting campsites.  Bridge Creek ran with more volume, although we found out later the taste was definitely inferior to Cliff Creek, for whatever reason. 

Bridge Creek CanyonThe temperature approached the mid seventies, and we stopped for a break at a bend in the creek. I ate some cheese and crackers and aired out my boots. The down-canyon breeze in the shade almost made it feel cold, so both Dave and I oscillated between sitting in the warm sun, and the cool shade. I pulled out a map and pondered the possibilities. Rainbow Bridge lies in the middle of its own small, square National Monument covering 160 acres, or about 2/3 square mile. No camping is allowed within the monument, but since that was what we came to see, we wanted to camp as close to it as possible while staying on Reservation land. 

Conversation turned to our plans for camping on the road after the boat picked us up and dropped us off at Wahweap Lodge the next afternoon. Since camping along the road is forbidden inside the reservation, and since it takes at least 2 hours to drive to Mexican Hat, the first town outside of the reservation on the way back east, we decided that the afternoon boat would come too late for us to do anything but camp once again at Wahwap Marina. Neither of us wanted to do that again. Therefore, we decided that seeing the bridge for the next 12 hours was enough, and we would attempt to take the morning tour boat back to Wahweap, arrive there by 3 and hopefully get to a BLM campsite north of Mexican Hat by dark. 

We put our packs back on and continued, knowing we were close, and keeping our eyes open for possible campsites. Several appeared, and we made mental notes. Since it was very tough to say where the boundary was, the plan evolved into "hike to the boundary, then turn around and camp in the first good spot". We followed the trail until it started to climb steeply away from the creek. Figuring we were close to the bridge, we decided that the trail must eventually meet the creek, and followed a well-defined trail down to the creek and followed it. The creek bed was solid rock for a spell, and a spout fell into a deep pool of greenish water that was at least 10 feet deep and ran in a channel for about 30 feet, being about 10 feet wide. If it were a hot summer day I wouldíve hopped right in, but the water wouldíve been far too cold for that while we were there. The creek bed drew narrower, and the walls steeper, until we could go no further, and realized the futility of our effort to hug the creek. We figured the trail was up above somewhere, and that if we climbed far enough, weíd reach it. It is amazing how fast we descended so far Bridge Creek above Lake Powell and Rainbow Bridgebelow the trail, for while we were walking downhill, it was leading steeply uphill. The result was that we had to climb over a hundred feet of treacherous 60-70 degree slope to get back on the trail. While resting at the top after the arduous climb up, Dave studied the map, and determined that we would not be able to get down to the creek until well inside the monument, and since camping hinged on good water, we turned back to the previously-sited spot that had ample water and good tent sites. We set down our packs for the day at 12, about 5 hours after starting out from camp that morning.

This campsite was marvelous. Giant planks of flat, though rippled, rock (and I donít think it was sandstone) formed a multi-leveled platform that overlooked a large, waist-deep pool of crystal clear water that had water rushing both in and out, filling and emptying simultaneously, in perpetuity. A sandy beach provided a perfect tent site, after Dave excavated a giant rock from the middle, while the flat rocks provided perfect sitting and cooking areas. The rocks above the pool provided a perfect seat to sit and soak tired, hot feet in the cold water, which we did as soon as we arrived. We pulled out our wet sleeping bags and dried them in minutes under the mid day sun. I doctored my blisters by lancing them and applying bandages while Dave tended to his severely burned legs. Within an hour of staking our claim, we put a couple of water bottles in a bag and took off up the trail (not detouring by the creek this time). We passed through a dilapidated barbed-wire gate, then followed a flat trail around a deep and thin wash. At the source of this wash lay the old tourist camp, Echo Camp, complete with rusting bed frames and cottage foundations. It was all fenced off, perhaps for archeological and historical reasons. It didnít look like an inviting place to explore anyway so we werenít disappointed to be herded along by the obstacles. I was much happier with our open camp than I wouldíve been in this overgrown alcove. 

The trail stayed pretty flat as it side-hilled around the slopes and gulleys, weaving left and right between side-rails of rocks, laboriously stacked along both sides. The open, flat areas to the right of the trail harbored an abundance of plant life. Delicate white evening primrose and fading Utah daisies were the most abundant, but individual desert trumpets and scattered blooming fishhook cactus provided more color. Once again, I was impressed by the diversity and abundance of plant life in the thin strip of green along the canyon bottom. While the trail stayed more or less level, the creek bed fell sharply away, and soon was clearly inaccessible without climbing gear. I was walking in front on the trail, and Dave caught first sight of part of Rainbow Bridge off down the canyon and pointed it out. It was much closer to the monument boundary than I had expected, but there it was, a tremendous arch that appeared tiny against the enormous canyon walls and buttes rising around it. 

Rainbow Bridge with Navajo Mt in the backgroundWe hiked on, and crossed through the Park Service gate, where signs clearly indicate that it is forbidden to do much of anything within the park, such as swimming, camping, fishing, rock-climbing, boating, etc. I jokingly commented that we shouldnít breath too much either. The afternoon sunlight was brilliant, and it lit up Rainbow Bridge in harsh, raw light that contrasted deeply with the deep, dark shadows on the walls and below in Bridge Creek. As we approached the bridge, a rock wall on the right held two large copper plaques, one commemorating Jim Mike and the other Nasja Begay, the two Native Americans present when the first white men viewed Rainbow Bridge. I had read previously that the Park Service requests visitors to refrain from walking under the bridge in respect of Navajo religious beliefs. Much is written on Park Service placards and brochures about how sacred this site is to the Native Americans, but I question that. For example, when rumors of the bridge came to Anglo ears in about 1907, they contained language like, "only a few go there", "not remember the prayers" or "not many know the way". When Byron Cummings and William Douglass, two Anglo expedition leaders, sought guides for this rumored bridge in 1909, they could find only a few Native Americans who had ever even heard of the bridge, or at least who would admit to knowledge of it. The expedition leader from Utah State University, Byron Cummings, hired a Navajo named Dogeye Begay, while Douglass, a General Land Office employee, hired a Piute called Jim Mike. After several days of searching, neither was able to guide the expeditions anywhere near the bridge, and had never actually seen it. Only the appearance of Dogeye Begayís father, Nasja, saved the now-joint expedition from collapse since he alone seemed to know the way (Hassell, 1999).  I donít want to step on any toes, and if someone decides something is sacred, thatís their right. What Iím saying is that the picture the Park Service paints of regular visits to Rainbow Bridge by masses of Native Americans for the last several centuries in a sort of Mecca pilgrimmage just doesnít seem to be accurate.  The historical record shows it is more likely that some natives visited it occasionally, but the majority never did.  Personally, I donít see how walking under or approaching Rainbow Bridge is disrespectful. I didnít walk 13 miles through canyons to disrespect a piece of rock. I walked 13 miles to see a natural creation of beauty, and I donít think that any position of my body means much at all to the rock. In 1995, a group of Native Americans calling themselves "Protectors of the Rainbow" barricaded the trail to the bridge, and protested with signs the deplorable standard of living on the Navajo Reservation. Some were photographed climbing on top of Rainbow Bridge. Is that religious reverence? Nevertheless, Dave and I walked up a Rainbow Bridgehill and around the east end of the bridge, and down the other side, probably contributing  much more to erosion than if we had simply walked underneath. It all seems so politicized and frankly ridiculous.

When we reached flat ground, we were confronted with a herd of people gathered behind a stone barricade that we were now on the wrong side of. Rainbow Bridge also serves as a gateway, holding back the Park Service signs, pavements and shelters that litter the west side of the bridge. Dozens of brown and white signs proclaimed "Area Closed" and "We ask for your voluntary cooperation in not approaching or walking under Rainbow Bridge." We got a few stares as we stepped onto the paved Park Service viewing area, but heck, how else do you get to the other side if not by crossing this line? We asked a guy if they were with the tour boat, but they werenít, so we decided to walk down to the dock to meet the tour boat that was supposed to arrive at 3:00 and see if we could alter our reservation for the following day.  Along the wide, flat, boulder-lined trail leading down canyon, I stopped to take several photographs of Rainbow Bridge with snow-dusted Navajo Mt in the background. Every 50 feet a Park Service sign proclaimed "Area Closed". I was frustrated at the ugly signs and their unavoidable presence. In one photograph, I had Dave stand in front of a sign to hide it. The trail was very deliberate, with obvious signs of heavy earth-moving equipment use and backfill. Tire tracks criss-crossed the trail. Slopes of rock seemed out of place. The lake was very low, the lowest it had ever been since it reached full level at 3700 feet in June of 1980, and the thirty or forty feet of white scum on the rock above the waterline, the bathtub ring, showed the high point. Dozens of steel hooks and rusted cables hung limply from the walls, dock anchor points from previous high-water level years. Steel culverts and PVC drains channeled water under the trail to prevent erosion. The entire effect was one of a construction site in its early stages, and after the pristine beauty and small trail in Cliff and Bridge Canyons, the scene left a bad taste in my mouth. This is industrialized nature, and it is revolting. It is also the only nature most ever see.

Because of the low water level, the floating boat dock was at the very limit of the Monument on the NW side, about 1.2 miles from the bridge, according to the Park Service employee we consulted there.  In high water years the dock is moved up canyon to give fat tourists a better chance to waddle up the trail and see it. Over 150 yards in length, the dock stretched as a floating 10 foot sidewalk far out into the waters of Lake Powell, confined in the narrow walls of Bridge Canyon. It has rails, trashcans and a floating 6 flush-toilet comfort station coated in tasteful faux-adobe. Numerous boats were docked, but none looked to be a tour boat. We discussed the possible arrival of a tour boat with the Park Service man, and he confirmed what we had heard, that they only make the trip if they have enough paying customers, and might not show up today at all. We sat and waited on the dock, and entertained ourselves by throwing Ritz cracker bits to the giant 2 foot carp and striped bass swarming beneath the dock. On the far side of the dock, on the canyon wall just below high water line, lay a huge pile of bleached tree skeletons, stranded on a ledge above the water. Their cracked and slimed limbs providing a dismal reminder of the unwholesome depths of water in the canyon. Soon, all boats departed, and we were alone on the quiet dock. I walked out to the end to look down View downstream from camp - Brdige Canyonthe canyon, but as in all the others, the twisting, sinuous curves of the rock blocked out all vision after a couple hundred yards. At 5 after 3, we gave up on the boat, and by 15 after, we left the dock behind. Apparently the boat arrived just minutes later, because as we took group pictures in front of Rainbow Bridge, a herd of folks came around the bend after us. Thus, we were able to gain an audience with Doug, the tour boat driver, and he told us there would be no problem in catching the early boat the next day. With that reassurance, we peeled ourselves away from an old man telling us a highly detailed story about kayakers in Alaska, and blatantly disobeyed the "Area Closed" signs as we walked back over the hill, around the bridge, and resumed the trail back to camp. We arrived back to a cool and shady camp, and frogs croaking like mechanical sheep by the thousands. The evening consisted of cooking dinner, filtering water, lancing refilled blisters, soaking feet and legs in the pool of water, and setting up the tent after determining the mosquito/gnat population just barely warranted such nighttime protection. Originally I had visions of sunset and starlight photographs of rainbow Bridge, but when we returned to camp, there was no way my tired body was going anywhere else that night.

As darkness settled in the canyon, and the first bright stars revealed themselves in the infinite sky visible only through the narrow crack between the canyon walls, an indescribable calm filled the air. Far from roads, motors and other bipeds, the desert sounds completely and utterly erased any thoughts of dismal offices, flourescent lights, gas stations and traffic lights. Frogs droned on the creek bed as they have, every summer night, for millions of years. Tiny bats flittered silently around camp, swooping gracefully across the pool of water to snatch mosquitos and gnats. A hummingbird drank in the warm nectar of a red penstemon near camp, sending a quiet, intense hum through the canyon. The staccato song of a canyon wren floated on the dry, desert air. My body knew I was at home, and relaxed more completely than at any time in the last 6 months. As John Muir once said, "Ögoing out, I found, was really going in." The long hike of the day caused drowsiness to set in even before darkness had completely fallen. When only 4 stars were visible, we retreated to the tent, and I fell asleep as my head hit my rolled up sweatshirt. 

 


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