A century ago, Anglos first heard about a magnificent natural bridge shaped like a rainbow and larger than the Capitol Dome. In 1909, through serendipity, an archaeology Professor and a government surveyor, contacted southwest explorer, John Wetherill to lead an expedition to find the bridge. With the aid of native guides, the Cummins-Douglas party reached Rainbow Bridge on August 14, 1909. President Taft declared it a National Monument less than a year later and pack train tourists visited it until Lake Powell was created in the early 60’s. Except for a few hardy souls, the trail has been largely forgotten ever since.
To hike the trail, it requires a Navajo permit, 4 wheel drive, backpacks, and a boat! Starting on the backside of the 10,388 foot Navajo Mountain, the trailscape at 5,300 feet is mixed cedar and sage brush dissected by deep riparian canyons where the trail appears to disappear over the edge of the cliff! The high slick rock plateau is parsed with spectacular vistas across the San Juan River valley and to the rugged pinnacles of Navajo Mountain.
Dropping into the riparian valleys, Moqui marbles, believed to provide spiritual healing properties by the Hopi, are ever present. The most notable of these canyons is Surprise Valley filled by the fast flowing Nasja creek! Zane Grey, the famed western author, named it because of its stunning desert oasis appearance. The west fork of Surprise Valley includes several ceremonial sweat lodges, the beautiful Owl Bridge, Anasazi ruins, and enticing green amphitheaters that beg a return trip.
In canyon country, Newton’s law is backwards…what goes down must go up! After multiple steep canyons, I finally drop into my final canyon, the headwaters of Rainbow Creek. At my ingress, it’s nothing more than a steep, rocky trail in an ever deepening slot canyon. Foot placement is critical lest I end up as tumbleweed.
About five miles downstream, the trail hugs the canyon wall and rises above the canyon floor. It passes through a gate adorned with a bedframe! After the discovery, Wetherill and others started pack trains for tourists, including Teddy Roosevelt, Zane Grey, and John Muir. To accommodate their guests, a comfortable camp was set up in a fabulous spring fed amphitheater named Echo Camp. The bedframe gate was my first clue of the nearby camp.
Approaching the magnificent Rainbow Bridge, there is a memorial to the Native American guides and signs that warn hikers from passing under the arch. According to legend, passing under the bridge without saying the proper prayers curse the sojourner for life. With my Navajo permit, I am uniquely permissioned to go underneath, but I do so with prayers and reverence.
Just on the other side of the natural bridge is a viewing area for tourists coming from Lake Powell. The tourists’ flip-flop attire was juxtaposed to my sweat sodden clothes and heavy pack. I had hiked through wild country and arrived at one of the truly natural wonders of the world – Rainbow Bridge!