Standing nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty, Rainbow Bridge is generally thought to be the largest land bridge in the world. Photographs simply can’t showcase just how big this natural bridge is at over 230 feet high and about 40 feet thick at the top. Designated as a national monument in 1910 by President William Howard Taft, Rainbow Bridge is referred to as Nonnoshoshi, meaning “rainbow turned to stone.” Revered by Native Americans for centuries, this natural wonder has been the source of admiration, adventure, and a bit of controversy over the years.
Rainbow Bridge’s history began hundreds of millions of years ago when various sedimentary layers were first laid down. The base of Rainbow Bridge is made up of Kayenta sandstone that was laid down over two hundred million years ago while the bridge is composed of Navajo sandstone. These sedimentary layers were compacted by thousands of feet of strata above them. As the Colorado Plateau experienced dramatic uplifting as early as 5.5 million years ago, rivers and streams were redirected, and these hardened layers of sandstone became exposed and susceptible to erosion from the constant flow of water in the area.
As water flowed from nearby Navajo Mountain, it meandered across the sandstone, taking the path of least resistance, carving deep canyons and tight curves. At the site of Rainbow Bridge, the river flowed tightly around a thin “peninsula” of sandstone until the peninsula became so thin that the water broke through it and created a new path for the stream. Over time, this water flow enlarged the opening through the wall of sandstone, creating the natural land bridge that exists today. By taking a look at the image below, you can really tell see how this meandering stream once flowed around the former peninsula that Rainbow Bridge once was. Directly across from the bridge it also looks like another natural bridge was (or is) in the making as well.
Native Americans, including ancestral Pueblo Indians, Paiute, and Navajo groups, have long thought Rainbow Bridge to be sacred. Though known to Native Americans and perhaps many early settlers and cowboys, Rainbow Bridge wasn’t publicized until 1909. After early explorers discovered the bridge, it was soon designated as a national monument by President Taft and became an enticing destination for intrepid explorers, including Teddy Roosevelt and Zane Grey. At that time, Lake Powell hadn’t been formed by damming, and the trek to Rainbow Bridge required an exhausting weeklong boating excursion down the Colorado River followed by a seven-mile hike through the canyons.
Today the trip to Rainbow Bridge takes only a few hours by boat thanks to Glen Canyon Dam that created the Lake Powell reservoir in 1963. Unfortunately the water storage benefits of that damming definitely came at a cost to the native and natural history of the area. Many side canyons, arches, and other natural bridges, as well as Native American archeological sites were destroyed as a result of the rising water levels of Lake Powell. In fact, although Lake Powell’s waters are certainly a beautiful sight, many remarked that the flooding of Glen Canyon amounted to one of the greatest losses of America’s natural scenery. Shortly after the creation of the Glen Dam and Lake Powell, increased water levels encroached further onto Native American sites and eventually sparked a lawsuit against the federal government by several Native American groups in 1974. The courts didn’t side with the Native Americans, however, and ruled that the prevailing need for water storage in the region outweighed the historical importance of these sites in addition to finding that Rainbow Bridge could not be closed off to the public based on religious needs of the Navajo.
This history of controversy is the reason why the US National Park Service has worked closely with the public and Native American groups to make sure that visitors are mindful of the history, and respectful of the sacred and religious sentiments that are held toward Rainbow Bridge. One major way that you can ensure that you don’t encroach on anyone’s beliefs is by simply staying on the trail while you visit Rainbow Bridge. While there is a trail looping under the bridge that is not illegal to walk on, one might want to consider the sacredness of the site and refrain from walking directly under the bridge out of respect for many of the lost sites and traditions of the local Native Americans.
Rainbow Bridge is relatively easy to access so long as you make the proper boating arrangements. While the bridge is located on the Utah side of the Arizona-Utah border, visitors depart on a two-hour boat ride from one of the marinas at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona. These boat rides can be launched from various points, and the US National Park Service has two concessioners that you can book through from either Aramark or Antelope Point. These tour boats leave from the Wahweap and Bullfrog Marinas and can be quite expensive with some rates starting at $125 per adult.
Once you arrive at the dock near Rainbow Bridge, it’s a short 1.5-mile hike to Rainbow Bridge. These tours from the Marina to Rainbow Bridge typically take about six hours total, so make sure you allocate plenty of time on your itinerary (even your entire day) if you plan on making it to Rainbow Bridge. Also this is another destination that can get crowded at certain times, such as on summer weekends. For that reason try to avoid the crowds by visiting in the off-season or during the week. Or you can always look into renting your own boat if that’s something you have experience with and enjoy traveling at your own pace.
You can also consider a cross-country fourteen-mile hike through Navajo land to arrive there. You’ll have to secure a permit in advance because you’ll be traveling through reservation land. And, as final word of caution, just make sure that you know what you’re getting yourself into with a hike of this kind, since the summer temperatures in the Lake Powell area regularly hit or stay above 100°F.
- Admission: $15 entrance fee to park, plus fees for hiking permit or boating fee (roughly $125)
- Hours: Open 24 hours
- Pets: Not allowed on the docks at Rainbow Bridge or on the trail to the bridge