April 16, 1908: Roosevelt establishes Natural Bridges National Monument

·Christy Karras

Natural Bridges is both one of America’s most fascinating national monuments and one of the most remote. From the entrance beside a usually empty stretch of highway on a desert plateau in south-central Utah, it's impossible to tell what lies just a few hundred yards away. There, a river is digging a canyon into the plateau’s surface—and carving giant natural bridges in the process.

A natural bridge is a bit like the formations that populate Arches National Park (also in southern Utah). But while arches are created by wind and precipitation, bridges—true to their name—are undercut by water running below. The three bridges in the national monument’s White Canyon are impressively large. One of them, Sipapu, has the third-greatest span of America’s natural bridges, after Morning Glory and Rainbow natural bridges (both also in Utah).

Gold prospector Cass Hite stumbled upon White Canyon, named for the light-colored horizontal sandstone streaks that break up its red-rock canyon walls, in 1883. Interest grew after a 1904 National Geographic Magazine story, and in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt designated this Utah’s first National Park Service area. But it wasn’t visited much until Highway 95 between Blanding and Hanksville, Utah, made Natural Bridges National Monument accessible by car in 1976.

Rock formations aren’t the monument’s only draw. Mud-brick structures nestled beneath overhangs along the cliffs are remnants of ancient human settlements; the oldest human artifacts found here date back an estimated 9,000 years. From one side of the steep canyon, you can look across at the ruins and wonder how on earth people managed to climb into those precariously perched granaries.

The monument’s remoteness, combined with its easily accessible (if steep and sometimes scary) short hikes to bridge viewpoints, make it ideal for either a few-hour stop during a tour of the Southwest or a multi-day camping expedition. Another benefit of its location: The International Dark-Sky Association named Natural Bridges the first International Dark-Sky Park for its clear skies and efforts to reduce light pollution. Its sky is the darkest the National Park Service Night Sky Team has ever assessed.