Hiking to Rainbow Bridge, Utah – Nov 11th to 14th, 2021

Marcel van der Stroom
Marcel van der Stroom

Marcel is the founder of Progress Through Photography, based in Arizona and loves spending time on the trails to run, hike or create photographic art.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument
Rainbow Bridge

Rainbow Bridge, Utah

Rainbow Bridge is a natural arch in Southern Utah in the Navajo Nation. It is often described as the world’s highest natural bridge, with a recorded span of 274 feet. While Rainbow Bridge is mostly accessed by boat from Page, we decided to take 3 days to hike in over the Rainbow Bridge North Trail, a 30+ mile roundtrip. A permit, which can be acquired from the Navajo Nation, is required to camp in the designated camp spots along the trail. This was a very quiet trail. We did not see any people on the trail and only saw two hikers the night before – who hiked the 31 miles in 2 days, on sandals !

Getting to the trailhead

The trailhead is located in the “town” of Navajo Mountain, in southwestern San Juan County, Utah. It takes you about 3 hours from Flagstaff, AZ and 1.5 hours from Page, AZ Technically, the hike starts at the trailhead at the end of a rough dirt road. As the road has some difficult to pass sections that are washed out after this years heavy rains, it is very common to have to park somewhere on the road. We passed a view sections but still parked 1.5 miles from the start of the trail.

Day 1 – Parking to Surprise Valley.

Our group of three left just after sunrise for the first stage of the trip, and headed out on our way towards the real start of the trail: the Rainbow Bridge Trailhead. The trailhead is pretty much a parking spot, don’t expect any restrooms or other facilities here (or anywhere else on the trail). Once on the trail, it is well to follow across slick rock, through washes and small canyons. The first real elevation change will present itself when you climb up to Bald Mountain Canyon, only to go down straight into it. The rest of the trail to Surprise Valley, our basecamp for the three days is relatively easy. Next to the campsite, there is a small creek that had flowing water in it at this time of year.

Surprise Valley

The temperatures during our hike fluctuated from the low-to mid thirties at night to the upper 60’s. Note that due to the sun exposure, it might feel a bit warmer than that. As the evenings get quite chilly, a fire is very welcome ! When we were there, there was enough dead wood laying around to burn.

Evening falls in Surprise Valley

Day 2: Surprise Valley -> Rainbow Bridge -> Surprise Valley

We started our 17 mile roundtrip just after sunrise, at which time it was still cold. The first part of the trail goes through Surprise Valley past Owl Bridge (Note: Many maps show Owl Bridge on the wrong location. If you are coming from Surprise Valley and cannot find Owl Bridge, continue ~ 0.2 miles on the trail and you will see the bridge on your left).

Owl Bridge
Owl Bridge

From Owl Bridge, the trail continues in the ever narrowing canyon. We saw a lot of evidence of deer, mountain lions and small critters, but never saw actual animals. Pretty sure they saw us, though. Once you have climbed your way out of Surprise Valley, you arrive on the Rainbow Plateau, a gorgeous open area. The trail is becoming harder to follow once you cross multiple washes and a slot canyon, but the views continue to impress.

Rainbow Plateau

The landscape changes when you descend into Bridge Canyon, which starts off as a lush, green valley with a flowing creek, and turns into a red canyon area with high walls. This canyon will snake around for 3-4 miles and after crossing a dry river bed multiple times, you will be eye to eye with the biggest natural bridge in the world. We were lucky to have the bridge all to ourselves, as the docks were closed due to the low water level in the lake.

The Bridge seen from the South East

We returned to our camp just before the sun set behind the canyon walls and started our evening program at the campfire (which didn’t last very long and we were asleep at 8pm).

A fire a day keeps the mountain lions away

Day 3: Back to the truck

The route back from Surprise Valley is relatively easy, with Bald Rock Canyon being the only significant climb. Still, with all the small climbs, we managed to reach over 2,000ft elevation gain on day 3. While not extremely long, the terrain should not be underestimated – you will have steep climbs, get scratched up, be cold and hot in the same day, but you will also have an experience you won’t forget. Like to see more photos ? See the full gallery below:

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