Land of the Rainbow Sky

On the Rainbow Bridge Trail - Utah
Rainbow Bridge Practicalities
When To Go
-late March, April, May, late September into November. Other months have potentially hazardous weather. 
-Trails Illustrated has a very large scale map of the general area, entitled Glenn Canyon and Capitol Reef Area, the USGS 7.5 maps of Nasja Mesa, Wilson Creek, Rainbow Bridge, and Navajo Begay cover the entire hike itself. 
Animals To Watch For
- deer, small mammals, predator birds, reptiles. 
How Strenuous
- Backpacks make it necessary to be in decent shape to enjoy the trip. 

Want to spend some time around the sacred mountain where Monster Slayer, born of the sun, miraculously grew from child to man in a single day? Care to meet Nonnezoshi, a sky deity frozen by time into wind touched stone? How about some dynamite backpacking on one of the most spectacular yet overlooked trails of the canyon country southwest?

You can do all these things and more on the Rainbow Bridge Trail of southern Utah. It's a 28 mile semi-circle-or sandpainting if you will-whose sacred center point is 10,400 feet high Navajo Mountain. Nonnezoshi, one of the Rainbow Sky People, is known to the mystics of the National Park Service as Rainbow Bridge. 275 feet across, it's the largest known natural arch in the world. Besides the chance to interact with Navajo reality, this trail offers a unique combination of canyon, desert, lakeshore and mountain environments.

This backcountry trek is located on the Rainbow Plateau, off the southern shores of Lake Powell. Page, Arizona, just west of the Plateau, is the best base camp for this trip. It's easily reachable by car or plane from Phoenix. Page has a 24 hour Safeway supermarket, in this tourist town Bashful Bobs' Motel,(telephone 602-645-3919), has fine rooms at the best prices.

There are three practical trailheads for this hike. If you want to go by land, take highway 98 out of Page to Rt.16 (Navajo Mt.Rd.). I chose to take a tour boat out to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, buying a backpackers split ticket at $43 each way. The boat leaves (seasonally) twice a day from Wahweap Marina, an extravagant tourist complex 8 miles west of Page. There are several advantages to doing this. It puts you right in the heart of the best scenery. It avoids the very rough dirt roads (4wd or steel nerves) of the other trailheads, along with the break-ins that have occurred there. There's plenty of free, safe, long-term parking in Wahweaps' huge lot. The drawback, along with the price, is that reservations (Lake Powell Reservations 800-528-6154) are a good idea, which structures your trip somewhat. Still, you can get on board in either direction at any time if space allows. And the voyage up and down Lake Powell, about 2 hours each way, is an adventure in itself.

Arriving at Rainbow Bridge National Monument ( a boat dock and two rangers), I started up Bridge canyon, whose stream over geologic time carved out Rainbow Bridge. April in Arizona is a primo hiking month, but the week of my hike had unseasonably cold and unsettled weather. That morning in Page I'd watched a decent amount of snowflakes fall! Therefore I proceeded as steadily as I could, keeping an eye on the sky, and getting into my down jacket whenever I stopped for a break. Bridge canyon has lots of good campsites, and I picked one with a sizable overhang. It didn't happen to rain, a hot meal and warm sleeping bag helped me pass a very pleasant evening.

The next day I soon came to the unmarked but obvious intersection of the North Rainbow trail to Nasja canyon and the South Rainbow trail to Cliff canyon. I decided to head for Nasja, and in a little while had hiked out of upper Bridge onto the benchlands. At about 5,000 feet, it was mountain weather up there with flurries of hail, periods of rain, and only stunted trees to take shelter under. Navajo Mountain, snow-covered and mist-shrouded, rose up majestically less than a mile away. I sure had no desire to violate the Navajo prohibition against outsiders climbing it. I caught glimpses of Lake Powell and the Aquarius Plateau to the north as I hiked. It was wild, windy and beautiful up there on the benchlands. The trail wound its way past sandstone buttes looming big as battleships in the near distance.

I'd definitely recommend coming out of Bridge with full canteens and resupplying at Oak canyon, which is a dependable source of water as well as shelter against the elements. Outside of the main canyons water is seasonal and often just not there. It's about 8 miles from Rainbow Bridge to Nasja. Rain fell some more but that gave me the chance to see two rainbows shine over Navajo mountain.

A last downhill, two abandoned hogans, and small Owl Arch to the right alerts the hiker to the proximity of the stream which runs through Nasja Canyon. The canyon proper starts less than half a mile down from the stream-trail intersection. After pitching my tent I took out a smudge stick and performed my own version of a good weather ceremony. It must have worked, cause the next day when I dayhiked Nasja Canyon I even had patches of sunshine! Nasja is a fine dayhike. There are pleasant little rapids, meadow areas, and sandstone rock faces hundreds of feet high which reflect and echo the cries and shadows of ravens. Given time, one could walk down Nasja to the shores of Lake Powell.

The next day I headed back towards Rainbow Bridge. Fortunately for me the long anticipated rainstorm hit after I'd recrossed the benchlands and dropped back into upper Bridge canyon. To my delight waterfalls appeared everywhere as the sandstone walls channeled and shaped the runoff. It was rain magic, but when the trail crossed a stream that hadn't been there on my way in I got worried, wondering if I might find the trail blocked further down. I had intended to camp at Echo camp (an abandoned tourist spot with good spring water a half mile above Rainbow Bridge), but I took a look at the large waterfall that also hadn't been there before and decided to seek higher ground. Since camping inside the small domain of Rainbow Bridge Monument is illegal I'm certainly not going to tell you that I slept warm and dry under the worlds' largest sandstone arch that night.

A couple of remarks about this hike. It's on the Navajo Nation, so a backcountry permit is necessary, for which a slight fee is charged. Write The Navajo Nation, Recreational Resource Dept., Box 308, Window Rock Arizona, 86515. I'd allow a month to process the paperwork comfortably. Away from the dirt roads and trailheads the Rainbow Plateau is fairly remote backcountry, in five days I only met two pairs of fellow backpackers. From what I hear, at least Cliff Canyon is a"must see" on the other half of the trail. Finally, the section of the North Rainbow Trail I walked was easy to follow and impossible (even for me) to lose.

Kenneth Silver is a hiker who especially loves the sea coast and the canyon country. He works for a mysterious federal organization and drives a pick-up truck!

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »