RAINBOW BRIDGE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Rainbow Bridge National Monument consists of a 160-acre block of land surrounded
almost entirely by the Navajo Indian Reservation. Its prime attraction is
Rainbow Bridge, the largest, the most symmetrical, and arguably the most
beautiful natural bridge in the world. Rising 290 feet above the streambed
of Bridge Creek, the bridge is 32 feet thick at its narrowest and spans
270 feet. It consists entirely of salmon-pink Navajo sandstone.
Located on the northwest flank of 10,000-foot-high Navajo Mountain, Rainbow
Bridge lies on the floor of a deep sandstone canyon, whose sheer cliffs
rise as much as 1,000 feet. The setting was so spectacular that Zane Grey
wrote a novel entitled Rainbow Bridge, in which the natural bridge
takes on a mystical aspect. Former president Theodore Roosevelt, on a visit
in 1913, wrote that he awakened several times in the moonlit night to gaze
silently at the looming arch.
Although known to Navajos and Paiutes living in the area, the bridge was
not formally discovered by white men until 14 August 1909 when two exploring
expeditions, one headed by Dr. Byron Cummings, and one headed by William
B. Douglass, joined forces. They were guided by two Paiutes, Nasja Begay
and Jim Mike. John Wetherill, well-known professional guide and Indian trader,
was also listed as a guide (although he had never been there). Their route
to the bridge was around the east end of Navajo Mountain. Charles L. Bernheimer
sponsored three expeditions to the bridge in the early 1920s. Participating
were well-known guides Zeke Johnson and John Wetherill, and archaeologist
Earl Morris. The Bernheimer groups opened up a new route through the rugged
sandstone canyons west of Navajo Mountain.
President William Howard Taft set aside the bridge as a national monument
in 1910. For many years it was one of the most isolated and hard-to-reach
units of the National Park Service. However, in 1956 Congress passed an
act authorizing the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. Suddenly Rainbow Bridge,
which would be on the projected shoreline of the reservoir to be named Lake
Powell, became controversial. The act decreed that barrier dams had to be
built to keep the lake out of the monument, but the U.S. Court of Appeals
ruled in 1973 that since Congress had repeatedly refused to appropriate
funds for these barrier dams, that special provision of the act pertaining
to them had been abrogated.
Navajo Indians maintain that Rainbow Bridge figures prominently in their
religion as a symbol of rainfall and fertility. The Navajos were unable
to halt the rise of Lake Powell to the bridge, but the National Park Service
agreed to prohibit "disrespectful" acts--such as swimming under
Because of its proximity to Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge is today heavily
visited during the warm months. During 1988 the monument received 238,307
A Bureau of Reclamation report dated 1985 stated that a ten-year study showed
that the presence of Lake Powell had no effect on the stability of the bridge.
The report continued, "Joint controlled rockfall was the predominant
erosive process in forming the bridge. [This process is] actively continuing
today and will eventually cause the destruction of the bridge."
See: Charles L. Bernheimer, Rainbow Bridge (1924); Byron Cummings,
"The Great Natural Bridges of Utah," Bulletin of the University
of Utah, III (1910); Karl W. Luckert, Navajo Mountain and Rainbow
Bridge Religion (1977).