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RAINBOW BRIDGE NATIONAL MONUMENT

By W.L. Rusho

Rainbow Bridge

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 the bridge.

Because of its proximity to Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge is today heavily visited during the warm months. During 1988 the monument received 238,307 recorded visitors.

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."