Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Formation of Rainbow Bridge | The Cummings-Douglass Expedition | More than a Bridge

 

Description

Rainbow Bridge is the world's largest natural bridge. The span has undoubtedly inspired people throughout time--from the neighboring American Indian tribes who consider Rainbow Bridge sacred, to the 300,000 people from around the world who visit it each year. Please visit Rainbow Bridge in a spirit that honors and respects the cultures to whom it is sacred. While Rainbow Bridge is a separate unit of the National Park Service, it is proximate to and administered by Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. For additional information about services and facilities connected with Rainbow Bridge, visit Glen Canyon NRA's Home Page.

Monument Information

Operating Hours/Seasons:  Dangling Rope Marina, the closest source of first aid, water, gas, and supplies, is open year-round. A ranger station there is staffed intermittently year-round. Rangers are at Rainbow Bridge daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day, less frequently other times of the year.

Weather:  Summers are extremely hot with little, if any, shade. Winters are moderately cold with night time lows often below freezing. Spring weather is highly variable with extended periods of strong winds. Fall is generally mild. Temperatures range from 110F (43C) in June & July to OF (-18C) in December & January.

   

  

      

Formation of Rainbow Bridge

Rainbow Bridge is but one of the endlessly fascinating landforms found on the Colorado Plateau and the story of its formation is an intriguing one. Natural bridges are rare, and differ from arches in that they form when a watercourse breaks through rock. Arches are far more common across the Colorado Plateau, although both are SHAPED by the same erosional processes.

 

 

The Beginning

The rock formations which comprise Rainbow Bridge are hundreds of millions of years old, deposited in a time when the climate and terrain were very different from what they are today. The base of Rainbow Bridge is composed of Kayenta Sandstone, reddish-brown sands and muds laid down by inland seas and shifting winds over 200 million years ago. The bridge itself is composed of Navajo Sandstone. This slightly younger formation (about 200 million years old) was created as wave after wave of sand dunes were deposited over an extremely dry period which lasted millions of years. These dunes were deposited to depths of up to 1000 feet (305 meters). Over the next 100 million years, both of these formations were buried by an additional 5000 feet (1,524 meters) of other strata. The pressures exerted by the weight of all these materials consolidated and hardened the rock of these and other formations.

The Colorado Plateau

The landscape that we know as the Colorado Plateau is, geologically speaking, a relative newcomer to the Southwest. The Colorado Plateau is an area of uplifted land, located generally around the Four Corners (the intersection of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), with the largest sections of the plateau being found in Utah and Arizona. 60-80 million years ago, this area looked very different. It was a relatively stable, flat area. Then, geologic forces began to push the land upward. The greatest and most rapid uplift, however, did not take place until about 5.5 million years ago--a mere breath in geologic time. During this last uplift, the plateau rose some 3000 feet (915 meters) above the surrounding landscape. The uplift buckled the surface of the land. Mountains began pushing up and the earth warped and undulated like an ocean of rock. It began to resemble the fascinating assemblage that is so familiar to us today. But one key ingredient was still to come into play.

Water--the Absent Artist

When we look at Rainbow Bridge and other spectacular landforms on the Colorado Plateau, we are witnessing a landscape whose principle sculptor was water. Water was not always the infrequent visitor it is today.

When the Colorado Plateau uplifted a few million years ago, river gradients were dramatically steepened, especially the Colorado's. These rivers combined their forces with that of the uplift to quickly cut many deep canyons into the plateau. During this time, periods of heavy rains, called pluvials, dramatically increased the amount of water flowing across the plateau.

In addition to canyon cutting, water also played a role in other ways, including the formation of Rainbow Bridge. Much of the exposed rock on the plateau, including Rainbow Bridge, is sandstone. Sandstone is really nothing more than grains of sand, some fine, some coarse, bound together by water soluble materials, like calcium carbonate. Whether it's a raindrop or a river, water dissolves this bond and washes away the grains of sand, creating a myriad of fascinating shapes and forms.

A Rainbow Made of Stone

Initially, water flowing off nearby Navajo Mountain meandered across the sandstone, following a path of least resistance. A drainage known today as Bridge Canyon was carved deep into the rock. At the site of Rainbow Bridge, the Bridge Canyon stream flowed in a tight curve around a thin fin of soft sandstone that jutted into the canyon.

As you can see from the illustration, the force of the stream eventually cut a hole through the fin. Rainbow Bridge was created when the stream altered course and flowed directly through the opening, enlarging it.

This process continues to this day, imperceptibly altering the shape of the Bridge. The same erosional forces which created the bridge will, eventually, cause its demise. Rainbow Bridge, along with the rest of the spectacular landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, will exist for only the blink of an eye in geologic time. We should consider ourselves fortunate, indeed, to be witness to these awe-inspiring formations. Let us treasure them while we can.

 

The Cummings-Douglass Expedition

 

Rainbow Bridge was undoubtedly known to local Indian tribes of the area, both prehistoric and historic. There is also evidence to support the likelihood that a few cowboys and prospectors had also stumbled across the span in the course of their wanderings. Yet, it was not until 1909 that Rainbow Bridge was "discovered" and publicized to the outside world. That discovery was shared by two veteran Southwestern scholars--Dr. Byron Cummings and William B. Douglass--who were united, albeit briefly, by John Wetherill, a famous Southwestern trader and explorer in his own right.
Back Row (left to right): John English, Dan Perkins, Jack Keenan, Jean Rogerson, Neil Judd, Don Beauregard.
Front Row (left to right): Mike's Boy, John Wetherill, Byron Cummings, William Douglass, Malcolm Cummings.


Stories of a legendary bridge of stone had been heard in several circles for a number of years. John Wetherill, along with his wife Louisa, had heard tales of the bridge from Navajo people while operating their trading posts in Oljato and Kayenta. The Wetherills passed along this information to University of Utah archeologist Dr. Byron Cummings, who was conducting expeditions in the area.  Meanwhile, William B. Douglass, Examiner of Surveys under the General Land Office, who was completing a survey of the newly created Natural Bridges National Monument also heard the story of a marvelous natural bridge. He informed his superiors who instructed him to attempt to locate the bridge. Thus, the "race" began.  There had apparently been friction between Cummings and Douglass in the past. Indeed, at the time when both parties were preparing expeditions to search for the bridge, Douglass was also attempting to have Cummings' permit to excavate archeological sites revoked. John Wetherill, who was organizing the Cummings expedition, was placed in the position of being a mediator for the two groups. After much discussion and at least one false start, the two rivals agreed to combine their resources.  On August 11, 1909, the group began their trek to the bridge. They were guided by Ute Jim Mike, a member of the Douglass party who had supposedly heard about the bridge from the Navajos. Along the way they were to meet up with Paiute Nasja Begay, another local who knew the route to the bridge.

The trip was long and arduous, taking a toll on both men and packhorses. The trail wound in and out canyons, across treacherous slickrock hills, and slogged through dry sandy washes and thick brush. Temperatures were brutal and tensions mounted between the two groups as it appeared they were drawing closer to the bridge.

 

 

 

Finally, late in the afternoon of August 14, the weary riders reached their goal. The rivalry between Cummings and Douglass had not lessened during the journey, however, and both men spurred their horses in an attempt to be the first white man to ride under the bridge. John Wetherill saw what was happening and, being closer to the bridge, went on ahead and rode under the span. It is unclear if Wetherill was motivated by diplomacy or irritation, but his actions did defuse this particular point of contention between Cummings and Douglass. The two explorers rode side-by-side under the bridge--after Wetherill.  The official "discovery" of Rainbow Bridge by Cummings and Douglass literally put Rainbow Bridge on the map. Over the next several years a few hearty adventurers made the formidable trip, usually guided by John Wetherill. Among those travellers were Theodore Roosevelt and Zane Grey. Grey later used Rainbow Bridge and the surrounding country in one of his most famous works, The Rainbow Trail, though he switched locations of many of the features.

The expedition's success did nothing to diminish the contention between Cummings and Douglass; they continued their feud in newspapers and correspondence. The publicity, however, did manage to bring Rainbow Bridge to the attention of a nation.

Teddy Roosevelt in camp on his way to Rainbow Bridge.

More than a Bridge

Neighboring Indian tribes believe Rainbow Bridge is a sacred religious site. They travel to Rainbow Bridge to pray and make offerings near and under its lofty span. Special prayers are said before passing beneath the Bridge: neglect to say appropriate prayers might bring misfortune or hardship.

In respect of these long-standing beliefs, we request your voluntary compliance in not approaching or walking under Rainbow Bridge.

Time For A Change

In 1910, it was the geological significance of Rainbow Bridge which caught the attention of the public, and on May 30, 1910, President Taft proclaimed Rainbow Bridge a national monument.

But long before its "discovery" by white explorers, Rainbow Bridge was viewed by nearby tribes as a religious site. The significance of Rainbow Bridge to neighboring tribes has become a strong factor in determining the way the monument is managed.

In 1995, as Rainbow Bridge National Monument celebrated its 85th anniversary, the Navajo, Hopi, Kaibab Paiute, San Juan Southern Paiute, and White Mesa Ute tribes helped the National Park Service identify and implement culturally sensitive management practices for the monument.

In previous years, visitors have walked under Rainbow Bridge. Since 1995, we have asked that visitors, out of respect for the religious significance of Rainbow Bridge, consider viewing it from the viewing area rather than walking up to or under it.

Sacred Significance

Rainbow Bridge is a sacred place and has tremendous religious significance to neighboring Indian tribes. Rainbow Bridge could be likened to a cathedral--one that nature has sculpted over time. The rock arches and buttresses of Rainbow Bridge inspire feelings of magnificence and reverence in all who see it.

Today, we appreciate Rainbow Bridge for its geologic wonder and for its profound significance to the various Indian tribes who revere it. Please treat Rainbow Bridge and the surrounding canyons with respect. Stay on the trail to refrain from trampling plants and land around Rainbow Bridge. Approach and visit Rainbow Bridge as you would a church. Please respect the beliefs of the Indians for Rainbow Bridge.

The true significance of Rainbow Bridge extends beyond the obvious. It is indeed a bridge--a bridge between cultures.

 

   

 

For Additional Information Contact:

Rainbow Bridge National Monument
PO Box 1507
Page, AZ 86040-1507
(520) 608-6404

 

For more information visit the National Park Service website