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Rainbow Bridge Trail Professional Review and Guide
"A challenging backpack into some spectacular canyon country. Although Rainbow Bridge is one of the largest natural bridges in the world—290 feet high and 275 feet wide—in some ways, reaching the bridge is anticlimactic. The surrounding cliffs dwarf the bridge, and there may be a lot of tourists who arrived by boat. Yet the hike in is worth every step. Permit: Required from Navajo Nation.Rock cairns mark the trailhead on the west side of the parking area. At first the trail is an old road, but it quickly becomes a narrow path. In about 0.5 mile the trail descends and crosses First Canyon. A mile and a half farther, it crosses Horse Canyon. At both crossings you may notice several paths. They all eventually rejoin the main trail. The trail continues to skirt the rugged slopes around the base of Navajo Mountain until it reaches a pass near the head of Cliff Canyon."
--Stewart Aitchison & Bruce Grubbs, Hiking Arizona (Falcon Guides).
We hiked the South Route starting at the Rainbow Lodge Ruins trailhead. The directions to the trailhead were great. Without a 4x4 and a confident driver you will have to park at the Navajo Mountain sign and walk the extra mile to the ruins.
With the Rainbow Bridge South Trail Guide, put together by the National Park Service and the Hiking Arizona – Rainbow Bridge Trail Guide we headed off for an overnighter. The information downloaded about the trail was NOT SUFFICIENT -- DO NOT HIKE THIS TRAIL WITHOUT A TOPO MAP! The elevation profile is drawn at such a scale that it shows an overall elevation loss from the trailhead to the bridge… but do not be fooled! The trail skirts around Navajo Mountain but descends into and climbs out of a number of canyons and there are some rather dramatic elevation changes. Also, if you are going by the guide map and descriptions, as an indication the distance traveled, you may assume you are closer to the bridge than you actually are. There are a few metal mileage posts but some of them are unmarked and the first sign you will see is about 8 miles in and it points you in the direction of Redbud Pass. The total distance to the bridge varies depending on what guide you believe and with the elevation changes it can be challenging to estimate your overall hiking speed.
We did not make it to Rainbow Bridge and if you want to make it the bridge you should do this hike as a 3-day adventure – there are plenty of places to camp, there is plenty of water (even in winter) and with 3 days you will have the time necessary to comfortably cover the trail miles.
The trail itself is spectacular. It is primitive, marked only by cairns, but if you have some trail-sense it is a relatively easy trail to follow – even in the deep snow! The trail is an amazing route through canyon country with views and solitude that are unmatched!
Getting to the trailhead at Rainbow Lodge is no problem except for the last mile where you definately need a 4x4. From there it is a pretty easy hike until you start down into Cliff Canyon, where it starts into a steep downgrade for 2-3 miles. We spent the first night where Redbud Canyon and Cliff Canyon join, you can't miss it there is a sign for Redbud Canyon and some old horse corrals. The next day we dayhiked to Rainbow Bridge, along the way you pass many spots where packers have chisled their names and dates into the rocks, some as old as 1904. In Redbud pass you pass a spot in the rock that was transformed into a makeshift bathtub. At Rainbow Brige the park ranger gave us some background on the trail and told us the round trip hike from Rainbow Lodge is actually 30 miles not the 23 it said in the Hiking Arizona book. We camped at the base of the incline out of Cliff Canyon the second night and hiked out the next day. You definately get a satisfied feeling when your at Rainbow Bridge knowing you hiked in, eventhough there are people walking in from the boats on the opposite side of the bridge. The trails are easy to follow, we found water at Cliff and Bridge Canyons, and saw nobody other than the park ranger and the people coming in off the boats. Overall it was a good hike, the added distance threw us for a loop, but it is a good hike.
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