Discovery of the Bridges
In 1883, prospector Cass Hite wandered up White Canyon from his base camp along the Colorado River. In search of gold, he found instead three magnificent bridges water had sculpted from stone. In 1904, the National Geographic magazine publicized the bridges, and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt established Natural Bridges National Monument, creating Utah's first National Park System area.
Several names have been applied to the bridges. First named President, Senator, and Congressman in order of height. The bridges were renamed Augusta, Caroline, and Edwin by later explorer groups. As the park was expanded to protect nearby Puebloan structures, the General Land Office assigned the Hopi names Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo in 1909.
Sipapu means "the place of emergence," an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world. Kachina is named for rock art symbols on the bridge that resemble symbols commonly used on kachina dolls. Owachomo means "rock mound," a feature atop the bridge's east abutment.
Early Human History
The area was repeatedly occupied and abandoned from 9,000 to 700 years ago. Only rock art and tools--left by families hunting small game and gathering wild plants--reveal that humans lived here then. Ancestors of modern Puebloan people moved onto the mesa tops 1,300 years ago to dry farm (relying only on natural precipitation) and later left as the environment changed. About 900 years ago, new migrants from across the San Juan River moved into small single-family dwellings near the deepest, best-watered soils throughout this area. In the 1200s, farmers from Mesa Verde migrated here, but by the 1300s the ancestral Puebloans migrated southward. Navajos and Paiutes lived in the area in historic time, and Navajo oral tradition holds that their ancestors lived among the early Puebloans.
Millions of years ago these sandstones were deposited then slowly uplifted as part of the Colorado Plateau. Erosional forces gradually created today's canyons and landscapes. Plant communities varied over time, too. Pollen studies show this area once was a spruce-fir forest. Alterations in the climate changed the dominant plant type, but small pockets of Douglas fir still dot cooler, moist, north-facing cliffs near Sipapu Bridge.
Precipitation is infrequent and unpredictable and can be dramatic-- from long periods of drought to periods of heavy rain and snow. Plants and animals have adapted to this environment. Cryptobiotic soil, the black and lumpy crust here, retains moisture and stabilizes and adds nutrients to the ground. This allows other plant communities, such as pinyon-juniper forests, to develop and mature.
How Bridges and Arches differ
Natural bridges are formed by the erosive action of moving waters. Arches are formed by other erosional forces, mainly frost action and seeping moisture. Those same forces also work to enlarge natural bridges once stream erosion forms them.
All the text in this page were lifted from the official park brochure issued by the National Parks Service of the US Department of Interior.