Morgan Sjogren
Audio file

"I’ve experienced it by boat and by land. And personally, there’s more reverence in being able to do it on foot. [When] you go by boat, you miss all of the scenery — the high vistas, the nice mesas, the canyons, the water.”

As a young boy growing up in the Shonto and Inscription House chapters of the Navajo Nation, Leo Manheimer listened to his grandfather Mike Calamity, a medicine man, tell stories and prayers about Rainbow Bridge (Tse’naa Na’ni’ahi or Na’nizhoozhi in Diné). Yet it wasn’t until adulthood, when he moved to Navajo Mountain with his wife, that Manheimer took his first trek to the sacred stone rainbow. In 1979, having never gone backpacking before, he carried a wool blanket and plastic bags filled with canned food down the Rainbow Trail. The experience changed the course of his life, and he continues to guide hikers to Rainbow Bridge, as he has for more than four decades.

Each year, tens of thousands of people take a ferry across Lake Powell from Page to witness the world’s largest natural bridge, which stands an impressive 290 feet tall. Boating to Rainbow Bridge, just north of the Arizona state line in Utah, is not necessarily new: Starting in the 1930s, river runners journeying down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon often stopped for a 12-mile round-trip hike up Bridge Canyon to the site. But in 1963, the completion of Glen Canyon Dam turned the passageway into a reservoir, and with it came the possibility of mass tourism. Although lake water expanded access to Rainbow Bridge, it also disconnected travelers from the adventurous overland journey once required to get there.

Manheimer’s sentiment is that something of great value is lost when visitors don’t experience what lies on the other side of the rainbow — and, for those who are physically able, the effort it takes to hike there. With a heavy pack, equipped with four days of supplies, strapped to my back, I’ve come to the Rainbow Trail to walk through the pages of history embedded in the landscape.

Regulated via permits from the Navajo Nation, the 18-mile (one way) single-track trail is smooth and well marked, allowing me to safely peel my eyes off the ground and marvel at an unending expanse of slick-rock domes. In the distance, my eyes scale towering, untouchable mesas butted up against the ribcage of 10,328-foot Navajo Mountain, the heart of this desert landscape. In the middle of spring, the mountain is still covered in snow, and an icy breeze chills my skin as it spills into the narrow canyons below.

While Lake Powell has completely altered the landscape of the Colorado River west of Rainbow Bridge, the modern Rainbow Trail to its east has remained relatively unchanged for more than a century. The overland route first made headlines on August 14, 1909, when the Cummings-Douglass Expedition reached Rainbow Bridge. Originating as two separate expeditions, the parties, headed by Byron Cummings and W.B. Douglass, initially were racing each other to the bridge. Cummings’ local guide, John Wetherill, known as a peaceful man of few words but strong influence, managed to unify the teams en route, and the parties proceeded to Rainbow Bridge together. The story might be different, however, if not for Wetherill’s wife, Louisa, who first learned about Rainbow Bridge from a Navajo trader and subsequently persuaded her husband to lead the Cummings-Douglass group. The current iteration of the Rainbow Trail, part of which was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, is a slight variation of the Cummings-Douglass route.

Although history books list the Cummings-Douglass Expedition as the “discoverers of Rainbow Bridge,” the expeditions were led by San Juan Southern Paiute guides Nasja Begay and Jim Mike, who already knew its location. Archaeologist Neil M. Judd, a young member of the expedition, understood this context, writing in Arizona Highways in 1967: “I have often been asked how we first learned of Rainbow Bridge and who really discovered it. The real discoverer was some unknown Indian in the unrecorded past.” In 1927, Wetherill petitioned for and installed a bronze plaque near Rainbow Bridge to honor Begay, who had died of influenza in 1918. But it wasn’t until 1974 that the National Park Service honored Mike, then 104 years old, with a ceremony to recognize his contribution — and paid him the $50 guide fee he was determined to be owed. Finally, in the early 1980s, Mike’s plaque was installed next to Begay’s.

Although the Cummings-Douglass group didn’t technically discover the bridge, the significant media attention paid to the expedition placed Rainbow Bridge on modern maps, leading to its designation as a national monument by President William Howard Taft in 1910. The lore of the desert adventure quickly attracted a new wave of tourists to travel via pack animal along the fabled Rainbow Trail. Those visitors included Theodore Roosevelt and Zane Grey; they were led there separately in 1913 by Begay and Wetherill, who became widely known as respected guides.

Also among the early pilgrims was Charles Bernheimer, a wealthy Manhattan businessman who became so smitten that he began writing about his experiences in The New York Times, National Geographic and a 1924 book, Rainbow Bridge. In 1922, Bernheimer’s team, which included Wetherill, pioneered a marginally shorter route to Rainbow Bridge by using dynamite to blast a mule path over a sandstone cleft known as Redbud Pass. Still in use today, this 16-mile route, from the south side of Navajo Mountain, is steeper, drier and more primitive than the northern route.

Yet neither of these routes were pioneered by Anglos or their guides, as Navajo oral history recognizes that the faint trails the routes follow might date to the Basketmaker and Ancestral Puebloan cultures. And according to Manheimer, a small band of Navajos further developed the ancient routes in the 1860s, while the U.S. Army was forcibly marching some 10,000 Navajos to present-day New Mexico during the Long Walk. A band of two dozen Navajos, led by Hoskininni, evaded capture by residing in the canyons behind Navajo Mountain — including Bridge Canyon, the location of Rainbow Bridge. “I think when the Navajos were avoiding capture, they saw the mountain as a shield, something that protected them from the outside world,” Manheimer says. “And so they were able to survive.”

Descending into Surprise Valley, where the first hints of silky white sego lilies and purple sage are budding, I pass an old hogan, long out of use, with Navajo Mountain standing like a fortress behind it. The red Indian paintbrushes that surround the site are a reminder of the people who walked this path long before tourists did — and still call this place home. Each step through the backcountry between Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge traverses a substrate of history that cannot be witnessed by boat.

Around the bend of a side canyon, I encounter Wetherill’s name, dated May 26, 1918, inscribed on a red wall streaked with orange varnish. The Rainbow Bridge backcountry was also home for Wetherill, who served as custodian of Rainbow Bridge National Monument. He resided with his family among the Navajos in Kayenta, where they ran a trading post. That connection to the area lives on today through historian Harvey Leake, a Prescott native who is Wetherill’s great-grandson. Although Leake had heard bits and pieces of family history from his mother, it was Bernheimer’s book that spurred Leake to take his own journey on the Rainbow Trail in 1979 — the same year as Manheimer, who now is among Leake’s hiking companions.

In a 2019 blog post, Leake recalled the transcendental experience: “After a memorable week on the Rainbow Trail, our adventures reached a climax when we rounded a bend in the canyon and the great Rainbow Natural Bridge first came into view. The anticipation of that moment, fueled by mental images of paintings, photographs and historical accounts, culminated in a profound sense of fulfillment that transcended mere aesthetics or pride in physical accomplishment. … I began to understand why John Wetherill and his more perceptive clients were so attracted to the region.” Since that trip, Leake has taken more than 50 hiking trips to Rainbow Bridge and written extensively about his family and the Colorado Plateau’s history.

Manheimer and Leake share and exemplify the living cultural and historical tapestry still paving the way to Rainbow Bridge, yet both worry that these connections are being lost on modern travelers. “People forget Rainbow Bridge and what it stands for, Navajo Mountain and what it stood for, the sacred springs, the pillars that represent the deities and the gods,” Manheimer says. “The average child, the average Navajo, I wish they could at least take the time to take a look at those things and see for themselves the places that gave their elders and ancestors hope and spirituality, which in turn gave them a better life.”

Leake offers a similar sentiment. “I wish more people knew the enlightening effects Rainbow Bridge has had on its visitors down through the past 111 years, and how those profound experiences were enriched by the participants’ rugged adventures along the Rainbow Trail,” he says, and the twinkle in his eyes speaks to this magic as much as his words do. “It was the journey as well as the destination. It tells you something about life. I think sometimes effort is needed, and then you get a really deep reward for what you’re doing.”

Both men say the route to Rainbow Bridge is worthy of being traveled and treasured by those who obtain a Navajo permit and visit respectfully. But even for those who elect to travel by boat, understanding the history of overland travel to the bridge will enhance the experience.

A final climb takes me to the edge of the Rainbow Plateau, where piñon-juniper forests fade into a naked sea of sandstone so vast that Lake Powell is indistinguishable. During my 2,000-foot descent, the temperature rises and contrasts with the cool water splashing my feet as I cross Aztec Creek and enter Bridge Canyon, where I’m swallowed by towering sandstone flanks streaked in rust-colored varnish. Along the walls, I follow ancient etchings of bighorn sheep around the canyon curves, and I find my pace lagging. As I draw closer to Rainbow Bridge, I dread reaching Lake Powell’s backed-up waters and witnessing their effect.

The sanctity of Rainbow Bridge spurred a controversy that began in 1956, when Congress authorized the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. Many feared that the reservoir’s higher water level would weaken the bridge’s structure and put it at risk of collapse — a threat to an active cultural site revered by the Navajos and several other Southwestern tribes. Those concerns failed to halt or change the dam project, but the Park Service did promise to protect the bridge. After the 710-foot dam was completed in 1963, 46 feet of water collected beneath Rainbow Bridge when Lake Powell reached full pool, in 1980. The bridge survived, but the new lake brought a sudden ease of access — and, with it, a loss of the sense of adventure required to reach the site.

Today, drought and other factors have left Lake Powell near its lowest-ever water levels, leaving this stretch of Bridge Canyon looking nearly as it did pre-dam. As the canyon deepens, the trail traverses a neatly carved, glossy pink sandstone channel flowing with crystalline water and adorned with native plant life. Around another sinuous bend in the canyon, I pass through a wooden cattle gate into the national monument; here, my first glimpse of the bridge spurs me onward. As I approach, I resist blinking and lift my gaze skyward in an effort to take in the full view of the behemoth fusion of Kayenta Sandstone and Navajo Sandstone spanning 275 feet between canyon walls. I forget about my camera and simply stare in witness; nothing in the man-made world can contextualize this perfect rainbow.

Zane Grey, the author of popular Western romance novels, also found himself at a loss to describe Rainbow Bridge in 1913. “I found it never seemed the same at any two moments,” he wrote. “Near at hand it was too vast a thing for immediate comprehension. I wanted to ponder on what had formed it — to reflect upon its meaning as to age and force of nature. Yet all I could do was to see.” At the time, Grey couldn’t envision motorized access, much less a water route, to such a remote wonder. “It was not for many eyes to see,” he wrote. “The tourist, the leisurely traveler, the comfort-loving motorist would never behold it. Only by toil, sweat, endurance and pain could any man look. … It seemed well to realize that the great things of life had to be earned. [The bridge] would always be alone, grand, silent, beautiful, unintelligible; and as such I bade it a mute, reverent farewell.”

The bridge’s spiritual significance to the Navajo people also defies description, but that’s by design. Manheimer explains: “As a Navajo guide, my biggest priority is to help clients see and experience the beauty and wonder of Navajo Country. Information on religion is usually limited to general information, as specific information can only be shared at certain times of the year. Rainbow Bridge is said to be one of the cornerstones of Navajo religion and beliefs. [The information I share] is usually general, at the urging of Navajo medicine people.”

Perhaps there is no adequate or appropriate way to describe Rainbow Bridge. Thus, to fully understand its significance, people must go and see it for themselves.

Standing at the foot of the rainbow, I bask in the bridge’s sacred geology without crowds, as Indigenous people, explorers and early tourists once did. Now, more people than ever may experience Rainbow Bridge, but much of that experience remains securely tucked beyond the rainbow, waiting for those who journey across the desert.