Story by Marden Clark
At about four in the morning of our third day on the Rainbow Bridge trail, a large dog jumps in Cliff Spring, startling me out of sleep. The dog thrashes around in the water, drinking heavily, and then barks. Half-conscious, I wonder if mountain lions make that much noise drinking. Cliff Springs is the seasonal source of water for Cliff Canyon. It is the only source of water for half of the thirteen mile hike to Rainbow Bridge, before we hit Redbud Creek and then Lake Powell. The dog has been this night's loudest visitor to the spring.
Yesterday I hiked with my party from Cliff Springs to Rainbow Bridge and back again, about twelve or thirteen miles. This part of the trip makes for a good, flat day hike. The trail follows Cliff Spring (when it is running) past numerous side canyons and crevasses to the juncture of Redbud Pass and Cliff Canyon. Across from the juncture, a forming arch curls up the canyon wall.
Redbud Pass connects Redbud Canyon and Cliff canyon. The trail rises dramatically to the top of a huge pile of debris in the middle of two sheer cliff faces. The other side of the pass is a narrow, cluttered ravine. I can't imagine how earlier commercial expeditions took horses over these heaps of rocks. Yet coming down Redbud pass we see horseshoes lodged in the cement of an old diversion dike, and dates scratched into the sandstone, 1934 and 1941. Later we pass Echo Camp. Shaded by the high canyon walls and carpeted with green, Echo Camp was the campsite for the old horseback trips to the bridge. Then the trail was a cult favorite, situated in one of the most remote areas in the continental U.S.
The thirteen mile trail, wandering through the maze of spectacular canyons and around the endless, slow turns of Redbud Creek shows me how remote Rainbow Bridge used to be. Now most people travel by boat up Lake Powell and stroll fifteen minutes to view the natural wonder. But no matter how you get there, the bridge is stunning. The Native Americans describe it best: a stone rainbow. Its huge span of polished arch is amazing; its rounded curve of height, breathtaking. We arrive back at Cliff Springs, tired and pleased.
At 5:41 a.m., the dog gets hold of a loose Pringles can and bangs it up and down the canyon wall. One of our party lunges out of his sleeping bag and grabs the dog by his collar. I look out of my tent. The dog is a large, good-natured rottweiler. He is as big as a black Lab but has all the rottweiler markings: brown rear-end, brown eyespots and muzzle, some brown on his legs. He wears a thick, red, iron-studded collar. The dog stays with us the whole morning, begging for food as we pack up.
On the red and white cliffs, canyon wrens repeat their high, descending scales, and two ravens wait for us to leave our campsite.
We want to get away as soon as we can because we will be returning over the mile and a half that leads out of Cliff Canyon, the hardest part of the thirteen miles. The trail climbs up an ancient talus slope, now grown over with junipers, cacti, yuccas, and Brigham Tea. Coming down, the trail is just steep enough to make the strongest knees jelly. Going up the slope is dusty, hot, and tedious.
The dog stays with us the whole way, eager for a scratch or a pat and some food. Sometimes he is ahead, his brown tail bobbing, sometimes his large, black head and pink tongue are suddenly at our heels or dangling hands. He greedily laps the water we serve him in an old hat. When we stop at Sunset (or Yabut) Pass for lunch, we feed the rottweiler enough to make him stop begging. He flops down in the shade and goes to sleep. Looking back down the slope I understand why the hike is only recommended for spring or fall. It is only March but hot enough to make the ascent nearly unbearable.
The first four miles of the hike are not as awesome as the deep ravines around Rainbow Bridge, but the trail presents beautiful vistas of the frozen sand dunes that create the labyrinth surrounding Navajo Mountain. The hike wanders down four smaller canyons, troughs for the water that runs off of the mountain and into Lake Powell. After the four canyons the trail winds, sometimes steeply, sometimes gently, through white and orange sandstone gardens to Sunset Pass.
The dog remains with us, our guide back to our truck. We have decided he must be a reservation dog, perhaps following his normal routine of wandering ten miles down in to the canyons. Who knows why he chose to accompany us back to the reservation. At War God Spring, the water source for most of the Navajo families in the area, a man tells us he recognizes the dog as his cousin's.
I have a hard time leaving Navajo Mountain. I've gotten used to walking on dirt again, and being surrounded by rocks. I've also become fond of the rottweiler. As we pull out past Haystack Rock, where the road to War God Spring connects with Navajo Mountain Road--the road that will eventually take us to Arizona 98 and off the reservation-the dog is standing by a pole. Afternoon sunlight glints off the pole's yellow deflector. We wave good bye, and the dog doesn't follow us anymore. As I watch him in the rearview mirror, he turns around once to watch us go. Then his brown haunches shift as he trots back toward the canyons.
Read the guide to the Rainbow Bridge Trail here