Surprise Valley is a lovely corridor of colored stone, junipers and sandy soil untouched by discernible footprints other than those of mule deer and an occasional wild stallion. We set up camp, 12 miles and as many hours into the 20-mile hike to Rainbow Bridge, exhausted. The others build a fire, but I’m in my sleeping bag shortly after dark, and the next morning feeling the effects of cold and altitude. Kerrick James, our photographer, offers me a cup of hot Sierra tea, the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
About eight hours and several drainages later we are descending Bridge Creek when the National Park Service interpreter on the trip, Chuck Smith, says, “Look over your left shoulder.” There, partially obscured by a canyon wall, is the upper thrust of Rainbow Bridge, even its colossal grandeur diminished by the towering rock walls above it.
Almost an hour later we get there, weary but exhilarated. The bridge is the remnant of a massive fin of Navajo sandstone laid down some 200 million years ago by inland seas and violent winds. It blocked the flow of the creek until the water worked its way through the permeable rock, and the wind over eons widened the hole and added height to the span in the process. The base is of harder Kayenta sandstone, older and darker, a beautiful reddish brown contrast with the lighter rock above.
Other notables of a century ago passed this way, including the famous novelist Zane Grey, who pitched his tent next to a juniper like the one still standing at the bridge’s base. The various Wetherill parties did the same, but today, camping is not allowed near the bridge, still considered a religious site. And no one is allowed on top—although to gain access would require several more hours of climbing canyon walls to the east, now touched with the sort of light that inspired Grey’s purplest prose.
“Teddy floated under the bridge,” says Smith, an ambulatory encyclopedia of Rainbow Bridge information and the foremost advocate of this unique place. “On his back, looking up. I’ll bet he said, ‘Bully.’ ”