We travel onward to Natural Bridges National Monument, the recipient of the “darkest skies in America” designation. Satellite imaging consistently showed pitch-black in these coordinates, and the park has capitalized on that by developing astronomy programs and having ranger-led star talks nightly. All of its electrical needs are generated by a vast array of solar panels, so remote NBNM is off the grid entirely; it uses diesel generators as back-up in cloudy weather to energize its Visitor Center and employee residences.
Put this park on your bucket list — please. It is a treasure. We got there at 1:25 pm on Friday and got one of the last few sites in the 13-site campground, which has no running water; get that at the Vis Ctr a few blocks away. Elevation 6500 feet, pygmy forest of juniper and pinyon pine — glorious! The air is clear and sweet, with whispers of sage scent that become full choruses of heady, intoxicating sage aromas filling your lungs and cleansing your brain after each rain.
The timing is perfect: a ranger-led hike leaves in 30 minutes to one of their three massive bridges in the canyon below. I absolutely love ranger-led hikes. I loved every one I went on as a kid, soaking up the ranger’s knowledge, picking his (they were always male) brain, asking Qs and knowing I’d get an authoritative answer. I was always at the front, able to touch the hem of his garment. Still am. Only now it is scary when I put on the ranger uniform and realize that people are looking to me for the authoritative answers!
Ranger Dottie was well-read and of tremendous assistance. We wound down the canyon, descending 400 vertical feet, learning plant facts galore along the way. Underneath Kachina Bridge, a massive fortress-like opening carved by running water (which differentiates it from an arch, NOT water-formed), Ranger Dottie delivered a gift: hand-outs mapping the abundant rock art in the area. Six pages of panels on grid paper, upon which some industrious artist type had painstakingly copied the pictographs and petroglyphs onto graph paper so we mere mortals with untrained eyes could find and study the images. A whole new world opened, as I stood in the shadow of the monstrous bridge, looking at the Entrada sandstone upon which Ancestral Puebloans had left their many marks. Only now I could finally SEE those marks.
Handprints are found in almost every rock art panel in the Four Corners, as are mammals (such as bighorn sheep) and spirals (possibly signifying journey, or passage of time). Snakes are common, no surprise. Anthropomorphic shapes differ from place to place, but are usually present and always fascinating. But here’s what got me: two different panels I saw showed DINOSAURS. Large herbivores, like Apatosaurus, were perfectly represented. I got out my camera and tried hard to make the faint dinosaur come forth in the poor light, and then I decided to just sit back and enjoy this delicate mystery that shall never be solved. WHY would Puebloans paint something unless they were familiar with it? Perhaps their forefathers told about these creatures. Perhaps they ran into a few. Perhaps… perhaps… I don’t know. But the fact that dinosaurs are present in their rock art, including a perfect pterosaur (pterodactyl) in Utah, sends shivers up my spine.
Remind me not to forget to visit the dinosaur footprints trackway west of the park. I want to walk where the dinos walked.