The hike to Ortho Bridge proved to be a challenge for me as far as route finding and navigation. Add in heavy brush, numerous stream crossings and wash bottom obstacles like pour-offs, stagnant pools, mud holes and beaver ponds that can only be skirted by scaling dangerous cliff faces and you will understand why I cannot recommend the following trip to anyone who is not highly experienced in backcountry travel.
If you are not a seasoned hiker but still interested in taking this trip I strongly recommend you hire knowledgeable and competent guide.
The trip to Ortho Bridge from Sand Flats via Rill Creek requires high quality reliable equipment, advanced hiking skills and good physical conditioning. The most important safety tool is leaving word with someone – tell them where you are going and when you expect to return. Bring along a map and know how to read it – GPS units can be unreliable in deep narrow canyons, batteries can go down and they have a tendency to quit when dropped on rock or in water.
There are several ways to hike into Ortho Bridge, but the route I selected starts up on Sand Flats west of Campground J and east of Sandfork Canyon. Find your way to the rim of Rill Creek canyon via an old bulldozer track that heads southeast across the flats from Sand Flats Road. You’ll find the dozer that cut it, or what is left of it, about half way down the slope into the canyon.
Drop into Rill Creek and head downstream to its confluence with the North Fork of Mill. This section of the hike is relatively easy with the exception of the obstacles noted above. The most difficult aspect of this route is remembering the best track around the obstacles on your return trip. Upon reaching the confluence the game changes with the addition of fast flowing water in North Fork, thick brush and limited visibility in the canyon bottom. There is enough hiker traffic to define a trail in places but for the most part you will be on your own to find a way through. Head downstream and be aware that at least four stream crossings lie ahead and you’ll have to jump each one. Fortunately a bench rises on the north side of North Fork after the second bend making travel much easier. Once you reach the west end of the bench, you’ll have to do your homework to find the correct side canyon where the bridge resides. Jump the creek once more and head south into a long narrow side canyon with numerous seep caves and some of the oldest and largest juniper and pinyon trees I have ever encountered.
The bridge lives at the end of the canyon at the base of the waterfall that created it. On the day I visited, the air was perfectly still and not a sound made it into the cavernous amphitheater behind it. The silence of the place was overwhelming. Several old cowboy glyphs adorn the walls, campfire charcoal litters the ground.
The grotto is a damp, cool, shadowy, secretive, intimate sanctuary, nothing like the massive crowded bridges at the national monument. Ortho Bridge is one of the true jewels of the Moab backcountry. Spend as long as you like then retrace your route back to the promise of sun and warmth up on the flats.