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Rainbow Bridge will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a national monument on Sunday.

From the time of its public discovery in 1909 by white explorers until the 1960s when the rising waters of Lake Powell provided easy access, the trip to see one of the great, scenic wonders of Utah was an arduous task.

The world's largest natural arch, Rainbow Bridge was recognized as a national treasure immediately. A year after it was discovered, President William Howard Taft created Rainbow Bridge National Monument, and some even boasted that the arch — 290 feet high and spanning 275 feet — was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, although it never was on an official list.

"It should be," wrote Deseret News staff writer Ray Grass in a July 12, 1994, story, "but it's not. Fact is, it's down among the 'others' listed along with the giant sequoia trees of California and Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico.

"When compared to the Pyramids of Egypt, or Mount Everest, or the Suez Canal, it may seem right … unless you happen to be under the 300-foot-high arch, looking up, using the rock bridge to block the midday sun. The arch is so big, so marvelously carved, so beautifully accented, it's hard to think of it in any other terms than as a 'wonder' — natural or otherwise."

As late as the 1950s, the easiest route to Rainbow Bridge, located a few miles north of the Arizona border, took up to three days, including a boat ride and a seven-mile hike, often in sweltering temperatures reaching more than 100 degrees.

But Glen Canyon Dam changed all that, and now as many as 300,000 visitors to Lake Powell see the national monument each year.

Deseret News photographers have been among the millions to photograph Rainbow Bridge. Photo researcher Ron Fox has uncovered many of the pictures taken by newspaper photographers over the years, and these photos can be seen online at the newspaper's website, deseretnews.com.

Ironically, the creation of Lake Powell, which some thought might inundate Rainbow Bridge, instead opened the floodgates to tourists, who created a different kind of threat.

"At one time, seeing the bridge required an arduous hike from the Colorado River. But today access is simple for anyone with a power boat on Lake Powell," wrote Deseret News reporter Joseph Bauman on Dec. 6, 1988, as the National Park Service was starting to plan for the future of the monument.

A Park Service brochure quoted in the same article said: "The growth in visitation to the monument in recent years has increased resource damage such as trampling of vegetation, rock graffiti and disruption of the tranquility of the monument. How can we best strike a balance between preservation of the monument and the need to provide for visitor use?"

Those visitors created other problems for the Navajo, Hopi and Paiute Indians, who, along with their ancestors, had been aware of the arch for centuries and considered it to be sacred.

In 1974, Navajo tribal members who lived in the vicinity of Rainbow Bridge filed suit in U.S. District Court against the federal government in an attempt to preserve important Navajo religious sites that were being inundated by the rising waters of Lake Powell. The court ruled against the Navajo. In 1980, the Tenth District Court of Appeals ruled that to close Rainbow Bridge, a public site, for Navajo religious ceremonies would violate the U.S. Constitution.

Despite its spectacular nature, the arch attracts fewer than 10 percent of the 4 million people who visit Lake Powell every year.

Those who don't make the trip are missing out on a rare opportunity. As Grass wrote in 1994:

"At one time it was merely a mountain of sand and never intended to be a bridge. Moving water, laden with cobbles and sand, scoured the rock, then freezing helped loosen giant slabs. Gravity did the rest. Continuous erosion sculptured the arch into what it is today.

"And that is a wonderful attraction."

e-mail: mhaddock@desnews.com