Grand Canyon National Park plans for bridge construction at Zuni’s sacred falls

The original Ribbon Falls Bridge crossed Bright Angel Creek on the Ribbon Falls spur trail prior to its demolition in 2021. Grand Canyon National Park is expecting construction of a new bridge to begin within the next few months.  (Photo/NPS/Michael Quinn)

The original Ribbon Falls Bridge crossed Bright Angel Creek on the Ribbon Falls spur trail prior to its demolition in 2021. Grand Canyon National Park is expecting construction of a new bridge to begin within the next few months. (Photo/NPS/Michael Quinn)

GRAND CANYON Ariz. — A cool mist falls from cliffs high above as shallow pools gather below catching the runoff and spilling gently into Bright Angel Creek. An oasis along the dusty North Kaibab Trail, Ribbon Falls is a sacred place for the Pueblo of Zuni and a stopping point for many hikers and runners in their cross-canyon treks.

The falls have been inaccessible for several years after the demolition of the bridge, in 2021, which spanned Bright Angel Creek. Since then, Grand Canyon National Park, along with Grand Canyon Conservancy, the official non-profit partner of the park, have been crunching numbers and examining construction options for a new bridge.

As the origin place of the Zuni, Ribbon Falls hold significant cultural meaning to the tribe. Over the years, the park has been working with tribal and religious leaders to help reconnect them to the area.

“They want to make sure that the public understands the significance of this place to them,” said National Park.

“They want to make sure that the public understands the significance of this place to them,” Balsom said during a meeting facilitated by Grand Canyon Conservancy Dec. 7.

According to Balsom, the park helped enabled one of the first official religious pilgrimages for the tribe to Ribbon Falls several years ago.

“It’s hard to express the importance of these places, and the significance of them. But being able to go back to your place of origin and to know it, I mean, they know these places through oral history, they know them through the descriptions, even if they’ve not been there for days before this trip,” she said.

Balsom said the park helps facilitates tribal trips, but rangers are there serving primarily as attendants for the tribe.

“We will help them but we cannot dictate, it’s up to them to decide,” she said. “We pretty much are there as escorts and for assistance and will close the area for the time that they’re there.”

“What we’ve been trying to do, working with religious leaders in the council, is to document as they want to provide the information they want to facilitate, as they want and need, so that they can reconnect both the current religious leaders in the council, but also tribal youth,” Balsom said.

According to Balsom, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program has recently had a bigger influence on park operations as well.

“And many times, thanks to Grand Canyon Conservancy, we’ve been able to facilitate those visits, whether it’s with religious leaders, the elders, or the youth components, so that they can feel comfortable coming home again to Grand Canyon, and being able to share with us their histories and the stories and the importance of that preservation. And the access to Ribbon Falls is certainly a part of that,” she said.

Bridge construction

Built in 1960, Ribbon Falls Bridge is located six miles north of Phantom Ranch on the North Kaibab Trail. It was inspected by the Federal Highways Administration in 2019 and later condemned because of its condition.

“Even though it’s not a highway, because it is a bridge over a waterway, they (Federal Highway Administration) have jurisdiction,” said Rob Parrish, chief of planning environment and projects at Grand Canyon. “It required continual replacement of wood boards, it was bolted together – it was kind of a steel truss and wood (construction).”

The bridge was not only precarious because of holes in the decking caused by rotting wood, but also because of the many visitors who used the bridge to access the falls.

After careful examination, the park found no adverse effects for construction of a new bridge since a bridge had previously existed and discussions began for conceptual designs and funding for the project.

“So we went out and looked at the market, did our research to find what type of bridge would work… we did consider replacing it using steel and wood, we looked at fiberglass, but ultimately what we’ve settled on is using unpainted weathering steel,” Parrish said. “It’s structurally stronger than the original. And because it’s weathered steel, it’s not going to require painting, it’s not going to require replacement of wood decking and it’ll be assembled instead of being bolted together – it’ll be welded together.”

The bridge will be assembled on the South Rim before being flown in and set via helicopter on the abutments on either side of the creek.

Funding for the project was made possible through a $280,000 donation from Grand Canyon Conservancy and matching funds by the National Park Service Centennial Challenge Funds.

Parrish said once the funds are made available, the park will send out a solicitation for bids.

“We anticipate that happening you know, after the new year, so sometime January, February or March,” he said. “And then our hope is that we’ll have the contract ready for work this calendar year.”

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