The Natural Arch and Bridge Society

A Tour of the Big 16

Photos and information on the world's giant natural arches

by David Brandt-Erichsen and Jay Wilbur

Introduction

Big 16 Tour

On this page the Natural Arch and Bridge Society (NABS) lists all the natural arches in the world we know about that have spans greater than 200 feet. Placement on this list is based on the best data currently available to us and is subject to change pending more accurate measurements. Indeed, the ranking on this page has changed thirteen times since this page was first created, and further changes are fairly likely in the future, especially as additional data is obtained for arches that are outside the United States. Note: The differences between the spans of some adjacent arches on the list are less than the margin of error of the measurements. Therefore, the ranking presented here must be considered approximate rather than exact.

To accurately compare the sizes of natural arches, two things are needed: (1) agreement on just what points to measure, and (2) accurate measurements from those agreed-upon points. Without agreement on what points to measure, different people taking measurements may get very different results no matter how accurately the measurements are taken.

In the table below, ranking is based solely on the criterion of greatest span, where span is a dimension defined so that arches of different geometries can be consistently and accurately compared (see below for further explanation). The web pages indexed by the table below include photographs and information about each of these giant arches. You can directly link to each arch, or page through them sequentially.

The natural arches with known spans greater than 200 feet are:

Rank
Image
Name
Location
Span
1
Fairy
Buliu River, Guangxi, China
400 ft
2?
Jiangzhou
Jiangzhou, Guangxi, China
280-
340 ft
3
Landscape
Zhijin Cave Scenic Area, Guizhou, China
318 ft
4
Landscape
Arches National Park, Utah
290 ft
5
Kolob
Zion National Park, Utah
287 ft
6
Aloba
Ennedi Range, Chad (Sahara Desert)
250 ft
7
Morning Glory
Moab, Utah
243 ft
8
Gaotun
Bazhou He Scenic Area, Guizhou, China
240 ft
9
Rainbow
Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah
234 ft
10
Sipapu
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
225 ft
11
Stevens
Escalante River, Utah
220 ft
12
Shiptons
Near Kashgar, Xinjiang, China
214 ft
13
Shiptons
Near Zunyi, Guizhou, China
213 ft
14
Hazarchishma
Bamyan Province, Afghanistan
211 ft
15
Outlaw
Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado
206 ft
16
Snake
Sanostee, New Mexico
204 ft
Table last revised December 10, 2013

How Are Arch Sizes Compared?

Readers should note that this is not a list of the "largest" natural arches for the simple reason that there is no precise definition of "largest" that would apply to the many different geometries displayed by natural arches. What criteria would you use for "largest" — width, height, area, volume? (The latter two would be impractical to measure as well as difficult to precisely define.) And at exactly what points would you take the measurements?

To attempt to answer these questions, the Natural Arch and Bridge Society assembled a working group of experts (including geologists, physical geographers, a physicist, and a mathematician) to come up with a set of standards and definitions for measuring natural arches. The results (some are quite technical) can be found in our Arch Info pages. No other system currently exists that permits consistent and accurate comparison of the sizes of natural arches.

For our purposes here, a less technical (and less precise) definition of the span of an arch is the horizontal extent of unsupported rock. The two illustrations below will help in understanding just what this means.

Illustration of "span"
Illustration courtesy Utah Geological Survey

In the illustration above, the span would be the sum of the horizontal lines A and A'. Since this arch is not symmetrical, the span cannot be measured directly in a single line. Measuring B or C would produce quite different results.

Illustration of "span"

The illustration above shows a three-dimensional view of an arch in which the dimensions differ considerably between the "front" and the "back" of the arch, which can result in wide discrepancies in reported spans. In this case, the NABS-defined span would be the maximum horizontal dimension of the most constrained part of the opening, as shown. The advantage of the NABS system of measurement is that it can be applied to arches of any geometry and will always produce consistent results. For more information, see the article on Finding the Span of Arches with Simple Shapes.

Development of this List

In October 2010 a NABS group confirmed that Fairy Bridge in China has the greatest span in the world. For many years the only two known contenders for this position were Landscape Arch in Arches National Park and Kolob Arch in Zion National Park. The most precise measurement of Landscape Arch was obtained in 2004, and the most precise measurement of Kolob Arch was obtained in 2006, finally establishing Landscape Arch as having the greater span (by a mere three feet). Fairy Bridge is now known to exceed this dimension by a surprisingly large margin (see Measurement of Fairy Bridge).

This list has a long tradition. In his 1986 book Utah Canyon Country, Fran Barnes provided a list of nine arches that were 200 feet or more in span. The list was confined to the Colorado Plateau, but no arches of that size outside the Colorado Plateau were then known. When this web page was first created in 1995, one arch from Barnes’ list (Owachomo Natural Bridge) was dropped, and another arch (Snake Bridge) was added. Here are some of the major changes to this page since it was first created:

Other Potential Candidates

It is fairly likely that this list will change again in the future. There may be additional giant arches still unknown to westerners in various parts of the world, especially the vast karst regions of China. Below are three possible contenders and we would appreciate any additional information about these arches. If you can help, please email info@naturalarches.org.

Namibia mystery arch Mystery arch in Namibia. We do not have a specific location for this arch and have not been able to find it. It has been reported at 246 feet but the report is in question.

Great Arch of Getu The Great Arch of Getu, China. We currently have conflicting information on the span of this arch, as described in this article from the Winter 2014 issue of SPAN.

Chuanlongyan Chuanlongyan Through-Cave, China (reference 1, reference 2). There is a road and parking lot inside and the extensive construction makes it difficult to determine if the original span might have been widened.


Big 16 Tour

Now start your Big 16 Tour with a trip
to our first giant, Fairy Bridge...

The Natural Arch and Bridge Society