On June 3rd National Trails Day, I decided it was time to find someplace new to hike. It was hot in Phoenix so the hikes featured on the Arizona State Parks Trails Day brochure did not sound enticing. I wanted out of the Valley. I did have a problem though; it was kind of late in the day. I had overslept due to a fun Friday night. So I prorused the brochure again. The town of Payson jumped out at me. It had been awhile since I had gone that direction.
I climbed into my truck and headed up to Payson the back way. I took Interstate 17 north out of Phoenix and turned off at Camp Verde. The Dairy Queen in Camp Verde was calling my name, so I grabbed a little snack and got back on the road. I traveled along State Highway 260. The drive was gorgeous through the Buckskin Hills. The land was dotted with vegetation and horse trailers could be spotted along the roadside. Obviously the horse owners from Phoenix had the same idea I had for the day. Get out of the heat!
Soon I arrived at State Highway 87 where I made a right and started my descent off the Mogollon Rim. This is a wonderful section of highway. I just had to make one stop just above the town of Strawberry to see the wide-open view of Ponderosa pine and small cabins. The fresh air and the scenic view are well worth the drive.
But I wasn’t to Payson yet. So I hopped back into the truck and headed down the road. As I drove slowly through the town of Pine, I decided to pull over and check out my map. There just had to be some great hiking area nearby. As I traced my finger on my map along State Highway 87, I came to a state park that I had driven by but had never taken the time to visit. It was the Tonto National Bridge State Park, which is just minutes off of State Highway 87. This would be my adventure.
The sign for the state park is easy to see however the road down to the park is steep. During the short drive down to the park I racked my brain to remember what I could about the lodge built above the natural bridge. David Gowan was a miner who was passing through the area in 1877, when he was spotted by a band of Apache Indians. During Gowan’s escape, he came upon the bridge and the caves sprinkled along the canyon’s sides. Gowan spend several days hiding out in a cave before he ventured outside. Once he did, he fell in love with the bridge and the rich valley above it. Gowan eventually convinced his nephew, David Gowan Goodfellow to come out from Scotland and join him in building a home. There are even stories that Al Capone and Zane Grey once stayed at the lodge to see the one of the world’s largest travertine natural bridges.
As I neared the end of my drive down to the bridge, I remembered a piece that I had read. The bridge, lodge and land were purchased in 1991 by the Arizona State Parks. This was purchase was evident by the excellent condition of the road down to the park.
A small booth near the lodge marks the entrance to the park. The park ranger that came out was extremely knowledgeable. She discussed my hiking options and helped me decide which one would be best for me. I handed her $5.00 for my admission and parked. Once I had gotten out, I could see a green field covering 5 acres. It was a beautiful sight, yet I asked myself, where is the bridge? I am sure this is the thought of many visitors.
Quickly I located my hiking brochure and armed with a bottle of water I started down the path. Although the ranger had suggested the Pine Creek Trail, I chose to take the Waterfall Trail first. I wanted to get a sample of the park, before I jumped in feet first. This trail is the shortest one, only 300 feet long. The trail is steep and most of it requires taking stairs. At the end of the trail is a beautiful rock cove that has water seeping down its sides. Green moss is clinging all around and the air is moist. After a few moments to take in the sight, I decided I really did want to see more, so back up the canyon I climbed.
Then I headed over to the Pine Creek Trailhead. The beginning of the trail is fairly smooth, but it is steep. The map I was given said that the trail is about a half mile long and only 400 feet of it is developed. This statement proves to be true. For when you arrive at the bottom of Pine Creek, the trail might appear be just a walk along the creek to the natural bridge but this is not the case. Now I don’t want to squelch your thoughts of taking this hike but a walk along the creek is not what you will encounter. Instead, there are rocks and boulders to navigate, along with the constant search for the “stick on” arrows placed by the park personnel on the canyon walls and rocks to help guide you down the creek’s edge. It is tricky and I would encourage you to come prepared wearing proper clothing and shoes. I did pass by families with small children. However, as a parent you need to be ready to help your child traverse the rocky formations and steep slick surfaces.
Near the end of the trail there is a wonderful cave on the east side of the creek that you won’t want to miss. A path will take you through it. Please do not try to crawl into the cave. The park service cannot guarantee your safety. Anyway, if caving is your thing, then you need to head down to Kartchner Caverns because the highlight of this park is the bridge not the caves. The caves are just a little bonus when heading toward the bridge.
When you do reach the bridge you will stare at it in amazement. The bridge stretches up a dizzily 183 feet above the creek and creates a tunnel 400 feet long. Water flows from on top of the bridge and drips off the edge falling down to the creek below. As a hiker looking up at the bridge, the water droplets look like a spray of diamonds against the sky. You will want to spend sometime at the bridge for several reasons. The first is to take in all its beauty and the second is to gather up the energy necessary to cross the rocks back up the trail and out of the canyon.
When you do arrive back at the park area on top, you can choose to take another hike called the Gowan Loop Trail. I did not have time to do this trail. I did however; go to the four viewpoints above the bridge and the Gowan trail. The Gowan trail appears to be steep too but it is developed. It also looks like an easier hike from this vantage point. Hikers do not get as close to the bridge on this trail, so you will have to decide which hike best suits you.
The park area on top of the bridge has lots of picnic spots, ramadas, grills, rest rooms and plenty of parking. It is a beautiful backdrop for a day of hiking and relaxing. But before you leave you must make a stop at the historic lodge and gift shop located near the entrance to the park. As a matter of fact, the lodge is such a great spot that you might want to drop in here first before you even start a hike.
The lodge is full of history. If only the walls could talk, just what would they say? The lodge is where David Gowan Goodfellow settled with his family in 1898. He brought many of the possessions you see today in the lodge down by way of ropes and burros. It must have been quite a job. The lodge also has lots of information on the creation of the natural bridge. There are rock samples, diagrams and even a model of the bridge - nature’s creation. There are tours of the lodge, bird watching walks, guided hikes, along with many more activities available by stopping in at the lodge. The gift shop has lots of Arizona knick-knacks and snacks, which helped tide me over until I arrived in Payson for a meal.
After about 3 hours of hiking and roaming the park, I got back into my truck and headed into Payson and then back to the Valley on State Highway 87. I believe my choice to spend the day in the pines to celebrate National Trails Day turned out perfect, but don’t wait for this celebration to come around again before you try your feet at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
Until next time, enjoy Arizonan adventures.
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