The Tonto National Bridge State Park is where water and rock have combined to make the world’s largest natural travertine bridge. The travertine bridge has an arch that spans 150 feet and reaches 180 feet above Pine Creek. The tunnel under the bridge is 400 feet long carved through the limestone. On top of the bridge is 5 acres of tillable soil. This area on top of the bridge has caused many visitors to say, “Just where is the bridge?” When actually, the bridge is right beneath them!
The formation of the natural bridge took thousands of years to create and went through four main stages of development. The first stage was made by a lava flow, which left behind a purple quartz sandstone on the west side of Pine Creek. The next stage was when the entire area was immersed in seawater. This left behind sand and mud. Then came volcano eruptions that covered the layers creating a basalt cap. After time, this basalt cap broke down making Pine Creek Canyon. The fourth stage was when water began seeping up underground resulting in limestone aquifers. The aquifers dissolved the limestone and formed a travertine dam. After time, the water in the creek eroded the travertine and formed the bridge.
The first time that the natural bridge was spotted was around 1872 by General Crook’s army. It is said that the group saw the bridge while watering their horses in Pine Creek Canyon.
But the bridge wasn’t truly discovered until David Gowan; a miner who was passing through the area came upon it in 1877. While traveling in the small valley between the town of Pine and Payson, he was spotted by a band of Apache Indians. During Gowan’s escape, he found the bridge and the caves sprinkled along the canyon’s sides. Gowan spends several days hiding out in a cave before he ventured out. Once he did, he fell in love with the bridge and the rich valley above it.
After claiming squatter’s rights, Gowan eventually convinced his nephew, David Gowan Goodfellow, to come out from Scotland and join him in building a home. Andy Ogilvie also met up with Goodfellow in building a lodge in 1927. Goodfellow build six guest cabins for tourists and planted an orchard that can still be seen today. The road down to the lodge and bridge was quite a task to complete. In 1927, the road was finally finished taking six years to construct. There are even stories that Al Capone and Zane Grey once stayed at the lodge to see the world’s largest travertine natural bridge.
In 1991 the bridge, lodge, and land were purchased by the Arizona State Parks. Today the lodge has many of the furnishings that were brought down to the valley by rope or mule many years ago. The lodge includes many displays describing the stages that the natural bridge went through. Visitors will learn a lot about the history of the area and the people that made this place their home.
There are three hikes available, depending on your energy and time. The Waterfall Trail is the shortest hike. It is 300 feet long and ends at a waterfall cave. There are uneven steps along this path. The Pine Creek Trail is about a half a mile long. About 400 feet of this path is developed and the rest is undeveloped and follows the creek to the bridge. Hikers will need to watch for the arrows marking the trail and allow one hour to complete. The Gowan Loop Trail is also about half a mile long. This path consists mostly of boardwalks and steps, which lead out to an observation deck at the bottom of the creek. It is recommended that hikers wear proper shoes and be ready for a steep rough hike, when taking either the Pine Creek Trail or the Gowan Loop Trail.
If hiking isn’t your thing, don’t worry. You can still experience the bridge by walking out to four viewpoints at the top of the natural bridge. These viewpoints give wonderful vantage sights at this one of a kind creation.
Visitors will find a variety of programs and activities provided by the park. There are guided viewpoint walks, lodge tours, geology talks, guided Pine Creek hikes, bird-watching walks, and a junior ranger program. You will need to call ahead or stop in and ask what is currently available. There are picnic tables, grills, trails, restrooms, a group use area, and a gift shop. This park has so much to offer that everyone will find something that will be of interest.
The state park is open every day from 8:00 to 7:00 from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 9:00 to 5:00 from November to March and 8:00 to 6:00 during April, September, and October. The park is closed on Christmas. Admission charge is $5.00 for private vehicles (holding four individuals), $1.00 for pedestrians, and children under 12 are free when accompanied by an adult. If you would like more information on the activities at the park, you may call 520-476-4202.
In order to keep the park safe and clean, there are some park rules that visitors need to follow. There is no swimming or wading under the bridge, no littering, pets must be on leash and please don’t destroy or take any of nature’s work, such as rocks and plants.
You can get the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park from Payson by taking State Highway 87 north out of town. It is approximately 13 miles north of Payson, on the left side of highway. The road down to the parking area is about 3 miles.
If you are coming from Tucson take Interstate 17 north out of town toward Phoenix. Once you are in Phoenix take U.S. Highway 60 east, until it connects with State Highway 87. Take State Highway 87 (Beeline Highway) out of the East Valley and head north up to Payson.
If you are coming from Flagstaff take Interstate 17 south out of town to Camp Verde. Once you are in Camp Verde take State Highway 260 east through Camp Verde. When State Highway 260 meets State Highway 87, travel south on 87 down through Pine/Strawberry. The park is just before you reach Payson, on the right-hand side of the road.
This is a state park you won’t want to miss, especially on a hot summer day. The cool water that sprays off the top of the travertine bridge 150 feet above and drifts down to the creek is a sight to see. Although the hikes can be rugged, they do pay off in the end.