Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is just a few miles up Arizona Highway 87 from Payson toward the northwest. To get into the park, you have to descend a fairly steep and winding road. Make sure that your brakes are in good repair, that you obey the speed limits, and that you use engine braking on the way into the valley. (It’s honestly not bad to drive as long as you are prepared!)
The reward for the drive is a beautiful little valley surrounded by mountains, with a creek flowing along the west side. Pine Creek, in fact, flows through the natural bridge, which is about 400’ wide and has an arch of 183’, according to the park people, and is considered to be the world’s largest travertine natural bridge. For most people who wouldn’t know travertine from Ovaltine™, that just makes it a cool formation.
The natural bridge is almost a cave and has some formations like a cave, such as stalactites. You can see some of the formations, along with the swift little birds (white-throated swifts, I’m told) that nest in the face of the bridge, from one of the viewpoints along the rim of the creek’s little valley.
There are many other species of birds that spend time at Tonto Natural Bridge, plus other critters, such as javalinas and deer.
For the more adventurous, there are hiking trails that go to the creek bed. Those are not handicap-accessible, nor are dogs permitted on them (though they are welcome in the park). The bridge is flat on top and is basically an extension of the field that fills the valley’s floor. There’s a walkway that goes across the top of the bridge to connect to a couple trails. A spring is present on top of the bridge and the water from it flows off the down-stream side of the bridge, making a small waterfall, complete with rainbows when the sun is right.
The Anna Mae trail on the west side of the bridge is only about 500’ and is accessible, but the Gowan Trail that leads down to the creek is steep and rocky. It’s only a ¼ mile, but plan to take some time going down and back up the 200’ elevation change. The view looking up at the bridge and its waterfall is well worth the effort. The park, by the way, is at 4,500’ of elevation, and about 10 degrees cooler in summer than Phoenix. Another short and very steep trail leads to a mossy, spring-fed garden – hard to believe in arid Arizona.
The Gowan Trail was named for David Gowan, who found the bridge while on the run from Apaches.
There is also an historic lodge that serves as the gift shop for the park and a number of ramadas for picnicking. Be sure to stock up on water before doing any hiking in the park. Those steep climbs out of the creek bed will require it.
By the way, in case you’re curious about such things, we’ve learned that the difference between an arch and a natural bridge, such as the Tonto Natural Bridge, is that arches have worn away by something other than running water. Natural bridges have had running water run through them at some time or other. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people don’t name them incorrectly!
The park’s web site has more information on directions, hours and so forth.