Bridging The Gap

Students blaze trail to bridge


Visitors to the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park will be able to take an easier, more scenic trail to the bridge this summer.

Trail-building specialists from Coconino County are currently carving the park's fourth trail to the bridge into the canyon walls that surround the arch, which is reportedly the largest natural tavertine arch in the world.

When the trail is finished, it will be about half a mile long and will wind 180 feet down to the canyon floor, where it will link up with the Pine Creek Trail, Park Manager John Boeck said.

The new trail, which has not yet been named, is on the north side of the canyon, beginning near viewpoint two, Boeck said. "Most everything else is on the south end.

"We've always wanted to put a trail on this side, but never had the time or money to do it. This will kind of spread everything out so everybody isn't trying to use the same area."

The north side of the park also is the prettiest part of the canyon, Boeck said. As visitors descend into the valley, caves on the opposite side of the canyon come into full view, he said, and the lush scenic vistas are spectacular.

The new trail also will make it easier to pull injured or ill visitors out of the canyon, Boeck said. "Right now, we have to rope people up to viewpoint one, and that's a lot of work."

The Coconino Rural Environmental Corps, a group of six college students led by Chris Nez, a Navajo who grew up on a large ranch on the Navajo reservation, is carving the trail out of the wilderness.

"Going from the kinds of things I learned on the ranch mending fences, and wilderness thinning and rehab into this kind of work was pretty natural," Nez said.

After leaving the ranch, Nez spent two years working on trails in the Grand Canyon. Then he ended up in Springerville for awhile, where he had a job removing barbed wire fences from old ranches.

"Basically our job was to go out there and take down miles and miles of barbed wire," he said. When Nez got the chance to join the environmental corps, he didn't have to think twice before accepting.

The county employs the crew on a full-time basis, and hires it out to other entities. As the crew leader Nez is a permanent employee, but his six-person crew made up of college students who are mostly parks and recreation or archaeology majors changes personnel frequently.

"They're paid about $7 an hour for living expenses, and then they get bonuses as they complete blocks of hours," Nez said. The bonus money is used for tuition and other educational expenses.

The crew is currently in the final week of a three-week stint working on the new Tonto Natural Bridge trail.

If it isn't completed before they leave, Boeck hopes to finish it before summer with park personnel and volunteer labor.

"Chris and his crew are the experts, so we're getting a lot of good advice from them about what we might want to do in certain areas," he said.

How much Nez and his team will get done before they move on depends on what they encounter along the way.

"The terrain is really rough, and they've had to move some rocks out of here you wouldn't believe," Boeck said. "Some must weigh a couple of tons."

The rocks are moved with "basically a big come-along" and a lot of muscle, Nez said. "There was a huge rock right in here," he said, pointing to a gaping hole in the canyon wall.

The rest of the work is done with picks and shovels and crow bars, hand tools that allow the crew to tread lightly on the land.

Their objective is to disturb as little of the wilderness as possible and to re-use as much of the vegetation and other features of the landscape as they can.

For Nez, who will not get rich building trails, it is clearly a labor of love. Looking up from his work, he wipes his brow, surveys the canyon below, and then pauses, lost for a moment in thought.

Finally he finds the words he's searching for: "The perk for me is just getting out to places like this."

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