Visit A Rare Natural Wonder

Explore the largest travertine bridge in the world


It's a story that's over a century old, but when Susannah Cernojevich tells it, it seems to take on new life.

It's the story of how the Tonto Natural Bridge located 10 miles north of Payson on Highway 87 was discovered and became a state park. Cernojevich is a new park ranger who moved here in June 2000 from Washington D.C. where she was a media consultant for Voice of America. Her area of expertise, appropriately enough, is historical interpretation.

Originally from Los Angeles, Cernojevich picks up the story of the bridge in her home state:

"David Gowan was this adventurer Scotsman who had been in California looking for gold. Didn't make his fortune there, so he came out to Arizona (around 1877) to see what he could find.

"He found this pretty interesting looking valley where there was Apache farming going on, and they didn't much care for his presence. So they chased him underneath the bridge.

"They knew he had a gun, and if someone's armed there's no way you can get to them from any side. So he hung out for a few days until they left.

"Came up on top and thought it looked great. Filed a claim a few years later, and the acreage he received in that claim is the same size (160 acres) the park is today.

"His nephew, who was back in Scotland, heard of David Gowan's Natural Bridge south of Flagstaff, and said, 'Hmmm, I wonder if that's my long-lost Uncle Davey?' So he sent a letter to David Gowan Natural Bridge. It actually made it to David Gowan.

"By that time, David Gowan had stayed in one place about as long as he wanted to, so he said, 'Yes, I am your Uncle David and I'd like to continue on with my adventures. I'll tell you what, if you bring out your entire family, I'll just give it to you.'

"So David Gowan Goodfellow came out from Scotland with his family and they were the ones who built what is now the offices that was their home. They built the (National Register historic) lodge in 1927."

The lodge, where the park gift shop is located, has 10 bedrooms and is filled with a variety of antiques and Gowan-Goodfellow family heirlooms. It can be rented by groups.

For those who want to know more about David Gowan-Goodfellow, Larry Johnson, a park volunteer, does a dramatic impersonation of that historic character at noon every Saturday through the summer.

"The Goodfellows eventually sold to the Randalls," Cernojevich continued. "There were some other families who owned it, but it was the Wolfswinkels who finally sold it to the state in 1990.

"Its been a state park ever since. Since that time, we've improved some of the viewpoints they had, built some new ones, built the new Gowan Trail, put some improvements on the old Gowan Trail so it's a little bit easier to come down. But it's still as steep and strenuous as people remember, because it's been a favorite spot for locals for ages."

Today there are two trails down to the bridge, both described as "strenuous," four viewpoints, and an observation deck. A new, less strenuous trail is under construction, and could be finished sometime this summer.

But there's a lot more to the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park than a historic lodge and the largest travertine bridge in the world.

"Because of Pine Creek and a natural spring, we have water 24/7, so this is a riparian zone," Cernojevich said. "So you'll have sycamores and other trees that need more water, and it can support frogs and other things that need water.

"We have a herd of javelinas that graze on the lawn, a resident mountain lion, mating skunks, swifts and swallows, roadrunners, elk, mule deer, white tail deer and ringtail. We're a real wildlife area.

She even pointed out a raven's nest in a crack above the bridge from which chicks are expected to emerge any day.

"So even today, life is coming forth from the bridge," she said.

While the color season is winding down, it also has been a spectacular spring for wildflowers. "One of our volunteers who has put together a book on wildflowers says she is seeing things she hasn't seen in a long time, if ever," Cernojevich said.

Because the park is so popular it attracts more than 110,000 visitors each year the new ranger recommends coming early, and avoiding Memorial Day weekend if at all possible.

"We only have 130 parking spots, and that weekend is especially bad," she said. "We often have to close the road on Memorial Day weekend and just let cars in as others leave."

The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. "We're open every day except Christmas," Cernojevich said.

Park fees are $5 per vehicle with up to four people over age 11, and $1 for each additional person over the age of 11, as well as walk-ins and non-motorized vehicles. For more information, call the park office at (520) 476-4202 or the gift shop at (520) 476-2261.

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