The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is a little off the beaten path, but this 160-acre jewel under the Rim is well worth the side trip.
Located west of Highway 87, 10 miles north of Payson, the park is at the bottom of a paved, winding road that descends about 500 feet. It features extensive parking, visitor amenities, numerous viewpoints and several hiking trails in addition to the trail leading to the bottom of the bridge, plus a historic 1927 lodge, which is on the National Register.
The bridge is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. It is 183 feet high and the tunnel is 400 feet long, measuring 150 feet across at its widest point.
The west side of Pine Creek, located on the northwest side of the park, was formed by a flow of lava in the form of rhyolite. The rock eroded, leaving behind purple quartz sandstone. The rock layers were then lithified, tilted and faulted.
The area was then covered by sea water, leaving behind a sediment of sand and mud, geologists say. Volcanic eruptions covered the rock layers with lava, forming a basalt cap. Through erosion, the basalt cap broke down and was shifted by faults, creating Pine Creek Canyon.
Precipitation began seeping underground through fractures and weak points in the rock, resulting in limestone aquifers. Springs emerged as a result of the aquifers, carrying the dissolved limestone and depositing calcium carbonate to form a travertine dam.
The waters of Pine Creek then eroded through the travertine and formed the natural bridge.
This long and often violent process left a uniquely beautiful and peaceful little valley between Payson and Pine.
Dave Gowan, a prospector being chased by Apache, encountered the bridge and documented its existence in 1877.
As the story goes, Gowan hid for three days and two nights in one of the several caves that dot the inside of the bridge. On the third day, he left the cave to explore the tunnel and the green valley surrounding it.
Gowan claimed squatter's rights to the land, and in 1898 persuaded his nephew, David Gowan Goodfellow, to bring his family from Scotland and properly settle on the land.
However, Gowan did not keep the place a secret; as early as 1891 the wonder of the bridge was being publicized.
The following paragraph was copied from a Phoenix newspaper article, written in 1891 by Charles P. Cummins, "Among all the wonders of nature in the Southwest one of the greatest and one of the lest known is the stupendous natural bridge ... For more than a century the trivial natural bridge of Virginia has been followed the world over, and in volumes of travel was rated among the marvels of the world. But, if you take the Virginia bridge and find 60 like it, and lump them all together, the sum of them would make one of the Pine Creek Bridge."
Shortly after the arrival of the Goodfellows, the guest ranch industry started growing. To take advantage of the trend, the family built a road and lodge in the valley and began promoting it, along with Arizona's healthful climate and exotic scenery. The business was so successful that a new lodge was built in 1927, the one that still stands at the park.
The lodge and picnic areas at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park are available for rent today. Guided tours of the lodge are also offered. For information on prices and reservations, call the park office at (928) 476-4202
The park is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., beginning May 24 through Labor Day. Admission is $6 per car of four adults, 15 and older, with $1 charged for each additional person in a vehicle over the age of 14. Those 14 and younger are admitted free of charge.
Visitors are not allowed to climb under the waterfall under the bridge, on mossy rocks, high cliffs or in caves. Pets must be restrained and are not allowed on the trails.