In a normal year, about 110,000 people visit Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
After a threatened closure and the Rodeo-Chediski Fire combined to knock attendance down in 2002, tourists and locals alike have returned to the bridge in droves in 2003. Fortunately for fall and winter visitors, most of the people come in the summer.
In fact, now is the perfect time to visit the bridge. Not only are the crowds down, but the temperatures are more comfortable as well.
Your chance of encountering some of the park's wildlife -- including the herd of javelina that likes to frolic on the lodge lawn -- is enhanced for the very same reasons people find it an ideal time of the year to be out and about. The park is a designated Arizona Department of Game and Fish wildlife viewing area, and visitors frequently report seeing ringtails, skunks, mountain lions, whitetails and mule deer, raccoons, squirrels and more.
The bridge also is a great place to enjoy fall colors. And when winter sets in, icicles form underneath the bridge and along the Waterfall Trail like a scene out of "Dr. Zhivago."
Located 10 miles north of Payson on Highway 87, the park covers 160 acres in a small, picturesque valley surrounding Pine Creek. The bridge itself -- 183 feet high with a 400-foot tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point -- is thought to be the largest travertine bridge in the world.
In addition to four viewpoints and an observation deck, visitors can experience the park via four hiking trails:
- Pine Creek Trail is about 1/2 mile long and is considered "strenuous." The initial 400 feet follows a developed trail, with the remainder along undeveloped creek bottom.
- Waterfall Trail, where the icicles form, is about 300 feet long, ending at a spring-fed waterfall and fern grotto.
- Gowan Loop Trail is about 1/2 mile long, highlighted by an excellent view of the bridge from the observation deck. This trail is considered "steep and strenuous."
- The Anna Mae (Deming) Trail, the park's newest, is one of the most scenic. It descends 180 feet over the course of a half-mile to the canyon floor where it links up with the Pine Creek Trail. The new trail is on the north side of the canyon, beginning near viewpoint two, Park Manager John Boeck said.
The bridge was originally discovered by adventurer David Gowan, who came to Arizona around 1877 when his search for gold in California didn't pan out. The Scotsman soon ran afoul of the Apaches who were farming in the area and they chased him underneath the bridge.
A few years later, Gowan filed a claim for the acreage that currently constitutes the park. Always a wanderer, Gowan eventually gave the bridge to his nephew David Gowan Goodfellow, who moved his family to Arizona from Scotland.
The park is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through October, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through March. The only day the park is closed is Christmas day.
Park fees are $6 per vehicle with up to four persons over 14, and $1 for each additional person over 14.
For more information, call the park office at (928) 476-4202 or the gift shop at (928) 476-2261.