Visitors looking for a breathtaking excursion can visit the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park -- a hidden jewel just below the Mogollon Rim.
The turn-off for the park is 10 miles north of Payson on Highway 87. The road to the park winds down a steep grade to the bottom of the canyon where the 160-acre park lies.
The bridge, believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world, can be seen from lookout points above, or visitors can hike down to get a close view. It is 183 feet high with a 400-foot tunnel.
A complex geologic history resulted in the formation of the bridge. The long process resulted in a beautiful valley located between Payson and Pine, and therein lies the bridge.
The park attracts more than 110,000 visitors a year and is open every day of the year except Christmas.
The park's visitor center is located in a historic lodge built in 1927 by David and Lilias Goodfellow, who lived long enough to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1933.
The lodge is rented out to groups of between 12 and 20 people for $1,000 per night, with a two-night maximum stay.
"The entire lodge is yours," Park Ranger Cathe Descheemaker said.
"There are 10 antique bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen and observation deck upstairs."
Descheemaker said reservations must be made and guests must bring their own food and do their own cooking. A non-refundable $150 cleaning deposit also is required.
Beyond the lodge is a large grassy area with several picnic tables to sit and enjoy the nearly perpetual sunshine.
Hikers can choose from three stunning trails.
- Pine Creek Trail is considered strenuous, but rewarding. The half-mile-long trail takes you down to the bridge, where you can feel the spray of the water that runs down the cavernous cave.
- Waterfall trail takes you through a lush landscape and ends at a spring-fed waterfall and fern grotto.
- Gowan Loop Trail, named after the Scotsman who discovered the bridge while being chased by a group of Apache Indians, has an excellent view of the bridge from an observation deck. The half-mile trail is considered steep and strenuous.
- nna Mae Trail, named for Anna Mae Deming, is more scenic and less strenuous than the other three. The trail is on the north side of the canyon near viewpoint two.
Visitors are not allowed to climb under the waterfall beneath the bridge, on mossy rocks, high cliffs or in caves. Pets must be on leashes and are not permitted on the trails.
For Descheemaker, the finest aspect of the park is to see wild animals and birds in their natural habitat.
"We have a herd of 17 javelina," Descheemaker said. "We have white-tail deer and a wide assortment of migratory birds."
The park is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., beginning May 24 through Labor Day.
Admission is $6 per vehicle of four adults, with $1 charged for each additional person. Visitors ages 14 and under are admitted free.