Ask Cathe Descheemaker what's special about the Tonto Natural Bridge in the fall and winter and she doesn't hesitate -- "the tranquility."
More than 100,000 people, most in the summer, visit the popular state park each year. So while the bridge is a wondrous place to visit any time of the year, cooler months can't be beat, Descheemaker said.
"Visitation goes down, so it just makes everything very peaceful," she said, "especially when it snows."
Descheemaker also raved about the leaves turning in autumn.
"We have wonderful fall colors," she said.
But if you're a regular visitor to the bridge, there are a few changes in store for you this fall and winter, including a new admission structure. Beginning Oct. 1, the entrance fee changed from $6 per car to $3 per person, with children under 14 free. Children and small groups will benefit from the new fee structure; larger groups will pay more.
But there's added value as well. The new side of the Gowan Loop Trail has been developed halfway down so there are few steps left.
"It makes it a lot easier for people with handicaps," Descheemaker said.
Another added bonus is the seven babies born into the herd of javelina that frolic on the lodge lawn.
"The herd is now 27," Descheemaker said.
In fact, fall and winter are great times to see wildlife at the bridge.
The park is a designated Arizona Department of Game and Fish wildlife viewing area. Visitors report see ringtails, skunks, mountain lions, whitetails, mule deer, raccoons and squirrels. Fewer people and lower temperatures will likely draw out the local creatures.
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 a half-mile long and is considered "strenuous." The first 400 feet follows developed trail. Toward the trail's end, the path turns to undeveloped creek bottom.
- Waterfall Trail, where icicles often form in the winter, is approximately 300 feet long, ending at a spring-fed waterfall and fern grotto.
- Gowan Loop Trail is about half-mile long, highlighted by an excellent view of the bridge from the observation deck. This trail is considered "steep and strenuous," but less so now with the improvements.
- The Anna Mae (Deming) Trail, the park's newest, was opened in 2002. 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 Deming trail is on the north side of the canyon, beginning near viewpoint two, Park Manager John Boeck said.
"Most everything else is on the south end," Boeck added. "We've always wanted to put a trail on this side, but never had the time or money to do it. This kind of spreads everything out so everybody isn't trying to use the same area."
The bridge was originally discovered by adventurer David Gowan, who came to Arizona around 1877 when his search for gold in California failed. The Scotsman soon ran afoul of the Apaches who were farming in the area, and they chased him underneath the bridge, where he hid for several days.
A few years later, Gowan filed a claim for the acreage that currently constitutes the park.
Gowan eventually gave the bridge to his nephew David Gowan Goodfellow, who moved his family to Arizona from Scotland in 1898.
Goodfellow, in 1927, built the historic lodge. 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.
The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. all winter long. The only day the park is closed is Christmas day.
Plans for special fall and winter programs at the bridge were not finalized at press time.
For more information, call the park office at (928) 476-4202 or the gift shop at (928) 476-2261.