Of the four trails leading into Tonto Natural Bridge, the Pine Creek Trail can be the most intimidating. But along with the challenge of hiking the trail are the rewards of taking in one of Arizona's true natural wonders.
The trail, also the longest in the system and considered the most strenuous, is well marked with arrows that point the way.
After a deep descent into the canyon, the trail traverses along the creek and through the thick forest. Hikers who are not adept rock hoppers will probably find themselves a little soaked from slipping and sliding into the shallow creek off the mossy boulders. There's also a few small waterfalls where sprays periodically drench hikers. Approaching the bridge, visitors will find spectacular views of the main waterfall, several natural pools and the lush landscape.
Hikers also will be exposed to a panoramic view of the north side of the bridge that will leave them awestruck. The geological wonder, 183 feet high and 400 feet in length, is the largest natural travertine bridge in the world.
A portion of the Gowan Loop had to be closed this spring due to a crack in one of the rock face overhangs. The crack, which extends from the top down to the creek, is considered significant by geologists, but not a danger now that a part of the trial is closed.
A combination of heavy springs rains and a 3.9 earthquake that occurred 30 miles from the bridge are cited as causes of the crack.
Although hikers cannot walk the entire loop, the majority of the Gowan trail remains open.
While hiking any of the Natural Bridge trails, visitors usually spot a wide variety of wild animals and birds living in the natural habitat. Javelina, white tail deer, cottontails, squirrels and migratory birds are frequently sighted.
Above the bridge, visitors will find a historic lodge that is soon to be renovated so it will meet fire codes and comply with the America Disabilities Act.
The lodge gift shop will remain open during the remodeling. It contains a mini-museum that honors David Gowan, a prospector who stumbled across the bridge in about 1877 while being chased by Apaches.
According to park ranger Larry Soroka, while the lodge is being renovated, it no longer will be rented out to groups as it has been in the past.
Just west of the lodge, there is a large park area complete with picnic tables, barbecues and shaded ramadas where visitors can kick back and enjoy the serenity of the area.
The area is extremely popular for weddings, family reunions and as a get-a-way for artists.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is 12 miles north of Payson off Beeline Highway. Admission is $3 per adult. Adults are defined at 14-and-over. Those under 14 are admitted free if accompanied by an adult. Hours from Memorial Day until Labor Day are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Call (928) 476-4202 for more information.