Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is getting a face-lift thanks to state-funded construction improvements beginning next Monday.
The park, which is located about 12 miles north of Payson, receives around 100,000 visitors every year and the Arizona Board of Transportation decided that it needed improvements, said Delbert Householder, transportation board member.
The transportation board awarded a contract in the amount of $724,049 to the Glendale-based company, EME West Construction, for improvements at the park.
Upgrades to the park will include the creation of two more 20-car parking lots. The roads will be chip-sealed and re-striped and a process of scaling will be administered to the hills alongside the road, which will secure rocks to prevent them from falling into the road, said park manager, John Boeck.
Householder, who represents Gila, Graham and Pinal counties on the transportation board, said that safety is one of his top priorities.
"We try to do what's best for Arizona," he said.
Boeck said the roadways to the park are still completely safe for travel and that the improvements granted by the state are precautionary, but necessary.
"The roadways have small cracks in them that water can get into and cause damage to the road," he said. "We might as well do work now because it will be a lot more expensive if we have to do it later."
Construction is expected to last from Monday, Feb. 12, to the end of May, but the park will be open normal hours during construction, Boeck said.
"There may be delays on the roadways entering the park but they won't be more than 15 minutes," he said.
EME West Construction has 80 working days to complete the project and will work Monday through Thursday during normal business hours, Boeck said.
He said that construction should be completed by Memorial Day.
The last time any work was done to the park was 12 years ago when the roads leading into and out of the park were paved, Boeck said.
"It's going to be great," he said.
A beautiful place for exercise
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park was founded as a state park in 1990 and is as majestic as it is peaceful. A steep, winding road descends into a spacious canyon surrounded by towering mountains on either side.
The brick-red gift and ranger shops are reminiscent of old-fashioned barns and provide a sharp contrast to the emerald green pines and crystal blue sky. The park paints a pretty picture and is an excellent place to admire nature at its most pristine.
Everyone is welcome to venture out on the four different trails -- Anna Mae, Pine Creek, Waterfall and Gowan -- that descend into Pine Canyon and lead to the 183-foot high natural bridge.
Park ranger Sandy Tomasello called all the trails "steep and strenuous" and said that the Gowan Trail, which takes over an hour to hike, is the most popular trail. She compared the hike to walking ten flights of stairs.
"People will be winded after hiking that trail," she said.
Tomasello said, there are areas to hike that are less strenuous and that the natural bridge can be viewed from an area that is wheelchair-accessible.
There are also ramadas and covered picnic tables and grassy areas for sunbathing, Frisbee tossing or any other outdoor activity.
The park is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beginning in April, the park's hours will change to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Entry fees are $3 per adult, ages 14 and older. Children 13 and younger are free. The park doesn't allow pets.