Surprise is one way to express what you will find at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park a few miles from Payson.
Discovered in 1877, the bridge is 183 feet high and spans a 400-foot long tunnel that, at its widest point, is 150 feet.
Coming off Highway 87, about 10 miles from Payson, you drop down into the state park following a narrow road which leads to the visitor center housed in the former lodge, a grassy picnic area and there is no hint of the natural bridge.
You can only see the natural bridge by going to one of the viewpoints that look down into the Pine Creek Canyon or by hiking one of the trails that take you to the canyon floor. Be advised the trails are steep and strenuous. Signs warn hikers that if they have any medical conditions, they should reconsider the hike to the canyon floor.
There are several trails that take to the canyon floor. The Pine Creek Trail, has 400 feet of developed trail and is undeveloped once it reaches the creek bottom, from there you can reach the Pine Creek Natural area and the bridge. Arizona Park officials suggest allowing at least one hour for this hike.
The Gowan Trail is about 2,200 feet long and takes you to an observation deck at the creek bottom. This trail is steep and rough and hiking shoes are recommended for this and all the trails. We watched several people branch off this trail and dropped down on the creek bottom.
The trail that we took was named Anna Mae; it descended to the canyon floor by a series of switchbacks and is about 500 feet long. It will join Pine Creek Trail at the bottom of the canyon, which you can follow to the natural bridge.
This trail takes you over and around boulders for about 100 to 150 feet to get a view of the bridge.
Don't let the 100-150 feet sound easy. You get to cross the creek walking on small stones, climb up and over rocks, and go through a cave-like entrance and out the other side. From there you can get a good view of the bridge.
To get closer or to walk under its span you need to climb up and down some more good-sized boulders This is not a trail for those looking for an easy walk in the forest. Climbing over some of the rocks was tricky and you need to watch your step.
There are other trails, some shorter, such as the Waterfall Trail which, while still steep, was not a hard walk. The Waterfall Trail does not take you to the bridge, but to a waterfall coming off the canyon wall, which is quite a beautiful sight with the sunlight coming through it.
According to the state park's website the west side of the Pine Creek was formed by a flow of lava and when the rocks eroded it left behind purple quartz sandstone. The rock layers were then lithified, tilted and faulted. The second stage in the geology of the bridge came when it was covered by seawater, leaving behind sand and mud.
Erosion then created Pine Creek Canyon. The final stage in the development of the bridge came when precipitation seeped through the rocks.
Springs emerged as the result of these aquifers "carrying the dissolved limestone and depositing calcium carbonate to form a travertine dam. The waters of Pine Creek then eroded through the travertine and formed the Natural Bridge," the state park website said.
The process turned the area into a spectacular site and well worth a trip into the canyon. We spent more than an hour on the creek bottom climbing up one rock and down another, taking our time and along with several sit down breaks to just marvel at what nature has created.