Bringing Bridge Back

Manager hopes to restore Natural Bridge lodge

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From the safety of a fenced viewpoint atop Tonto Natural Bridge, the revelers down below looked tiny. The travertine bridge dwarfed them.

They played in pools of water beneath the majestic rock, but stopped short of swimming.

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Staff and volunteers are working to expand access at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, improving the trail system to give visitors more space to explore.

Swimming at that particular spot isn't permitted, said Park Manager John Boeck. The rocks are slippery.

Elsewhere in the park, the swimming ban washes away. Boeck promotes expanding access and he has worked during his tenure to expand the trail system to give the park's visitors more space to explore.

"We want to let people enjoy the outdoors instead of closing everything off," he said.

The philosophy also helps disperse visitors. People can enjoy sitting under the bridge, unfettered by unwelcome crowds under that main attraction since other open trails similarly attract their interest.

Tonto Natural Bridge, measuring 183 feet high and spanning a 400-foot long tunnel that stretches 150 feet at its widest point, is believed to be the largest travertine bridge in the world.

Travertine bridges are created when travertine, a porous calcite, is deposited from ground or surface waters. At Tonto Natural Bridge, springs from limestone aquifers formed the travertine and, over thousands of years, the waters of Pine Creek eroded the travertine and created the bridge.

Prospector David Gowan is credited with discovering the natural phenomenon in 1877. He claimed squatter's rights and various private parties owned it until Oct. 12,1990 when Arizona State Parks bought it.

On Oct. 13, 1990, Boeck became the park's first manager.

Until he retires next year, Boeck will work on restoring the lodge to its original use as a 10-bed guest house.

First, a new wastewater system must be installed, the roof repaired and the kitchen renovated to meet current codes.

The restaurant, wide and open, woody and accommodating, sits waiting for guests with tables and chairs clustered around its edges.

"It still needs some work," Boeck said. Instead of park rangers slapping on chefs hats, the park will contract out the cooking.

Boeck is also working on building cabins around the park to accommodate more overnight visitors.

The flow of money will heavily impact the progress of Boeck's projects. The state used to partially finance their parks, but the funds constricted until stopping all together.

Arizona's state parks pool their entrance fees, which then pay for operations. The state park executive board decides which parks to gift with extra money for projects.

Several other sources buffer the basic budget, but tight budgets limit staff. The park relies heavily on volunteers.

Four full-time employees, three temporary workers, and 20 dedicated volunteers run things.

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Plans are to restore the Tonto Natural Bridge Lodge to its original use as a 10-bed guest house.

"We're happy if we get eight hours a month from our volunteers," Boeck said. Benefits include a free state park pass.

"We have volunteers from all walks of life," he added. Some give tours, or help with maintenance or gardening. "Some people just stand under the bridge and answer questions."

Volunteers can attend staff meetings if they'd like, and are encouraged to contribute their ideas.

"We're in the entertainment business, I guess you could say," Boeck said. "Our business is to help people have fun."

The park opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. During April, September and October, the park opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. From November to March, hours last from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Entrance fees cost $3 for those 14 and older. Those 13 and younger enter free. Call (928) 476-4202 for more information.

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