Bouyed by a 12-percent rise in visitation, the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park has returned to a seven-day-a-week schedule as rangers and volunteers brace for a busy holiday weekend.
Managers of the world’s largest natural arch and its historic buildings hope that word will spread among visitors still confused by fire-based forest closures and lingering questions about state parks budget cuts.
“I think we’ll be very busy on the Fourth, but I don’t think we’ll be overloaded,” said Ranger Steve Jakublowski, the park manager. “There’s a lot of misconceptions still going on, especially with the fires. People are calling quite a bit wondering whether we’re open.”
Visitation rose about 7,000 in the just-concluded fiscal year to about 65,600.
However, visitation still remains far below the peak of about 93,000 in the year before the onset of budget cuts nearly gutted the state parks system and forced closures and reduced hours in many parks. Tonto Natural Bridge was shut down completely for months to make major repairs to the historic lodge, which now houses the park’s gift shop.
“If the extremely hot weather continues in the Valley, that will help increase our visitation here,” said Jakublowski.
The park is now open every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but most of the 8,000 visitors a month come on Saturdays.
“We really need to get some information out there: Yes, the park is open and yes, we’d like to have people visit it,” said Jakublowski.
One of the best-known tourist attractions in Rim Country, the park centers on a cavernous, 183-foot-high, 400-foot long tunnel Pine Creek has dissolved through a massive wall of travertine. Visitors can visit the gift shop in a territorial style historic lodge, then hike down to the creek. Many visitors pick their way through the 150-foot-wide tunnel, savoring the cooler temperatures, waterfalls, deep, clear pools and steady drip of groundwater from the ceiling.
The park has recovered from a whole succession of problems.
That includes a couple of black bears that took to raiding the park’s dumpster.
“Arizona Game and Fish ended up catching them somewhere else and moving them,” said Jakublowski.
That leaves guests free to appreciate the frequent glimpses of javelina, deer and elk on the large, grassy expanse on the canyon rim surrounding the lodge.
A much more serious setback came in January when a freeze caused pipes to burst in the newly reinforced lodge, causing extensive damage to ceilings, walls and floors.
“It was pretty bad,” said Jakublowski of the water damage to the 100-year-old lodge, which sheltered guests and included a well-known restaurant when the natural bridge was still in private hands.
“The water soaked through the second floor and down into the first floor lobby.”
But Jakubloski said that a specialist in historic restorations from Florence completed work on the red oak and walnut floors last week. “He was very impressed with the quality of those floors. They look beautiful now.”
The park has also completed work on a paved pathway and wheelchair ramps that connect the visitor’s center to several overlooks. George Randall donated most of the concrete and Four Corners Concrete in Payson did the work.
The park will also shortly add a large, covered ramada with picnic tables that groups can reserve for gatherings.
The full-time staffing in the park has declined from five to three, which makes the contributions of a core of about 30 volunteers crucial.
Volunteers donate nearly 600 hours every month, which adds up to more than 60,000 hours annually.
After the state Legislature diverted the bulk of the operating funds for the 28-park system, the state parks board considered plans to close many sites — including Tonto Natural Bridge, which even in normal times costs more to operate than visitors pay in fees.
Payson and Star Valley rallied to the park’s defense and contribute up to $30,000 annually to help offset operating costs. Volunteers also stepped up their efforts and formed Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge. The volunteers now contribute enough hours to compensate for three full-time positions.
The completion of the water damage repair work now leaves the park free to once again seek bids from private contractors who might want to operate the park in the future. State park officials hope that Tonto Natural Bridge will end up becoming a model for partnerships with private firms. The master plan envisions opening the lodge to overnight visitors, adding a restaurant and perhaps building and renting cabins and campgrounds. State park officials hope that a private contractor will be willing to invest in such improvements, which would increase the revenue and the visitation.
An economic study done when the bridge was attracting 90,000 annually concluded that visitors to the park inject about $26 million a year into the local, tourist-dependent economy.
The massive, travertine arch has a rich history — both human and geologic.
The arch formed from a fascinating process in just the last 5,000 years. That’s when springs began to gush from fractures in thick layers of limestone on one side of the small canyon carved by Pine Creek. The limestone layers formed from the skeletons of microscopic sea creatures that settled to the bottom of an ancient, vanished sea. The seabottom deposits were transformed into limestone after they were buried, heated, fused and then uplifted.
Rainfall that fell on the uplands filtered through those buried layers of limestone and fed the springs. That percolating groundwater picked up a heavy load of calcium carbonate from the limestone. This mineral then precipitated out of the water as it emerged into the sunlight. The travertine built up to form a massive wall, that blocked and diverted Pine Creek.
The waters of the creek then went to work on the travertine dam, initially forming a meander to go around it, but eventually dissolving a tunnel right through it. A similar process formed Kartchner Caverns in southeast Arizona and is now building new formations in Fossil Creek.
Various Native American groups took advantage of the bounty of Pine Creek for thousands of years. Whites did not discover the natural wonder until prospector David Gowan used the cavern to hide from a band of pursuing Apaches in 1877.
He hid for three days in smaller caves connected to the central arch before he emerged and decided to homestead the nearby valley. He started a farm and ranch there and was joined by his nephew, David Goodfellow and family in 1893, who eventually took over the homestead.