Anyone interested in running a historic, nine-room hotel — and maybe a restaurant — sitting on top of one of North America’s natural wonders?
If so, give Arizona State Parks a call, since they’re looking for someone to reopen the Tonto Natural Bridge Lodge, once one of the hot tickets in Rim Country.
State parks this week put out a request for proposals, hoping to find a private contractor who wants to take over operations of the recently repaired lodge, which currently has nine guest rooms, a big kitchen, meeting rooms and the park’s gift shop.
The state park system is also still interested in finding a private contractor who might take over the whole operation — and perhaps invest enough money to restore some of the facilities the site offered in its tourist heyday, including rental cabins and perhaps a campground.
The search for a private contractor caps three years of struggles and near-death experiences for the park, caught between the need for expensive repairs and the state budget crisis that drastically reduced the budget for the whole, 28-site state park system.
The state park system used nearly its last money for repairs to re-roof the historic lodge. That construction work prompted the intermittent closure of the park, which combined with publicity about the state park system’s budget collapse drove down visitation.
Visits to the site peaked at some 96,000 several years ago, but last year declined to 65,000. The park has not yet released visitation figures for this year, although rangers say the number of visitors has risen — especially on Labor Day, when people were lined up waiting to go through the world’s largest natural travertine arch.
The state acquired the park in 1991 through a lease purchase agreement, after 24 years of fitful negotiations. The state last year made its final balloon payment on the purchase of the roughly 120-acre site, which includes the 183-foot-high, 393-foot-long tunnel dissolved through 200 million cubic feet of travertine.
Stripped of some $73 million in revenue by a deficit-plagued Legislature, the state park system last year came close to closing most of its sites, with the exception of a few profitable, high-volume parks like Kartchner Caverns. Slide Rock in Sedona and several campgrounds along the Colorado River.
Payson led the efforts to save the Tonto Natural Bridge and in partnership with the Tonto Apache Tribe, Star Valley and a host of volunteers, raised enough money to keep the park open seven days a week through the season, both last year and this year.
Payson provides about $25,000 annually to keep the park open. Other towns used the Payson model to keep a dozen state parks open statewide.
The state park system had planned to seek bids to operate the lodge from private contractors early this year, but then a deep freeze in January forced the evacuation of the lodge and rangers quarters. The historic freeze then caused fire sprinkler pipes to burst in the lodge, doing extensive damage to ceilings, walls and floors.
Crews have now finished those repairs, making it possible to once again seek a contractor to operate the lodge — and perhaps the rest of the park as well.
The Tonto Natural Bridge remains perhaps the best-known tourist attraction in Rim Country internationally. A study several years ago estimated that non-local visitors to the bridge pump about $26 million annually into the region’s hard-pressed tourist economy.
The lodge sits on a broad, grassy plateau graced by a little spring-fed spring, blackberry bushes and fruit trees, which overlooks the deep cut of Pine Canyon.
The bridge formed when Pine Creek encountered a massive cliff of travertine, dissolved calcium carbonate leached out of buried limestone by underground springs. Composed mostly of the skeletons of tiny sea creatures that settled to the bottom of a long-vanished sea millions of years ago, the creek water dissolved a great, 150-foot-wide tunnel through the uplifted travertine deposits.
Now, visitors can hike down the short, steep trail to the stream and stand on an observation platform to peer into the huge tunnel beneath the spray of water produced by a little stream that empties out into thin air at the edge of the 60-foot-thick roof of the cavern. Visitors can also clamber through the cavern past five pools, one of them 40-feet deep.
Before the site passed into state hands in 1991, private owners operated the guest lodge and a popular restaurant, together with cabins, a small campground, a spring-fed swimming pool and a fruit orchard.