It seems a nothing place, just a road off of a road.
But drive down that well-maintained lane off of Highway 87/260 and it opens onto a little piece of paradise — the Tonto Natural Bridge.
“Some locals have driven by the entrance for five years without knowing it’s here,” said Friends of Tonto Bridge President Derek Shreiner at a storm-tossed gala fund-raiser Saturday designed to reforge the link between Rim Country’s most popular tourist attraction and the community.
Some 200 people chatted, bid on artwork, networked, toured the restored rooms in the historic lodge — and clung to umbrellas and dodged the water gushing from the tops of the tent covering the food, wine and band.
Shreiner and his group hope to raise matching funds for an $8,500 grant to build a monument/entrance sign at the corner of the highway and the entrance to the park. They also wish to update an information kiosk at the start of the trails that lead to the largest natural travertine bridge in the world.
The group hosted the Taste at the Bridge fund-raiser to help raise funds for those projects and keep the park open year-round. Several years ago, annual visitation to the park peaked at about 95,000, when an economic impact study concluded the park injected some $26 million into the local tourist economy annually. But the state budget woes prompted the intermittent closure of the park, coupled with damage to the roof of the historic lodge. Those problems drove visitation down below 60,000 annually.
However, state park officials say that visitation has begun to recover this summer, with some 50,000 since January, with recent weekend crowds well above last year. Last weekend, the park logged 780 visitors on Saturday and 600 on Sunday.
The weekend event represented a return to the close connection between the Natural Bridge and the community that existed when private owners hosted many community events and operated an inn, restaurant, campground and orchard. The state park improved access and recently repaired the leaking roof to the historic inn and is now considering using a private contractor to operate facilities and rebuild visitation with more of those added attractions.
On Saturday evening, a happy crowd gathered to show their support of the Rim Country treasure and the Friends group that has changed the fortunes of this place.
In its third year of existence, the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park has won the Arizona State Park People’s Choice Award and the group has made improvements. Contributions from Payson, Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe have helped restore the park to full operations.
The Friends funded an upgrade in the trail leading to the bridge. They have installed sturdy, even cement steps to replace the awkward and uneven railroad tie steps hikers used to use to lead to the bridge trail.
“People often lost their balance,” said Shreiner of the steps prior to the group replacing them.
The Friends have also made it possible for disabled people to see the bridge by putting in a ramp around the steps and cementing a viewing gallery at the top of the trail.
The state recently stepped up to the plate installing new toilets to replace port-a-potties and a large ramada to cover a picnic area for groups.
The Saturday event event had a distinctly Rim Country air. Guests wore comfortable clothes, as organizers had offered hiking. Due to the weather, people decided to tour the lodge instead.
Guests wined and dined on the grassy knoll under the 1920s style building.
Attendees paid a modest ticket price to enjoy a wide variety of wines, warm and cold appetizers and sumptuous desserts including chocolate-dipped strawberries and custard fruit tarts.
Nature offered air conditioning through the monsoon. Spears of lightning and cracks of thunder punctuated the rain that fell in huge droplets as guests arrived.
The awnings put up over the food and wine tent gushed waterfalls of water as it collected in the canopy. Gasps accompanied each whoosh of water.
“Timing is everything,” said one man as he gingerly stepped around a flood of water cascading down after he picked up his wine and walked toward the food.
“Got your glassful?” asked one friend to another.
“Yep. I’ve got to go back and fill up again,” replied the friend.
The event attracted numerous local dignitaries, such as Su Connell from the Payson Town Council, Larry Stephenson, president of the Gila Community College (GCC) board and Pam Butterfield, dean of GCC. Darrell Stubbs, candidate for sheriff showed up, bidding on a silent auction offering called “Dine in Pine.” He lost to local investment manager Kevin Dick. Other bidders noticed Dick won a couple of baskets they coveted.
Cristie Statler, the executive director of the Arizona State Parks Foundation came to help and enjoy the event. The Friends organization works in conjunction with the state foundation, which offers its 501c3 as the umbrella organization.
Marguerite Young, dressed as a garden fairy and touting her book, which her great aunt and mother wrote, “Insect Wonderland,” from which half of the proceeds of books sold at the chamber will be donated to the Friends, described what the place meant to her:
“It’s always so different whenever I come here,” she said. “One winter I was the only person in the park. I walked to the bridge and there were icicles in the travertine. Another time, I heard a man playing a Native American flute in the bridge. He sounded like Pan. The acoustics are amazing.”
Young volunteered for two years as a State Park volunteer. Shreiner said people might volunteer either for the State Park or for the Friends.
“If people wish to volunteer for the Friends,” he said, “They can do so on our Web site, www.tontobridge.com.”
State Park volunteers Bill Armbruster and Margaret Jones took guests on a tour of the lodge.
The three-story building sits prominently at the top of the hill looking over the whole valley. The Goodfellow family built the lodge in the late 1920s. Each room had a sink and although electricity had not yet come to the area, the building was wired and a generator produced energy for light, explained Jones.
The rooms all resided on the second floor. Since air conditioning had not yet been developed, many of the rooms had verandas attached with windows all around and trundle beds plus tables and chairs.
“When this lodge opened, it was quite a hit because it was the first dude ranch,” said Jones.
The Goodfellows raised corn, alfalfa, fruit trees, berries, vegetables, chickens, goats and cattle for food. The family provided lodging and food for those that had traveled from far away to visit the natural wonder.
The State Parks hope to open the lodge within the year to guests.
Throughout the venue, the John Scott Band provided blues and country music to entertain the guests. Bocce ball enthusiasts played on the lawn near the State Park office.
The evening concluded with a live auction run by Frank Allen. Then park volunteers offered to light the way for guests to find their cars — a touch of Rim Country kindness at the end of a lovely evening with friends in the glorious natural surroundings.