For several years now, we’ve been extending our Arizona getaways to farther corners of the state and we often had sidestepped the communities closer to the Phoenix. We would stop only for refueling or quick restroom and snack breaks. But on recent visits to Pine, Strawberry and Payson, we rediscovered Rim Country. And Tonto Natural Bridge is the area’s best attraction! Here are six reasons to add it to your itinerary:
Now a visitor center, park office and gift shop, the main building was once a pioneer home and guest lodge
1. Easy access
It’s approximately two hours from the Phoenix area, just 14 miles north of Payson, Arizona, off state route 87. Paved roads all the way make for an easy drive, although the last few miles are on a steep driveway down to the park’s main parking lot and visitor center. Plan to spend at least four to six hours at the state park. There are trails to hike, boulders to scramble upon, cool breezes to inhale. Pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it. The park currently is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the visitor center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And easy access doesn’t mean it’s pricey. For a $5 adult entrance fee, the park is really the best deal for an Arizona day trip getaway!
Be prepared to take a natural springs "shower" under the bridge
2. Hiking trails
These hikes aren’t long, but they are steep and some many have uneven steps. Others are very slippery and narrow and require boulder hopping or ledge hugging along Pine Creek. Prepare to get wet: if not from an accidental dip in the creek, you’ll feel the constant spray from the natural springs showering down from atop the bridge. You may want to bring some head gear or you can simply enjoy the drops. Sturdy hiking boots are recommended. Also, allow plenty time to climb up and down these trails. On weekends, the trails will be busy. When we visited in May, there was a constant stream of visitors. Bring along patience and common courtesy on the trail. If you’re not up to hiking down to under the bridge or along the creek, you can still enjoy the bridge sights from one of several lookout points.
The garden setting near the main lodge building makes a great location for a picnic lunch
After a couple of these hikes, you’ll probably want a bite to eat and a cold drink. Remember: even in Payson, summer days are warm. It’s best to hike in the cool of the mornings and reward yourself with a picnic lunch. Some picnic areas have ramadas, but there are plenty of uncovered tables under the shade trees for your family picnic. Use this handy map to plan your visit. Restrooms and drinking water stations are located nearby. Please visit the park website for updates about fire restrictions before you light up one of the grills.
Main lodge building contains many historical items and a gift shop
4. Pine Creek
Of course, during early spring after rains or snow melt, or during late summer after monsoon rains, the Pine Creek’s flows are much higher. And conversely, during late spring and early summer the creek flows will be less. But natural springs surrounding all points of the bridge keep the creek fed. This constant spring water flow produces an array of graduated shades of green from layers of moss, mint, watercress and ferns at the creek bed. We spotted one of two designated swimming areas, but they look a bit on the stagnant side for my liking. Unless you want to step out of the water looking like Hollywood’s “Swamp Thing,” you may want to refrain from creek wading.
Pine Creek flows under the Tonto Natural Bridge
It’s possible to spot many varieties of birds and small mammals around Tonto Natural Bridge and Pine Creek. Bats, swallows, owls, woodpeckers, vultures, squirrels, javelina and gray fox are among the common species making their home in the area. Take a look at the park website to learn more about the wildlife in the area as well as the geological facts and figures about the bridge.
Watch for wildlife along the trails. You may see this photogenic Arizona gray squirrel
6. To support the park
Arizonans’ visits will help keep state parks like Tonto Natural Bridge remain open and operating. Private groups also have been successful in meeting the financial needs of the parks through fundraising efforts. For more information, see the website of the “Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.” The group has an event planned for this summer. Save the date of Saturday Aug. 4 on your calendar for “Taste at the Bridge,” a fundraising event put on by the Friends and the Arizona State Parks Foundation.
Readers: What’s your favorite Arizona State Park and why? How many of you have been to all of them? Some have closed; others are moving to 5-day schedules. What are your thoughts?