The Tonto Natural Bridge in Arizona is so, so cool! We have driven past the entrance more times than I can count and finally decided last weekend to make a point of going there to see it. I’m even thinking we should go back in October because I could see how beautiful it must be then.
The discovery of the Tonto Natural Bridge was documented in 1877 by David Gowan, a prospector of that time. He discovered it as he was being chased by Apaches. Gowan hid a couple of nights in a cave inside the bridge and on the third day, he left to explore the tunnel and valley surrounding it. As they did back then, he then claimed squatter’s rights until 1898 when he persuaded his family to come over from Scotland and help settle the land permanently. They lowered their possessions down into the valley using ropes and burros and that was that.
Located just on the outskirts of Payson, the Tonto Natural Bridge is its own special place. Surrounded by the pine trees of northern Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, it sits at a lower elevation nestled inside the forest. Seriously, when you take the turn off to get to the entrance, you end up driving down a steep and winding road for 3 miles until you hit the part where they take all your money. (Okay, it’s only $7 per person 14+; $4 per person ages 7-13; Free for children up to age 6. Veterans and Active Military can receive a discount with their military ID.). NOTE: It’s really not beneficial to bring your dogs/pets. They cannot go on trails with you and you can’t leave them unattended while you hike, either. We had debated bringing ours and then decided against it (luckily!).
If you’re just going to enjoy the nature of it and be surrounded by the canyon, you can rent a ramada for day use. They’re not super expensive and you could have a picnic, maybe play some ball in the large grassy areas between the ramadas and just enjoy the day–you’d be able to bring your dog if this is all you plan to do. Weddings are also permitted with the right permits/fees/advance permission. We saw a family of javelina wandering about, including a baby. Of course I took photos:
We did every hike that was available (they’re all pretty short). They are somewhat short (we accumulated 2.71 miles total and it took us just under 2 hours total). The hikes consist of the Gowan Trail, Anna Mae Trail, Pine Creek Trail, and the Waterfall Trail.
The Gowan Trail and the Pine Creek Trail both lead to the bridge. The Gowan Trail is a stairclimber (it’s developed) and is about 2200 feet long. Going down is easy but I noticed several people who were having trouble hiking back out. Once you get to the bottom, you’ll come to a metal bridge. Cross it to get to an observation deck and the Natural Bridge.
The Pine Creek Trail is about a half a mile and is easy until you get to the creek bottom. From that point on, expect to slither your way through boulders and skip over a small flowing creek a time or two. It’s definitely not a flat trail. Follow the posted white arrows. You’ll end up at the opposite side of the bridge from where you were on the Gowan Trail. You could technically loop this all into one trail. We opted to go back out once we had our fill because my shoulder isn’t super strong right now and I didn’t want to chance falling. You have to kind of sit down and scoot along a slippery and slanted rock face in order to accomplish this (at least from what we could tell).
The Waterfall Trail is more of a 300-foot stairclimber leading to a pass for viewing the waterfalls and wild blackberries growing. Funny story: I made a comment that there were a lot of blackberries that weren’t ready and looked almost like raspberries (they were still red). A nearby woman misunderstood what I meant and felt the need to pick a ready blackberry and show me what they looked like. I just nodded my head and was confused until my husband chimed in and told me he thought she only heard me saying they looked like raspberries. HA! Oops. I can’t imagine what she must have thought. Oh well.
There are also a handful of viewpoints where you can get a great vantage point of Tonto Natural Bridge if you’re not in the mood to hike. The viewpoints offer great photo opportunities and the chance to take in the awesome natural bridge. If you’re able to hike, bring a good amount of water, wear hiking shoes and go for it! When you hike down and go under the Tonto Natural Bridge, it’s really cool. Like, literally X amount of degrees cooler. It felt so amazing and had a nice cool, fresh air feeling! There were families that had packed picnics and were eating under the bridge (it’s really large– the bridge is 183 feet high over a 400-foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point.) and kids were everywhere just being kids. (Note: Swimming is not allowed).
This was an awesome day trip for us and it was obviously nice to get away from the valley for a day and take in much cooler temperatures. Doing so certainly makes the summer go by so much faster, anyway! One thing that’s hard to capture in photos is the fact that in certain parts under the bridge water is dripping (heavily) and it feels like you’re being rained on. I’m not talking light sprinkles…I had to hug my camera to keep it from getting wet and ruined because these were big, heavy drops. It felt sooooo good!
These photos are from inside/under the bridge:
Next time you’re thinking of a trip to Payson or Pine, be sure to stop here and see it if you haven’t before. It’s definitely worth it. Have a wonderful week!