Situated about 90 minutes from Phoenix in Central Arizona, you’ll find a hidden treasure that is not only a fun way to escape the desert heat, but it’s also a fun way to enjoy some fresh air and exercise with family and friends.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is located near the quaint towns of Payson, Pine, and Strawberry. At an elevation of 4500 ft., this tucked-away beauty is surrounded by towering pine trees, welcoming waterfalls, and is known to be “the world’s largest natural travertine bridge.” It’s 183 feet in length and 150 feet wide. Pine Creek meanders through the canyon, meeting waterfalls that create pockets of pools with moss-covered rocks, beckoning one to stick their feet in for a minute of respite.
Tonto offers four hiking trails. Pine Creek, Waterfall Trail, Gowan Trail, and the Anna Mae Trail. The ones I enjoy and recommend are The Waterfall Trail, which is about a half-mile, shaded with a steep step pathway that allows you to come face to face with a moss-covered travertine waterfall. The coolness and vibrancy are lovely. Though it dead ends and causes you to turn back the way you came, the 15-minute hike is worth the view.
Another must-do is to take the Gowan Trail near viewpoints 3&4 down to the bottom of the canyon. Though not as shaded when first starting the hike, there is a bench for rest along the trail. The sounds of cicadas and the rustling of the wind are in beautiful harmony with the waterfall above the travertine tunnel. Once off the dirt path, there’s a staircase that leads to a platform with benches and well-appointed spots for sightseeing and picture-taking. Follow down another staircase and you’ll be able to enter the mouth of the cave where it meets the creek’s floor and you’ll be able to feel the refreshing droplets coming down from the light-misting waterfall above.
Hiking shoes and lots of water are recommended on any of the hikes. Though some areas are roped off for habitat preservation, there are still areas where you can wade in the clear water or soak your feet while the yellow butterflies and colorful dragonflies flutter nearby.
Enjoy a picnic lunch near the observation deck, at the provided tables under shaded ramadas, or in the lush green grass. Clean restrooms and ample parking are available.
Another fun thing to do at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is to allow kids the opportunity to earn their Junior Ranger badge. They can download worksheets on the website and ask the Visitor Center for a Junior Ranger booklet filled with activities to do during their visit. Have a park ranger review it, take the Junior Ranger Pledge, get sworn in, and earn your Junior Ranger button.
Please visit https://azstateparks.com/tonto for more info.
PS: If you find that you have more time for exploring the charming, nearby towns, check out the Pine Creek Canyon Lavender Farm and oldest Arizona schoolhouse in Strawberry, the Mogollon Rim, Fossil Springs, Water Wheel Falls, and for great Mexican food in Payson, El Rancho or La Sierra restaurants. The salsa is delish!