Why Tonto Natural Bridge Is Worth Your Time
One of my earliest memories of Tonto Natural Bridge is getting there, and then immediately having to turn around and go home, because there actually wasn’t room for any more cars in the park. And the line was far too long to wait in.
Luckily, these days the tourism eye has turned elsewhere in the state, but you might gather from this past fame that this place is very very special. And you’d be right.
The Tonto Natural Bridge is essentially a massive stone bridge that crosses over Pine Creek and connects either side of the steep walls of Pine Canyon. If you aren’t able to hike, you can enjoy amazing views of the canyon and the bridge from several viewpoints along the parking lots. Hikers can explore underneath the bridge and marvel at the travertine formations that line either side. This limestone creates formations that almost look like stone waterfalls in their own right.
Due to the relatively high elevation of the area (compared to Phoenix), this part of the state is far more lush than the desert lowlands. The snow and snow melt together feed Pine Creek, along with several springs in the area. Several of these you will be able to see from the parking lot and as you hike around. The most important of these (in my humble opinion) is the little spring that runs out onto the bridge. It is a very small little flow, but it pours over the edge of bridge, creating a beautiful and delicate waterfall that you can enjoy above and below.
In short, whether you just want to stop by to take some exceptional pictures, or stretch your legs on the trail, there is plenty of beauty to be enjoyed at this state park. The historic lodge will also give you a special glimpse into Arizona’s past, which is perfect for architectural and history fans alike.
- 1 Why Tonto Natural Bridge Is Worth Your Time
- 2 Hiking Trails
- 3 How to Get There
- 4 Need to Know Information About the Park
- 5 Safety at Tonto Natural Bridge
- 6 Learn More About Arizona State Parks
- 7 Want to Visit Arizona?!
The Tonto Natural Bridge has about 0.5 miles of paved walkway along the top of the canyon wall, on the same side of the creek as the parking lot. The walking path has access to three of the viewpoints, as well as the picnic areas. It’s a good way to photograph and see the natural bridge if you can’t or don’t want to brave the steep trails that go closer to the formation. Some of these may be appropriate for ADA access, but I can’t say from experience, and as of 2019, I think that some parts of the walking path weren’t smooth enough for wheelchair access. If anyone has personal experience and can correct me on this matter, please let me know!
The Gowan Trail is 0.3 miles one way, and goes down from the top of the bridge to the creek on the west side of the formation. I find this trail to be quite steep and slippery- particularly for people that aren’t the most adept at hiking. Normally, this trail leads to a wooden viewing platform from which you can view the little, spring fed waterfall that is always spilling over the top of the bridge. You can also see the cave-like formations that characterize the underside of the bridge. All that being said, as of 2019, the platform was closed.
Word on the street is that this was not built properly, and now there are safety concerns with the structure. The park has done its best to keep people off, but even I can admit that it is tempting to try and get up to get a better view of the falls. But don’t go rogue. To be honest, I find the Gowan trail to be kind of disappointing without the vantage point of the viewing platform. I hope that they have the funding to fix this beautiful fixture sometime in the near future.
The Anna Mae trail is a very short 0.1 mile trek (in one direction), and much like the Gowan trail, it is quite steep. This short little trail will get you down to the creek on the east side of the bridge, however. If it is warm, you can actually (CAREFULLY) swim and play in the water at the base of this trail.
The Pine Creek trail is the most technical trail in the park, in my opinion, although it is not as steep as either Anna Mae or Gowan. Pine Creek is also the longest at 0.4 miles in one direction. To the west, Pine Creek will take you under the bridge. This is ABSOLUTELY beautiful!! I LOVE this part of the trail system, and it is my favorite part of the park.
That all being said, do not take this trail if you are not sure on your feet. The western trail is basically nonexistent, and you will find yourself jumping from rock to rock in order to move down the creek. In order to pass under the bridge, you will also need to walk over stones rubbed smooth by decades of hikers. If you are sure footed, it will be worth it though, because you will have the opportunity to see the amazing travertine formations of the bridge. You will also get to see the famous backside of water! Really though. The waterfall from under the bridge is really magical. The whole place is really magical.
Unfortunately, however, without the viewing platform being open, you will not be able to connect Pine Creek with Gowan, so be prepared to go back the way you came.
The eastern side of Pine does connect back with the parking lot, so if you want to do a loop, that’s one way to go. Again, however, this part of the trail is semi-technical. You will need to do some pathfinding, and follow markings on the stone of the canyon. You will also need to cross the creek a couple times. It is definitely doable, but it does require a little more work and attention than some of the other trails.
It might be a bit of a surprise, but the waterfall trail (0.1 miles) does not get you a good view of the bridge waterfall. It does take you to a waterfall of a kind, and I think its worth the steep little walk, but don’t expect to get any good pictures of the bridge from here. What you will see is a canyon wall covered in a mat of lush ferns that are fed by a constant drip of spring-fed water. In the winter (if the trail is open) this can be a very cool area, particularly when parts of the waterfall freeze into icicles.
How to Get There
Whether you are coming from the north or the south, there is only one way to get to the park, and that is on the 260/87. From the south, you will head north through Payson, staying on the 87 (also called the 260)- then you will hang a left when you get to the park road.
From Pine in the north, you will follow the 87/260 south and hang a right to get to the park road. It’s pretty hard to miss!
Need to Know Information About the Park
Park Entrance Fees: $7.00 per adult
9a – 5p with the last entry at 4p (trails close an hour before the park closes)
For more information on the park, visit the State Park website (https://azstateparks.com/tonto/).
Safety at Tonto Natural Bridge
(1) Obey Park Rules
This is always true, no matter the park, but particularly important in Tonto Natural Bridge. This is because the trails in the park are both very steep, and pass over smooth rocks along the creek. This means that when the trails are wet and icy, they are extremely dangerous. Generally speaking, the staff will close the trails when they are dangerous. It is key to not try to sneak around them or disobey blockades. It’s for your own safety.
(2) Wear Good Shoes
As just mentioned, the hiking trails here are steep, rocky, and may require you to hop from rock to rock if you pass under the bridge. In either case, you will want some nice, grippy hiking shoes in order to traverse these paths safely.
(3) Know Your Limits
Whether you really want to go under the bridge or not, you should not take on any difficult trail if you aren’t prepared. That being said, if you want to challenge yourself, just make sure to take your time, wear good shoes, and bring water along even when its cold out.
(4) Respect Nature
There are still many visitors to Tonto Natural Bridge, even if its height of fame has passed. This means that each visitor’s impacts are multiplied by each person. So, together we must work to protect this beautiful park for the future.
- Stick to the trails.
- Make sure that you put ALL of your trash in trash bins.
- Do not go to the bathroom anywhere but at the toilets throughout the park (this includes not going to the bathroom in the creek if you go for a swim).
- Do not take anything home with you, except for your trash and any gifts you may buy at the visitor center.
- Leave all animals alone.
(5) Respect Other Visitors
While you are exploring the park, please be sure to be polite towards other visitors. This means sharing the trail.
- If you need to take your time, let other people pass. If you are hiking faster, let others find a safe place to let you pass.
- Use headphones when you want to listen to music on the trail.
- Stay safe! Believe it or not, getting yourself hurt because you are unprepared can put other people at risk. Mistakes happen, of course, but we should all do our due diligence to avoid getting into trouble.
Learn More About Arizona State Parks
Arizona has 31 state park units that can be found scattered all across the state. If you want to explore some of the lesser-known elements of the Grand Canyon State, the state parks are a great way to do that. There is a nice mix of historic places and natural wonders, as well as parks that cater to other kinds of activities like boating, and sports.
Want to Visit Arizona?!
Did you know that the Nightborn Travel team was born and raised in Arizona, and we try to explore more and more of it every week?! If you want to visit Arizona and get a REAL feel for what the beautiful state is all about, check out our growing Guide to Arizona page. We cover hikes, history, culture, food, and small and big towns.