I’m not the type of person that can easily appreciate an attraction or otherwise exhilarating activity if it’s not on the travel itinerary. I’ve been known to pout through the duration of an unscheduled stop in Santa Fe, and literally turn my back on what I was told was an unforgettable sunset in the deserts of Western Arizona. Adventurous I might be, but let’s make sure it’s on the agenda, people. That’s why when I stumbled upon a long admired state park in Arizona, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park – one not on the itinerary - the irony of how the situation unfolded was laughable.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
“Does that say… yes! YES! It says Tonto… Natural… Bridge! I squinted to make out the brown roadside marker as we whizzed past the turn in.
Tonto Natural Bridge was one of the natural wonders I’d hoped to experience upon moving to Arizona, and one we didn’t have on our radar on this particular journey up to northern Arizona. Anything that starts with “tonto,” Spanish for “silly” has to be worth patronizing in my mind. However, I’ve been known to get “tunnel vision” when planning a trip, and somehow failed to even realize we were going to be passing right by Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
Pine Creek Trail
We zipped off of Highway 87, and onto a road that very quickly led to hairpin curves, spiraling downward and offering views of the Arizona pine country that spanned for miles ahead of us. Upon arrival, the park ranger served up a grin and a trail map, in which we discovered our options ranged from several accessible viewpoints, to four separate trails leading to the Natural Bridge. Most seemed to offer the option of swimming, but it was ultimately the Pine Creek Trail that received our vote. This shaded path carves its way down the canyon beside Pine Creek, past a natural waterfall and reaches its crescendo at the Natural Bridge itself.
It wasn’t five minutes into our hike that we came upon the waterfall. Hopping over the creek, using a few sunny boulders as our stair steps, and two-stepping across a fallen pine tree, we were able to get right next to this Arizona wonder. Clear water seeped out of the dry rocks, creating a waterfall landing on a blanket of green moss. Mist from the contact rose like a steamy haze. Brilliant red flowers positioned themselves perfectly alongside the moss, their pedals glistening as the sunshine peeked through, practically begging for onlookers to take photos. The pools below created caves ripe for exploring. This waterfall flowed down into the canyon and the riverbed leading into the Tonto Natural Bridge.
I looked at my travelling partner, “Do you feel like you were just transported to Hawaii?”
He paused, still admiring the marvel surrounding him at Tonto Natural State Bridge Park “Yes. I think we’ve just stumbled upon a true desert oasis! How lucky are we?!”
Very lucky, I thought, since we hadn’t even gotten to the finale.
Tonto Natural Bridge
About 15 minutes further into the canyon, we rounded a bend. I gasped, bracing my footing to keep from falling backwards. Trumpets, symbols even French horns began to play in harmony. Standing burly, proud and beautiful before my eyes was Tonto Natural Bridge. It’s about time we met, I said to myself.
The urge to do so many things all at once nearly overwhelmed me. Mainly, you just wanted to take it all in, not move an inch, and simply stare at every piece of the phenomenon. Simultaneously, I felt compelled to sprint towards it, leaping over rocks and streams until I could marvel at it up close and from beneath.
We decided to indulge in each impulse. At one point, I came to the painful realization that I’d stared upward for far too long, and my neck started to crick. We neared the entrance to the natural bridge, inspected the base, and shaded ourselves inside the cool 400-foot tunnel, which has water that flows down from 183 feet above. The park ranger informed us that it’s “raining” in the bridge and that’s something they claim will always happen to preserve the very old moss on the ceiling of the travertine bridge, as well as preserve the original structure. It’s not real rain, of course; the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park service provides a wetland above the Bridge.
Experts state that Tonto Natural Bridge has been around for thousands of years, and certainly we stayed only for a fraction of that time before we moseyed along towards Strawberry. It was an unexpected divergence, and a true Arizona road trip adventure made possible in a short amount of time due to how accessible it was. Beyond the experience, Tonto Natural Bridge proved to be a flashing beacon for my structured life; one that sent a valuable lesson to not become too callused or rigid that you can’t see the magnificence that often lies right in front of you. I encourage each of you to keep your eyes open for the splendor in our state that may fall in your path, or if you’re like me... right above you.
Rebekah Bell is the Director of Advertising for the Arizona Office of Tourism. A 5-year-resident of the Valley of the Sun, she can be found seeking outdoor adventures across the state, sampling locally crafted brews, or exploring quaint Phoenix hideaways. This was her ninth Arizona state park to explore -- she plans to venture to the remaining 20.