Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Tonto Natural Bridge

Arizona has such a diversity of landscapes. If you drive one hour in one direction, you'll hit saguaros. An hour in a different direction and you'll hit the forest. Open plains here, mountains there. Red rocks here, white rocks there. Purple dirt and brown dirt. Sand and clay and gravel and marsh. It's all here. In fact, there is so much to look at and so many destinations that there are so many I haven't seen.

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park was such a place. It's just south of the town of Pine (where I used to sometimes go during summer to get out of the heat, maybe go to an antique store and get an ice cream). That means that it's also a little north of Payson, which is northeast of the Phoenix area (so if you're coming from Phoenix, it'll take you about two hours). Basically it's a little to the right of the center of the state, within the Tonto National Forest.

As you're driving in this area, you're in the midst of many pine trees. This is the road that you want to try and avoid driving at night because elk often run across the road, which can of course be very dangerous. The turnoff from the 260 is small and you have to drive a few minutes to get to the park. Be warned that part of this road goes down a steep section beside something of a cliff edge.

A view from above all the trails.

At one point, the park was a homestead, claimed by David Gowan in 1877. The gift shop is a historic building that was built later, in the 1900's; there you can view a couple of pictures and other items from families who lived on the site. Driving straight in, there are various parking sections scattered around grassy areas with picnic tables. This little valley is beautiful. Steep cliffs looming above you on one side but lots of open space where you are. It isn't entirely unlike the space around Slide Rock State Park. We had our picnic lunch first; the October weather was beautiful.

I don't know if it's just me, but I found the park map of the trails a little confusing at first. So I'm just going to describe them all. The first trail we went on was the shortest one, and I do recommend it for first. It's the Waterfall Trail, basically just some steps build into the cliffside/mountainside going down to a small waterfall. It's a lovely trickle, full of green with some caves behind it; a secret surprise that you would never know was there if you hadn't seen it.

A view standing in front of the waterfall.

The other three trails all lead to the same place, the Natural Bridge itself. So while for the Waterfall Trail, you climb back up the way you came, with the other three trails you'll probably go up a different trail from the one you came down--unless you don't go under the bridge (we'll get to that part later). We didn't go on the Pine Creek Trail; that one is the longest at half a mile. It just runs along the creek, so I'm going to say that it isn't strictly necessary unless you want to go on all the trails and take your time enjoying all the scenery. Just be advised that they aren't kidding when they emphasize that these trails are strenuous: the steepness and the rocks do that. If you're in good health and reasonably fit, you'll be fine, but it is all more tiring than longer, flatter trails that I've been on in other places. And I went in Fall, not Summer.

The second trail we went on was the Anna Mae Trail. This one has a rather short but steep decline toward the creek; there's some loose gravel in places, so you have to be careful of your footing. Once we reached the creek, I thought that was the end of the trail until someone pointed out a tiny arrow on a rock pointing, basically, toward the creek. Here's where you have the option to turn around and go back up or climb over the creek's rocks to get to the bridge.

Note the man with the red backpack at the bottom for scale.

If you're climbing on the rocks, do bring hiking shoes. The rest of my group had tennis shoes, and I was much better off with my Keens; they really do have a better grip (for clothing, try and avoid shorts and I recommend sturdy pants like jeans instead of thin sports leggings). After walking just a small bit, we came into view of the bridge. The bridge is made of travertine. It's stone that has grown until it connects the two cliffsides, forming an outdoor cave underneath. And it's huge, believed the largest natural travertine bridge in the world: 183 feet high, forming a tunnel that's 400 feet long and 150 feet at its widest point. When you first set eyes on it, it's truly amazing, especially because there is nothing leading up to it. Sure, the area around it is beautiful, but it's nothing like this huge tunnel. It truly is an outdoor cave, with all of those wavy, flowing shapes in the stone that make up the inside of caves. All the beauty of a cave but in broad daylight: how awesome is that?

Zoomed in picture of me in about the same spot as the person in black in the above picture.

As we began approaching the bridge, we ran into people coming to it from the Pine Creek Trail; this is where the two meet. And after we walked under the bridge, we walked straight into the Gowan Trail (which we walked up, but more on that later). The thing is, I wouldn't recommend that everyone go all the way under the bridge. You can maybe go partly in just for the fun of it and for some pictures. But it can be dangerous under there and difficult to get through. If you have children under ten, for sure don't do it. If you have children under 14, consider not doing it. If you have a fear of heights, you're probably better off on the trails next to those cliff edges than under the bridge. If you didn't bring the proper shoes (closed hiking or tennis shoes), do not do it. If you're not semi-fit, don't do it.

Inside the tunnel.

Have I scared you enough? I only say all of this because I had no warning. I read some reviews of the park online beforehand so I would know what to expect, but no one really specified what trails they did or didn't go on. So when we went, we didn't really know what was ahead and we just sort of followed the crowds.

A pool of water in the tunnel.

There were plenty of people going under the bridge, so many that I'm kind of surprised more accidents don't happen. There was a park ranger about halfway under the bridge, keeping an eye on everything. He had to yell two or three times while we were there to keep people from going parts of the rocks that they shouldn't. And he's probably also there to start calling in help if anyone does get injured. But remember, this bridge is 400 feet long. He can't guide everyone along and you can't ask him questions until you're right next to him simply because the space is too big. The first time he yelled at someone, it took us a moment to even realize the basics of what he was saying. ("Yelled at" is a harsh phrase: I don't mean to imply that he was rude--he certainly wasn't. He was just there to help keep people safe.)

The top of the bridge is big enough to be called a ceiling.

Remember that tiny arrow pointing to the creek, which led to the bridge? There are more of these tiny arrows underneath the bridge to mark the way. The problem is, I didn't see any of them; I just heard people mention them. There were plenty of people there, so mostly we just followed everyone else. There is an infamous "corner" that kept replaying in my head for the rest of the day. Going around this corner, you have to place your feet carefully on a slippery boulder while clinging onto the boulder above it. Clinging there and wondering if my feet would hold, I did wonder what I was doing there putting myself at such risk. Once you climb along the rock, you have to half sit down and edge yourself down an angled rock. Now, I've had some confusion about this corner: for a moment, I thought someone said that there was a different route. But now I'm pretty sure that it was part of the route. I don't know which I prefer: to think that I went through an unnecessary risk or to think that that corner was part of the route. Either way, just make sure you try and look where you're going to make sure that it's the best route and try to look for those tiny arrows pointing the way. In most cases, the best route is obvious, but there are a couple of exceptions. There is a lot to look at in the cave, but try and also keep an eye out to see the routes that other people are (successfully, not rebelliously) taking.

Reaching the end of the tunnel and leaving behind the danger zone.

Okay, I'm done with all the warnings of caution and descriptions of scary rocks. Sure, there are one or two places that can be difficult to get through (especially if you're short like me and your legs just don't reach as far), but the less risky risks are kind of fun. (Just whatever you do, don't jump--that's how accidents happen. Firm footing at all times.)

The waterfall, looking out from the tunnel.

And it's beautiful under the bridge; it really is an amazing experience if you do it. All of the different types of rocks and the pools of water keep your eyes (and your camera) moving. As you approach the end of the tunnel, water starts splashing from the ceiling. It isn't a lot but you will without question get some drops. And then you see why: there's a waterfall on the other end of the bridge. Signs all warn not to go under the waterfall and there are barriers to keep you away (the "path" is to the left of it coming in this direction). But you're still pretty close to it, right beside it. Sure, it isn't as full of a waterfall as some, but the view you can get of it makes it just as spectacular.

Note the man in red for scale.

Here you reach the observation deck, which is at the end of the Gowan Trail. There's a long bench or two here, but they fill up quickly. So I sat on the steps for a minute to have water and almonds and to recover from the climbing (probably more mentally than physically). You can stay on this deck for a long time given that there is so much to look at.

Looking back into the tunnel. The people are too small to even see.

So. I said we went back up using the Gowan Trail. This one is tamer I think than the Anna Mae Trail: the path seemed wider and less gravelly, so it's less dangerous in that regard. But at 2200 feet versus 500, it's also four times the size, composed mainly of stairs with some flatter inclines mixed in. Keep in mind that this can be tiring after other hiking--but there is enough space along the way to stop as often as you might need to. This trail has a different view from the others. As you're starting up, you can still turn back and get a good view of the waterfall side of the bridge. Soon, though, all you can see are the hillsides and the trees. Still nice, just a little different from the trails on the other side.

The waterfall from the outside--it appears bigger and thicker in person.

There are four viewpoints if you can't go on the trails, and they do offer a decent view of the bridge. So it is possible to visit the park just to have a picnic, maybe play on the grass, and look down from the viewpoints. If you want to keep hiking to a minimum, go on the Anna Mae Trail because it's the shortest (other than the Waterfall Trail), walk just slightly in over the creek to take pictures on the edge of the bridge, and then go back up on the same trail. If you want to do a little more, also go down the Gowan Trail and back up again. The Pine Creek Trail sounds nice if you want to take your time going on all the trails. The Waterfall Trail is short enough that it's worth it if you're good with stairs. Once again, I do urge caution with going under the bridge. If you do decide to go under, remember that you can start with either the Pine Creek or Anna Mae and then ascend using the Gowan Trail, or vice versa.

The bare rock in the middle of the picture is the top of the bridge.

It's truly a wondrous bridge, and I can't believe I had never been to see it before. It's right up there with the Petrified Forest and Sunset Crater and all of those great spots in the state, even if the park is fairly small in comparison. One final note: while the estimated times for each trail might be an exaggeration for a lot of people, don't assume you can finish quickly. And while the park closes at 5, admission and trails do close at 4 because they have to make sure everyone is out at the end of the day. So plan for that.

October truly is hiking month out here. Don't let it pass you by. And don't forget to bring water and food with you.

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