A Glorious Geologic Wonder – Tonto Natural Bridge

Ambling over boulders and hopping across the stream on stepping stones or a log bridge, I did not expect the grandeur and beauty of what I found at the end of the path. While working at the art gallery, we had a British artist who had visited Arizona and done a set of paintings from that experience. You may remember me writing about Montezuma’s Castle based on seeing his painting. Well, another of his works was a large canvas with the image of Tonto Natural Bridge about 90 miles north of Phoenix. After visiting on Monday, I can say his painting did  not capture the majesty of the place at all.

Tonto Natural Bridge 30 June 2014 (13)The geologic feature is like a cave, the sides of which have been ripped off by a giant creating a breezeway sheltering an oasis in the high Arizona desert. When I arrived at the state park, I expected to see the bridge in the side of a cliff or at least prominently visible. However, access to the park is down a steep winding road with the same high desert scrub on either side. At no point can you see the bridge or have any idea that it is there.

After paying my admission I parked at the nearest trailhead to begin exploring the park. The Pine Creek Tonto Natural Bridge 30 June 2014 (14)Trail is not that long, but it is an adventure since only the first few hundred feet are developed as you descend into the ravine. Once at creek level, you follow arrows over and around boulders crossing the creek a few times.

For the most part the creek was not flowing, but I imagine that if there were storms recently, this trail would be closed for safety reasons. There were many pools though, which means water is in the creek most of the year.

Although I knew there would be a natural bridge at the end, I did not expect to see a ginormous cavern gaping before me. It made me stop for a moment in wonder. This time of year, when the water is low, I could enter the bridge from this side and climb through it. Again, when there’s more water this may not be allowed.

Tonto Natural Bridge 30 June 2014 (17)

The cavern itself is almost 200 feet high, 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. It is truly magnificent. In fact, I just sat there for a while on a few different perches to ponder. I watched the crawdads in the pools scuttling along the rocks and observed swallows flitting and diving all around, especially near the openings. Gusts of wind flowed through the natural breezeway, and water dripped from the ceiling as if it were raining inside.

At the opposite end from where I entered, the outlet of the stream and inlet of the breeze, there is a steady trickle of water dropping over the mouth from long chains of moss and ferns. I imagine that during a wetter time of year or just after rain this is a magnificent waterfall. There is an observation deck at this side too that is the end of the trail from the other side of the bridge. That is the trail I took back up.

On top, there are overlooks to get views of the bridge from both sides and multiple angles. I also took the waterfall trail that takes you a couple hundred feet to an extremely lush cliff face that is constantly draining water over its dense cover of fern, blackberry and a lovely dainty yellow flower.

The natural bridge is considered the largest travertine natural bridge in the world. In addition to the stream running beneath it, there are natural springs that feed water to the bridge from up the mountain above. This is how, over millions of years the travertine collected and then wore away creating the wonder.

Because of the springs, the lands on top of the bridge and next to that had been used for more as farmland, originally by the native people of Arizona and then by a European settler by name of David Gowan. In 1877, Gowan was prospecting for gold when he came across the bridge and claimed squatter’s rights. At one time he even had to use the caves under the bridge as a hiding place when the Apaches did not want him around anymore. He eventually brought his nephew over from Scotland, and it was developed into a destination with cabins and a lodge.

Tonto Natural Bridge 30 June 2014 (55)Today, there is still plenty of space for visitors at large and small picnic sites in the park. However, overnight stays are no longer allowed. Admission is $5 for adults. It is a place worth visiting more than once just to see the bridge in its varied pageantry. I experienced it this time just before Arizona monsoon season when it was probably at its driest. Just a few days later the monsoon rains arrived, so I assume the bridge will be changing costumes with more dripping diamonds and flowing emerald pools.

Until next time, remember “adventure is out there.” So go have one!

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