Tonto Bridge

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 1.4 miles
Difficulty:Strenuous
Elevation: 4364 - 4596 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 1 hr. 30 mins.
Trailhead: Gowan Trail
Fee:$2/person age 7-13; $5/person 14+
Attractions: Natural bridge, scenery




View Tonto Natural Bridge in a larger map

Tonto Natural Bridge is located in Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson, Arizona. At 183 feet high and 150 feet wide it is believed to be the largest travertine bridge in the world. Travertine is a finely crystalline form of dissolved limestone formed by the deposition of calcium carbonate in fresh water. It is a chemical sedimentary rock derived from the evaporation of spring water rich in calcium carbonate. A natural bridge is different from a typical arch in that it is formed by the forces of water. The parks website has the full story of the bridges formation as well as other useful information.


Tonto Bridge is about 10 miles north of Payson, Arizona on Highway 87. The park is open 7 days a week from 9am to 5pm. The latest entry to the park is at 4pm.


The trail from the parking lot to Viewpoint 1 is paved and wheelchair accessible. From this overlook the north side of the bridge is in clear view.


Continue following the signs for the Gowan trail. This hike is going to descend the Gowan trail, pass through the cave, or tunnel, of the bridge, and follow the Pine Creek trail back to the parking area to make one big loop hike.


The Gowan trail descends a little over 200 feet to Pine Creek. Steps make easy work of the steeper sections of the trail. David Gowan was a prospector who stumbled upon the natural bridge while running from Apaches in 1877. He later laid claim to the land and took up residence.There is more to read about that on the states website also.


The Gowan trail ends at a viewpoint near the mouth of the cave. Most visitors will turn around at this spot and return the way they came.


The bridges tunnel is an amazing 400 feet long. That fact becomes significant if you choose to hike beyond this point and continue through the bridge.


Wading isn't permitted under the bridge. Arrows on the rock show the best route to take.


Water dripping inside the cave makes the already slick rock a little treacherous in a couple of places. Scooting on your fanny may be your best bet.


The most difficult spot is near the upstream mouth of the cave where you have to climb 20 or 30 feet to get around a spillover and some huge boulders.


A few footholds make the seemingly impossible more doable for us older folks.


Quite lovely don't you think?


The rest of the trail up Pine Creek is still very primitive. You will have to scramble over boulders in places with only a few helpful trail markers that point out the best route. This trip was made in the month of May and there was very little water flowing through the canyon. It is possible that the water was being diverted to lessen the effects of erosion on the bridge.


Enough elevation is gained hiking up the creek that the climb out of the canyon is pretty gentle. Some people hike the trail in the opposite direction which means they have a steeper climb going up the Gowan trail. That would also mean having to slide down the slickrock inside of the cave. Personally, we find ascending steep areas much easier. Hopefully the YouTube slideshow at the end of this post will give a good enough look at what this route looks like. We saw people of all ages that, like us, seemed to be having the time of their life.


Hiking through Tonto Bridge is very difficult and can be dangerous. There are plenty of other options for enjoying the beauty of Tonto Bridge. Other than just visiting the overlooks you can hike down the Gowan trail to the viewpoint at the mouth of the bridge and hike the Waterfall, Anna Mae and Pine Creek trails. There are several ramadas with picnic tables and, of course, don't forget the quaint little gift shop. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.