Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, AZ

As we approached the final day of our 700-mile tour of Arizona’s high country, Eleanor and I found ourselves a little reluctant to contemplate going home.  The weather was fine and I had only a little work pressing me to return by Monday morning.  Our budget was holding out very nicely too:  about $50 in fuel, one night of motel, and a couple of inexpensive meals were the total of our expenses.  Another night would cost us virtually nothing, whether measured in money, lost work opportunities, or any other factor we could think of.

The real limitation was that we were running out of high country.  Our third night was spent near the Mogollon Rim at the west end.  From there, Rt 87 dips down to the towns of Strawberry, Pine, and Payson, all at elevations of about 4,500-5,000 feet.  Although that was still moderately high altitude, it would be hotter than we wanted for tent camping.   Our other option was to head north into the vast Coconino National Forest and stay at 7,000 to 8,000 feet, but such a detour would add two days to our itinerary, and that was too much time for me to skip work.

We puttered around for a while, but eventually decided that we’d make a very full day of going back to Tucson, with a big stop at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (north of Payson), and anything else along the way that caught our eye.  (Click here for map from Kehl Springs Camp to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.)

Tonto Natural Bridge had been on our “to do” list ever since we first came through this area with the Airstream Safari in May 2007.  The entrance road to Tonto has a very clear warning of a 14% grade, and to emphasize the point, a “trailer drop off area.”  In our first visit we weren’t inclined to drop off the trailer, so we just parked there for lunch and then moved on without having visited the park.  I’ve wondered if we could have done that grade with the trailer, so last week’s trip with the Honda was our chance to investigate it without any risk.

I’m glad we heeded the sign.  The 14% grade is real, and it’s probably a little over a mile long.  There are a couple of tight turns, and — the real killer — no RV/trailer parking in the lot.  Don’t bring your rig down.  Due to limited space in the parking area, you might have trouble turning it around to get back up!

As you may know, Arizona is one of many states with a budget crisis.  Our legislators robbed the “dedicated” funds for state parks over the past two years (a total of $71 million!) leaving the park system underfunded and in danger of collapse.   One-third of the state parks were closed in April 2010.  Since then, a combination of increased fees at state parks and contributions by nearby towns and private organizations have allowed some of the parks to re-open.  It’s pretty sad when the park system — a profit-making enterprise for the state as well as a critical cultural and recreational resource — is so mistreated by the legislature that towns have to run fundraisers to keep their state parks from being shut down completely.

When we arrived, the impact was apparent.  Entry fee is now $5 per person (up from $3), and the park is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.  We contemplated getting an annual state parks pass ($75, or $200 if you want to visit the Colorado River parks on weekends).  We’ve always supported our national park system by buying an annual National Parks Pass, for $80 every year.  But we realized the Arizona State Parks Pass was an iffy value if, at any time, the state might choose to shut down a third of the parks again.  There’s no guarantee that any of the parks will be open later this year, since 23 of them are now dependent on local community support and that funding carried them only through the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010.

So we skipped the Arizona State Parks Pass.  That was a sad moment for me, because I know that many other people will skip the pass as well, for the same reason, and that will only deepen the financial crisis.  But if I bought the pass, would I be assured my money would go to the state park system and not be “swept” or “diverted” (i.e., stolen) by the state legislature to fund something else?  Maybe I’d be better off buying a lot of cupcakes at the next Town of Payson community bake sale.

tonto-natural-bridge-beneath-bridge.jpg

Enough of that.  We were here to visit the natural bridge, not talk about politics.  So we chatted with the volunteers managing the cash register and headed down to the parking area to begin exploring.   The park is centered on a deep travertine canyon with a small stream running through it.  The stream carves through a massive natural bridge which you can scramble beneath from a canyon trail. Uniquely, there is also a small waterfall from atop the bridge as well, for added poetry in a place that is already abundant with beauty.

tonto-natural-bridge-canyon.jpgI simply can’t do justice to this place in a couple of blog photos, so I’ve put an album up on Flickr with a better selection.  It is an impossible place to capture in any single photo, since every view offers a completely different take on this gorgeous place. But here’s a bit of advice:  don’t be so blown away by the grand views that you fail to notice the little details in the canyon.   We saw fabulous cave-like formations in the travertine walls, swallows nesting up high, fresh-water crawfish scuttling around the pools down below, brilliant yellow century plants in bloom, and much more.

tonto-natural-bridge-waterfall.jpgTo really see all that Tonto Natural Bridge has to offer, you must make the effort to climb down into the canyon and hike along the stream through the tunnel beneath the bridge.  I recommend  going down the Pine Creek or Anna Mae trails (steep) to the river canyon, scrambling through the tunnel, and coming back up on the shallower Waterfall Trail.  And hurry:  at last report, Tonto is scheduled to close on September 27, 2010.

It was well into the 90’s even at Tonto, elevation 4500 feet, so we knew to expect plenty of heat by the time we got to the Phoenix area.  But the road had one last adventure for us, the incredible Rt 87 “Beeline Highway” from the point south of Payson where Rt 188 splits off, southwest to Mesa. “Beeline” is a misnomer, as the road twists and rolls through high desert for fifty miles to Ft McDowell and Mesa.  But I suppose that’s in keeping with the fact that it passes through a section of the Tonto National Forest that has no trees.  Even though the Beeline was fairly swarming with pickup campers and boat trailers (from Roosevelt Lake) heading home on Sunday afternoon, I had a fun time zipping down it in the Honda Fit.  By dinnertime, we were back in Tucson … and thinking about where we might go next.

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