Tonto Natural Bridge, Gowan & Pine Creek Trail Loop
★★★★☆ Easy / Payson Area:
Say what?!? Families can hike beneath a 14-story-high natural bridge, while being sprinkled by chilly water from an overhead waterfall, in the middle of Arizona? Say yes! That is exactly the incredible experience to be had on this brief, 0.9-mile, combined (Gowen and Pine Creek) loop trail, in Central Arizona’s Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.
TRAILHEAD: NF-583, Pine • DIFFICULTY: easy to moderate • DISTANCE: 0.92 MILE loop • APPROX. TIME: .75 -1.5 HOURS • ELEVATION GAIN: 185 FEET (14 STORIES) • APPROX. CALORIES BURNED: 130-150 • BEST TIME OF YEAR: year round • PETS: not on trails (but allowed in park) • KID FRIENDLY: YES (8 and over) • FACILITIES: YES • FEES: $5 per person (ages 14 and up), $2 per child (13 and under) (or annual Arizona State Parks Pass)
Mesmerizing scenery awaits any person hiking the combination of these two short trails to go around, and then under, the world’s largest natural Travertine Bridge: a monolithic, 183-feet-high, by 150-feet-wide, by 400-feet-long, cavelike wonder, that drips cold water through its porous roof onto the reflective pools (and unsuspecting people) below. At the mouth of the cavern – where bright sunlight touches cool shade – desert prickly pear cactus grow uniquely juxtaposed alongside lush moss (being “rained on” from the waterfall high above). Each trail leads from Tonto Park to either the north or south opening at the bridge’s base.
The easy half-mile Pine Creek Trail makes a mild descent down the rocky bank of the stream that flows into, and through, Tonto Natural Bridge’s northern opening. Although this trail’s angle is gentle, its surface is bumpy, with an abundance of the type of large rocks that kids love climbing over and around.
The 0.42-mile Gowan Trail is more maintained, but steeper. It’s tiered steps descend a pine-lined slope to Tonto Natural Bridge’s southern opening, where a wooden observation deck offers imposing views of the overhanging waterfall, and across the cavern to the opening on the other side. For those not wishing to take the full loop hike through the cavern, this deck provides the best vantage point before returning back up the Gowan Trail to the park.
Hiking under Tonto Natural Bridge is a wild experience. Expect to squirm as occasional cold droplets work their way through the roof and fall from above. Skirting the caverns’s inner pools and mini-waterfalls to the opposite side entails scrambling over a few large boulders (some a bit slippery from the damp). These scrambles do take a bit of agility and are best for kids over the age of 8.
Prospector, David Gowen hid from Apache Indians in this cavern for three days in 1877. He later claimed the land for himself and his family.
Directions From the intersection of AZ-202 and AZ-87N in Phoenix, head north on AZ-87N for 83.9 miles (continuing through the roundabout at 74.6 miles). Turn left on Tonto National Forest Road 583 and head down the hill. Parking and trailheads are at the base.
Alternatively from the northern intersection of AZ-101 and I-17 in Phoenix, head north on I-17 for 71.6 miles to exit 287/AZ-260. Turn right/east towards Payson and drive for 33.8 miles. Turn right/south onto AZ-87 for 15.1 miles. Turn right onto Tonto National Forest Road 583 and head down the hill. Parking and trailheads are at the base.
- Bridge, Cave, Creek, Family Friendly, Payson, Pine, Short, Stream, Water, Waterfall
- May 2, 2015