Six reasons to visit Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

opening

For several years now, we’ve been extending our Arizona getaways to farther corners of the state and we often had sidestepped the communities closer to the Phoenix. We would stop only for refueling or quick restroom and snack breaks. But on recent visits to Pine, Strawberry and Payson, we rediscovered Rim Country. And Tonto Natural Bridge is the area’s best attraction! Here are six reasons to add it to your itinerary:

 

lodge

Now a visitor center, park office and gift shop, the main building was once a pioneer home and guest lodge

1. Easy access

It’s approximately two hours from the Phoenix area, just 14 miles north of Payson, Arizona, off state route 87. Paved roads all the way make for an easy drive, although the last few miles are on a steep driveway down to the park’s main parking lot and visitor center. Plan to spend at least four to six hours at the state park. There are trails to hike, boulders to scramble upon, cool breezes to inhale. Pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it. The park currently is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the visitor center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And easy access doesn’t mean it’s pricey. For a $5 adult entrance fee, the park is really the best deal for an Arizona day trip getaway!

 

springs

Be prepared to take a natural springs "shower" under the bridge

2. Hiking trails

These hikes aren’t long, but they are steep and some many have uneven steps. Others are very slippery and narrow and require boulder hopping or ledge hugging along Pine Creek. Prepare to get wet: if not from an accidental dip in the creek, you’ll feel the constant spray from the natural springs showering down from atop the bridge. You may want to bring some head gear or you can simply enjoy the drops. Sturdy hiking boots are recommended. Also, allow plenty time to climb up and down these trails. On weekends, the trails will be busy. When we visited in May, there was a constant stream of visitors. Bring along patience and common courtesy on the trail. If you’re not up to hiking down to under the bridge or along the creek, you can still enjoy the bridge sights from one of several lookout points.

 

garden

The garden setting near the main lodge building makes a great location for a picnic lunch

3. Picnicking

After a couple of these hikes, you’ll probably want a bite to eat and a cold drink. Remember: even in Payson, summer days are warm. It’s best to hike in the cool of the mornings and reward yourself with a picnic lunch. Some picnic areas have ramadas, but there are plenty of uncovered tables under the shade trees for your family picnic. Use this handy map to plan your visit. Restrooms and drinking water stations are located nearby. Please visit the park website for updates about fire restrictions before you light up one of the grills.

 

lodge

Main lodge building contains many historical items and a gift shop

4. Pine Creek

Of course, during early spring after rains or snow melt, or during late summer after monsoon rains, the Pine Creek’s flows are much higher. And conversely, during late spring and early summer the creek flows will be less. But natural springs surrounding all points of the bridge keep the creek fed. This constant spring water flow produces an array of graduated shades of green from layers of moss, mint, watercress and ferns at the creek bed. We spotted one of two designated swimming areas, but they look a bit on the stagnant side for my liking. Unless you want to step out of the water looking like Hollywood’s “Swamp Thing,” you may want to refrain from creek wading.

 

creek

Pine Creek flows under the Tonto Natural Bridge

5. Wildlife

It’s possible to spot many varieties of birds and small mammals around Tonto Natural Bridge and Pine Creek. Bats, swallows, owls, woodpeckers, vultures, squirrels, javelina and gray fox are among the common species making their home in the area. Take a look at the park website to learn more about the wildlife in the area as well as the geological facts and figures about the bridge.

 

squirrel

Watch for wildlife along the trails. You may see this photogenic Arizona gray squirrel

6. To support the park

Arizonans’ visits will help keep state parks like Tonto Natural Bridge remain open and operating. Private groups also have been successful in meeting the financial needs of the parks through fundraising efforts. For more information, see the website of the “Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.” The group has an event planned for this summer. Save the date of Saturday Aug. 4 on your calendar for “Taste at the Bridge,” a fundraising event put on by the Friends and the Arizona State Parks Foundation.

Readers: What’s your favorite Arizona State Park and why? How many of you have been to all of them? Some have closed; others are moving to 5-day schedules. What are your thoughts?

Escape desert heat on Oak Spring Trail

chuck on trail

Hiking in close proximity to urban or residential areas, I have become very accustomed to encountering ‘fitness hikers.’ They rarely stop and smell wildflowers, gaze out over a panoramic lookout point or fumble around with an uncooperative camera case. And they surely don’t spread out a picnic lunch over a flat rock. But on this particular May Saturday morning, my husband and I found the “Oak Spring Trail via Hardscrabble Road” completely devoid of hikers.

The trailhead is fairly easy to find and because it’s within a mile of cabins and vacation homes in nearby Pine, we thought we’d see somebody — fitness hikers, nature hikers, maybe even a couple of backpackers. Nope! No one!

After driving west for 1.5 miles on Hardscrabble Road from state route 87 in Pine, we spotted the two-way trail crossing sign and the two-car pullout, just the way our favorite hiking website described it. This must be the place! Hardscrabble Road is a well-traveled, well-graded dirt road. So I was a bit surprised to see no other parked cars. The trailhead is on the left (south) side of the road.

wide trail at beginning

Oak Spring Trail starts out as a wide, easily visible trail

As you start out, the trail appears wide and well used. We thought because of its location and condition at the beginning, it would also be maintained, but as we continued to hike south, we realized the easy-walking, shaded path was becoming increasingly overgrown with oak, Ponderosa pine, juniper and manzanita. We followed the trail to a small creek bed, which at least on this trip was dry – not even a puddle or two. Then the light bulb went on: no creek water, no hikers.

Here, the trail location was a bit fuzzy. We zigzagged the creek several times, believing we had seen the last of several rock cairns.  We finally picked up the trail again on the right (west) side of the creek and it led us uphill away from the gulch, to a clearing. In a hundred feet or so, we spotted the trail intersection marker of Oak Spring Trail, Walnut Trail No. 251 and Oak Spring Trail No. 16. The latter is a three-mile trek east, ending at the Pine Trailhead, located just east of SR 87, 12 miles north of Payson. If we do this trip again, it would be nice to make a shuttle hike, parking a second vehicle at the Pine Trailhead. At the meadow, we searched for the spring — or any kind of water — without success, but I think we may have not hiked far enough past the trail intersection.

 

sign

Trail marker identifies three-way intersection. Note the small Arizona Trail system marker at the bottom.

Although many sections of the short Oak Spring Trail are nondescript, I recommend this trail to hikers looking for a short, easy hike into the Mogollon Rim country. Since it’s close to Pine and Strawberry, it could be combined with additional trails, or other family activities and attractions.  An ideal time of year for this hike would be March or April when the creek would be flowing.

century plant

Century plant's new sprout seen on the Oak Spring Trail

Randall House Restaurant and Gift Shop in Pine, Ariz.

Randall House sign

If this Memorial Day weekend is typical of almost any other three-day weekend, Arizonans will take to the freeways, streets and back roads en route to high country campgrounds and resorts, in search of cooler temperatures. Motorists planning a drive through Pine, Arizona will want to stop for breakfast or lunch at the historic Randall House Restaurant and Gift Shop.

Randall House certainly isn’t new. The restaurant has been in operation since 1998. But not all visitors realize that this pioneer home was once a popular community gathering place. Some may not know how pioneer homeowner Mary Ellen Randall would invite nearby residents for pastries and coffee on their way to and from the post office. During the early 1900s, Mrs. Randall was not only famous for her homemade breads, muffins, cookies and pies, but she was also known for her generous hospitality. She had a knack for making everyone feel at home. On their way home from school, children would stop by the Randall’s home for freshly baked cookies. Current restaurateurs Barbara and Patrick O’Connor are continuing Mary Ellen Randall’s tradition of warmth and hospitality — and homemade cooking.

The restaurant, located at the original Randall home site and serves breakfast and lunch Wednesdays through Sundays, is a historic point of interest. Visitors can peer through glass openings in the walls to see a log and adobe section of the original cabin. The first dwelling was constructed by Alfred Jason Randall in 1881. Alfred’s grandson George Randall with his wife Mary Ellen lived at this home for much of the 20th century. George passed away in 1987. In 1998, following Mary Ellen’s death, the building was restored and remodeled by the O’Connors, who then transformed it into a restaurant. Mrs. Randall would be pleased.

 

 

kitchen

Randall House dining room resembles a farmhouse kitchen

On a recent visit, our server invited us to have a tour the restaurant and grounds. While waiting for our meal, I strolled around the back of the home to see the backyard and outbuildings, as well as the tiny library, picnic tables, walking paths and gardens that compose the adjoining Randall Park. While walking through each of the interior dining rooms at Randall House, I realized that this more than just a casual breakfast and lunch spot. It’s also a gift shop. Wooden corner cupboards support unique toys, crafts and goodies ‘to go.’ After your meal, I recommend browsing for kitchen gifts such as colorful aprons, trivet holders, counter canisters, cutting boards or specialty toys like hobbyhorses, crafts kits and wooden puzzles.

About the food and service: I had no complaints, but after all, it was just our first visit. However, our service wasn’t nearly as slow as the consensus from the reviews sites describes. After I spent a few minutes walking through the restaurant and around the grounds, snapping a few photos and I came back to my table, lunch was served. Since it was Cinco de Mayo, I had ordered the featured lunch special of fish tacos  — a set of nicely grilled tilapia with a side of tasty slaw. My husband had a taco salad, which he said was very tasty and filling.

 

meal

Lunch special: Tilapia fish tacos with cole slaw

As I walked through the dining rooms, I saw a large group of women who had just finished their meals and were preparing to leave. As I waited for them to walk out so I take a photo, I noticed their plates, still on the table. They were empty! All of these gals had completely cleaned their plates! Whatever they ordered must have been well worth every crumb!

Randall House is known for its quaint, country style dining, homemade, made-to-order breakfasts of quiche, pancakes, French toast, omelets, muffins and scones. The same is true for its lunches: hearty sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads. But don’t think this place is just for ladies’ luncheons. The portions appear ample enough to fill up the hungriest of ‘he-men.’ This I know first hand — it’s one advantage to sitting on the front patio: you can witness the satisfied expressions on well-fed, departing patrons.

patio

Randall House: historic home, pleasant patio, gift shop and restaurant

Readers: What are your favorite eateries in Mogollon Rim Country?