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

Family favorite: The Ranch at Fossil Creek in Strawberry, Ariz.

goat crossing

Welcome committee: Ranch at Fossil Creek goats greet visitors

 

There’s a good reason the Ranch at Fossil Creek was featured in the current issue of Arizona Highways magazine. It’s no doubt the same reason the Strawberry, Ariz. attraction was one of last week’s highlights for The Weekly Yelp for Phoenix. The Ranch at Fossil Creek is quickly becoming well-known as one of the Mogollon Rim country’s favorite family “things to do.”

nubian

This friendly floppy-eared creature is a nubian goat

 

Yep, make it a point to bring the kids to see the kids. There, I wrote it, let’s move on. The ranch, on the western outskirts of Strawberry, is a pleasant little side trip when combined with any vacation, whether it’s a day of hiking or fishing around the Mogollon Rim, a weekend of camping at Tonto National Forest or a week-long trek across Arizona.

Most will just want to stop, see and pet the goats, shop at the ranch store, and enjoy a cold beverage on the adjoining patio. Other visitors who want a full sense of the ranch can pay $5 for a guided tour. Or a $3 general entrance fee will pay for a self-guided tour and samples of goat’s milk fudge and goat cheese. But the Fossil Creek Creamery store is open to visitors with no admission charge. Visit the ranch’s website for all the details.

The goats are in the forefront at the ranch. Even when you pull into the driveway entrance, the goats are ready to greet visitors. Everyone in the family will get a kick out of them. No, not literally; figuratively. Let’s face it: cute farm animals poking their heads through a fence will garner a smile and a photo or two.

three kids

Three kids enjoy a warm afternoon at the ranch

 

Owners John and Joyce Bittner also keep llamas at the ranch and use them for guided, half-day hiking excursions, according to the website. The llamas will bring packed lunches and other necessities along the trail. The ranch also serves as a location for birthday parties, cheese making classes and children’s feeding events. Children can even “adopt” a goat by sponsoring it for a fee, which includes a photo of the child holding the kid and the opportunity to return for “visitation.”

It’s even possible to spend the night at The Ranch at Fossil Creek in a yurt, located on the property. Now how’s this for a getaway idea? Reserve the yurt for the night before your half-day llama hike. After the hike, make a guided tour of the ranch, adopt a goat kid, and top off your visit with a purchase of fudge and cheese for the ride home!

On our recent visit, creamery store clerk, Molly had allowed us to sample several kinds of cheeses before we decided on the basil and the dill. We also had the chance to taste the chocolate fudge. Why does goat’s milk fudge taste so much more creamy than other fudge?

views at the ranch

Great views from The Ranch at Fossil Creek, above Strawberry

 

Don’t forget the soap! The same goat’s milk that produces such creamy cheese and fudge makes equally creamy soap and body crème. And the soap makes a wonderful foamy lather, Molly assured us. With that endorsement, plus its delightful scent, we just had to find out for ourselves.

store

Fossil Creek Creamery store at Ranch at Fossil Creek

Readers: What are your favorite high country attractions in Arizona? Where you do go to get away from the triple digit temperatures? I would love to hear about some of your favorite day trips around the state.