Tonto Natural Bridge
Near the end of September, when the school year had started for Noah and the Arizona temperatures were still unbearably hot, we decided to go for another camping trip in the higher elevations. As usual, it was just me and the kids, as Katie's work schedule has her busy on the weekends. I decided to keep things simple and head up towards Payson to visit a location we had driven past multiple times in the last year - Tonto Natural Bridge. It's a relatively short drive from Gilbert (less than two hours), would have easy access as a state park, and, being so close to Pine and the Rim, offers plenty of easy campsites nearby.
I planned carefully and had the Jeep fully packed when I picked up the kids from school and day care, and we immediately started up AZ-87. Traffic wasn't that bad and we made good time to Pine. My planned spot for the night, off a spur of Hardscrabble Mesa Road just outside of Pine, was inaccessible in my wimpy two-wheel vehicle, so we had to make due with a small pull-off along the main road. While we set up camp we saw four or five vehicles, mostly side-by-sides, though once the sun began to drop the traffic disappeared.
This was now our fifth outing and we're starting to get the hang of it. Instead of the larger tent we used my small Scheels, the same old tent I used for most of my Michigan explorations from yesteryear, and all three kids fit nicely inside of that while I cowboy-camped outside the door. Dinner was hot dogs over the fire followed by s'mores. I even brought a new toy for us to play with, a telescope, although Charlotte and Thomas were weirdly tired after dinner and asked to go to bed early. Noah and I stayed up for another hour afterwards, trying to pick out galaxies in the little sparkling lights of the crisp, clear sky.
When we woke in the morning I purposefully let them drag their feet. We had a cold breakfast, donuts and juice, and then we played some catch while the morning dew dried off the tents. It was surprisingly damp out after last night's clear day. In fact, as the day began to lighten, we all watched clouds roll up from Pine and crest the mesa around us, seeming to scrape the treetops just above us.
The morning's laziness paid off. By eight most of our stuff was dry so we packed up and headed back down to the highway below, reaching the state park soon after it opened up for the day. Driving down to the park was interesting - I had assumed it would be a short jump off of AZ-87, and instead it was a steep and winding road that dropped far down into Pine Creek.
Once we paid admission and picked a parking spot, we ambled over to the top of the gorge. While the focus of this park is the natural bridge over the creek, there are a few trails to explore the area. There are paved paths that wind around the top, several that cross over the bridge, a path that leads down to a waterfall on a tributary, and then the main trail that follows the creek bed itself right to the bridge. We parked near the bridge so we could make a large loop out of a paved path and the main trail, with a short jaunt down the waterfall trail.
Heading down to the waterfall was a steep and slick affair, made all the more fun with the extra stress of corralling three small children. Most of the way was mud-covered railroad ties that gleamed with the promise of a lost foothold and a long fall. I kept them close, especially Thomas and Charlotte, as neither of them have boots with tread that fit them. Once we reached the tiny trickle of a waterfall they immediately jumped underneath for a shower, as kids do. I paused here, hopeful that we could hack a way down to the main trail below, but there was a solid 10' of vegetation-cloaked drop in the way. We headed back up to the paved path.
The paved path headed north, upstream, before offering an easy drop down to the bed. Thankfully it was much less damp and slick over here, although it was more rock-hopping than actual trail. This was a pleasant surprise. I had half-expected a built-up trail, a mixture of gravel and paved along the creek bed, and instead it was pretty rough going. My kids absolutely loved climbing the huge boulders and hunting around for the route forward.
We made some friends along the way, learned and forgot names, and had a few tough spots where a timeout was needed because directions are hard to follow. As the time passed there was a noticeable uptick in traffic. My patience began to wear thin. When we reached the bridge itself and I noticed the worn-smooth slopes and tricky going, I decided to call it early. I didn't want to manage three hungry kids through crowds in a tricky area just to say we went under the bridge.
Instead of going under the bridge proper, we found a little cove off to one side and stopped for a much-appreciated snack. There was a little pond here, and crawfish scampered just under the surface, and that distraction plus the subtle quiet of being a few yards off the beaten path was just what we needed. We rested there for close to twenty minutes, playing and eating, before it was time to start heading back up the gorge.
The haul up the gorge was annoying, with more switchbacks then seemed necessary, and the slope was so mild that even Charlotte was running. We reached the top in no time at all and enjoyed looking back down at the creek and bridge. Across the way I thought I could make out a ranger who had greeted us when we first arrived, and I had to wander just how many curious kids and families he'd be talking to today.
After a bit of gazing we headed over and crossed on the wide bridge, which felt weird after seeing just how thin this layer was. There's another trail on the downstream side, the Gowan, but there's a lot of signs blocking it due to some mid-trail damage, so we maintained our route. We poked around a bit on top, found another waterfall pouring over the bridge itself, and then headed back to the Jeep.
We had a picnic then, watching the increased flow of traffic pouring out of the lot and into the gorge below. As we ate and talked about the trip I realized just how lucky I am to have kids who are enjoying the outdoors as much as I do. Sure, this year really sucked for my own personal adventures, but the four of us have had good times hiking and camping. As long as I can keep them interested, it's only a matter of time before their endurance and hunger for exploring is pushing my own limits.