Through the Bones of the Earth
Arizona has more than its share of natural wonders – Bone-dry deserts of stone and sun which blossom into gardens at the lightest touch of rain; canyons large and small which leave impossible eroded sentinels guarding their quiet beds; forests in the most unlikely of places which shelter a narrow band of life between unforgiving extremes. There is nowhere in the state without its story waiting to be told, nowhere completely conquered without that overtone of natural mystery making itself heard when it chooses. Even the vast sprawl of Phoenix, arrogant in its size and power, realizes that beyond its manicured highways and suburbs lays a land of sand and dust and wind waiting patiently for the opportunity to envelop that shining skyline in mid-day darkness.
And then there are the smaller wonders, no less grand than those flocked to by tourists, but instead sheltered and preserved by virtue of their modesty. It is to such places I am most drawn, the rumor of something worth seeing shining like a beacon, perhaps with a small and unassuming reward at the end, or perhaps with an amazing experience unique in its hidden beauty. Such a place is the Tonto Natural Bridge, indeed one of Arizona’s state parks but located far out of the way between a few sleepy cities and towns at the very base of the Mogollon Rim. Its name is familiar to many people in the state but I had not visited in recent memory, so to seize the last clear days of autumn I packed up and followed the long and scenic road out past the lakes Mary, down the Rim and through Strawberry and Pine to my waiting destination.
The entrance to the park traces down a steep valley, its base visible as a broad swath of fertile green until it’s hidden from sight below a cover of dense oaks. The first sight at the bottom is the grand old three-storey lodge building, home of settler David Gowan in the 1870s and the location’s caretakers ever since. Currently it serves as a visitor center and gift shop, and is worth the stop before the bridge itself. Past this is a wide area tended as parkland terminating in the various trailheads at the edge of Pine Creek down in its shallow canyon, and the first of these is the short Waterfall Trail. This stair-steps halfway down the canyon to a suspended metal bridge which passes alongside, for lack of a better description, a wall of earth come alive. A trickle of water courses down the limestone slope from above, filtering and carving through the soft rock to provide root-holds for curtains of mosses, maidenhair ferns, and many other small green things. The stream rains from the stems of these plants, creating trails of dripping water which hide the dark recesses of mossy alcoves, at some points nearly arching over the bridge. Below the drips converge again into a spread-out cascade of green stones and fallen leaves until they meet Pine Creek itself, contributing greatly to its seasonal low water level. As beautiful as the scene is, however, it is relatively confined, so in anticipation of what lay ahead I climbed back up to the valley and made my way to the series of viewpoints overlooking the bridge itself.
The designers of the various walkways and bridges spanning the cliffsides around the bridge have an eye for dramatic settings, a feature anyone familiar with Myst will likewise enjoy. Steel spans cling to the edge of the canyon, providing otherwise impossible views of the massive arch of stone and the creek which cuts through it. Once the slopes are descended by steep stairways a tall bridge crosses the crystal-clear water at an angle, ending in a wooden platform from which the entrance to the bridge can be seen at ground level. From there the full impact of an interesting feature can be enjoyed – the stream of water coming from the valley above and directed over the lip of the arch, trailing mosses and providing a constant sheet of rain to spatter over the shining boulders at the mouth of the bridge. All around this reach massive vaults of travertine, ridged like the dripstone in a cave, framing the beautiful jade-green pools under their cover. Not content to stop here, I left the platform to follow the park’s main attraction – the slippery, rocky, undeveloped trail straight through the mass of stone above.
Suggested routes through the rocks are marked with small arrows, but for the most part the trail changes so often due to water levels that people are left to find their own path. Once I had gone a short way in, ducking under the falling water, I turned and was treated to an amazing sight – sheets of droplets cascading the nearly 200 feet shining in a backlight from the afternoon sun, orange and green trees blazing behind them.
I watched this for some time but finally turned to protect my camera from the constant pelting of droplets. The first pool under the bridge stretched out across the trail, the only route being through it or along its rocky bank. Its surface was rippled by the wind blowing through the arch and by individual drops seeping through the stone above, and its deeps were colored a mineral blue-green which faded to pebbled orange as it lapped against the shore. The color was unexpected and persisted throughout the arch, and I can only assume it originates from dissolved calcium carbonate from overhead and plant matter above that, as this was not due to the typical dull algae found in ponds and lakes. It was something crystalline, and something I have not seen before.
The arrows guided me over the glazed boulders on the far side of the creek, through gaps and crevices between them and over rockfalls until I reached the second pool, a little smaller than the first but which allowed a short hop across to see both openings into daylight from under the middle of the arch.
Before I tackled the next ascent up slippery stone I found what is, perhaps, my favorite view of the arch looking downstream. I think it brings home the immense scale of the place, due in part to a couple of fellow hikers sitting on the left edge of the frame.
From that point each step created a new vista focusing on the openings to one side or the other, reflections off boulders and pools creating rippling puddles of light in the dim shadows. As more of the northern canyon came into view the spires of bare rock on the far mountainsides cut imposing shapes against the blue skies and white clouds, drawing me out into the daylight again.
I spent a long time sitting inside the far entrance to the bridge, steep stone curving over me like the very bones of the earth, watching the jade pools and falling drops of rain, feeling the constant wind and listening to the quiet sounds of falling water. Soon though it was time to continue, but not before capturing the scene used at the top of this post. From there the bridge receded quickly, and as trees got in the way I found I was no longer in view of the travertine walls but instead the little Pine Creek flowing through piles of giant orange sycamore leaves. It became an exercise in agility to hop across on boulders to get a better view of one scene or another, but it was all worth it for this last whisper of fall color.
After walking along the creekside for some time, still following the occasional little arrow sprayed or pinned on a rock, I came across a sight I wasn’t expecting but should have been – the waterfall from before, now seen from below. The dripping water collected under the walkway, hanging a good twenty feet overhead, to flow down a pile of mossy rocks and crevices and into the creekbed. From the other side of the creek a better sense of perspective can be seen, showing the whole wall draped in growing things.
Not far beyond the waterfall the canyon opened up, the official trail climbing out to the right but the upstream reaches remaining open for the more intrepid hikers. I didn’t go far down that route, as the rocks were steep and got steeper, but I can imagine that it would be a sight to see when the creek is flowing from snowmelt.
The trail climbed up to the parkland rapidly, the solitary atmosphere of the creek breaking out into wide-open sidewalks and parking lots too quickly. By the time I began driving up the valley again the sun was close to setting, and I stole glances downward into the shadowed expanses knowing that this would not be the last time I walked under the bridge. Indeed, there are other attractions in the area, including one that is first on the list to be visited once the snow begins to melt next year, so I may be back quite soon at that.