Scrambling over purple-tinged rhyolite boulders along Pine Creek Trail, we paused briefly to admire a waterfall cascading through a fern grotto high up the canyon wall. A few hundred feet and several boulder hops farther, we finally caught sight of our destination. Backlit by the late-afternoon sun and adorned by another waterfall, the nearly 200-foot-high, 400-foot-long natural travertine arch stopped us dead in our tracks and dwarfed even our imaginations.
This arch, in Tonto Natural Bridge State Park just outside Payson, Arizona, has been dwarfing visitors since the late 1800s, when homesteaders began charging tourists a fee to see what is believed to be the world's largest travertine span in terms of height, width, and length. A state park since 1990, it still attracts plenty of visitors, particularly in summer, when its cool, cavelike confines and downstream swimming holes offer respite from the heat.
Start your visit at the park's old lodge building, built in 1927 for overnight guests. It's now the visitor center and gift shop and offers information on the families who once farmed the property and ran the bridge as a tourist attraction. The 200-foot-long Waterfall Trail to a lush cascade starts nearby.
Across the lawn, four short, steep trails lead you down to Pine Creek and the bridge. For the best view, walk under the bridge itself ― that is, if you don't mind heights and clambering over some boulders. South of the bridge, pools along Pine Creek are just deep enough for wading or partial dunks. Look for blackberries and watercress; park rangers here don't mind if you help yourself to the non-native produce.
You can spread a picnic on boulders under the bridge or in the shade of ramadas near the parking area. Or, on your way to or from the park, drive 4 miles north on State 87 to the town of Pine for salmon burgers and quiche at the Randall House ($; closed Mon; 3821 N. State 87; 928/476-4077), which serves breakfast and lunch. Pine is also a good stop for exploring of a different sort ― the town's small collection of antiques shops.
Scan the span
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is located just off State 87; look for the sign 12 miles north of Payson (8-7 daily; admission is currently $6 per car but may change; www.azstateparks.com or 928/476-4202).