• Deborah Kade

Pine, Arizona - Tonto Natural Bridge

Michael surprised me with a weekend in Payson to look at the Fall leaves. Unfortunately, the foliage wasn't what I was expecting so we went to explore the Tonto Natural Bridge. Instead of admiring leaves, I looked at tree bark and explored a travertine bridge.

The Tonto Natural Bridge, located in Pine Canyon, a tributary of the East Verde River, is a natural arch, that is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. Most bridges are either in sandstone or in hard limestone.

A little history of the Tonto Natural Bridge area.....

"The white man discovered the Natural Bridge of Arizona late in the 19th century (approximately 1870’s). However, the American Indians had long used it and its adjacent caves for homes and its top (5 acres) as a fertile field; but nature, through millions of years, had worked with patient labor and magnificent skill to construct this monument, 200,000,000 cubic feet of rock—15,000,000 tons of stone. Her tools were a mountain spring and an adjacent stream, both flowing through limestone out of the mountains toward the barren wastelands (now the Great Salt River Valley) to the south. Nature painted this masterpiece with dull red and ocher, soft shades of yellow and cream intermingled with delicate tracings of bluish gray.

One spring day in 1877, while prospecting for gold in the Tonto Rim area, David Douglas Gowan’s eyes first beheld this enormous Natural Bridge. He descended from the mountains to the east to the beautiful little valley below that had a clear spring, in order to quench his thirst. After refreshing himself, he started exploring the adjacent area and made his unique discovery. After a few more trips to this “Garden Spot” with its unique beauty, Gowan decided this was the place for him to live.

However, others had decided to live there before him, and it wasn’t long until Indians returned to their “Garden Spot” to plant their crops. Then began a long tiresome game between the Apaches and Gowan. The fact that Gowan was able to maintain and perfect his claim to this area is to pay high tribute to his ability and ingenuity in dealing with the Indians. He admitted, however, that in the interest of preserving his life, it became necessary at one point to hide for three days and nights in one of the deep caves under the Bridge until the Apache’s war fever subsided.

Gowan homesteaded the 160 acres at the Bridge and planted walnut, apricot, peach, apple, cherry and pear trees. He builds

a dwelling at the site, grew a small garden and hunted game to sustain him while he wandered about exploring for gold.

On one of his trips for provisions, David Gowan reported his discovery and an Englishman, traveling through the Phoenix area, considering it a news item of international importance, dispatched a story from Phoenix telling about the “secondstory farm” atop a large Natural Bridge in Arizona.

Reading the dispatch in a Scottish paper, David Goodfellow, a nephew of David Gowan (who had left Scotland many years previous to seek his fortune in America) wondered if this could be his “long lost” uncle. A letter addressed “David Cowan, near Flagstaff, Arizona Territory, United States of America” was sent. Giving full credit to the U.S. Postal Service, the letter arrived, putting Gowan back in contact with his relatives in Scotland.

Gowan soon grew tired of his “Lonesome Paradise”. Feeling his discovery offered unlimited possibilities for someone willing to exert the effort to develop it, he offered it to his nephew in Scotland if he would come to America and settle there.

David Goodfellow arrived in America with his wife and three children in 1893. David had sold his tailoring business in Durham, boarded a ship for New York City and then, traveled by train to Flagstaff, Arizona Territory. Davis Gowan hired a freight hauler from Payson and met the Goodfellows the train station in Flagstaff. They loaded their belongings into the wagon pulled by a team of horses and arrived at the Bridge six days later.

David Goodfellow with the help of his good wife and sons, built a road, converted the rocky travertine-covered acres into fertile farm land, and built a comfortable home to accommodate the family and the few curious who were daring enough to venture into this rugged semi-wilderness to see this amazing natural wonder lying at their doorstep. The Goodfellows continued to enterprisingly improve the site, by constructing six small guest cabins, then building a 10-room lodge with running water and improving access to the caves beneath the Bridge.

The Goodfellows owned the Bridge until 1948 when Glen L. Randall purchased it from them. Mr. Randall’s grandfather first entered the area in 1879 and was one of the first residents to greet the Goodfellows when they moved over from Scotland. The Randalls were the owners and involved in the operation the Bridge until the 1980’s. However, during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the property title was clouded in a series of complex partnerships and various legal entanglements. In the late 1980’s, the Courts determined that Clifford Wolfswinkle was the legal owner of the Tonto Natural Bridge."

The geology of the Bridge....

"According to geologists, the formation of Tonto Natural Bridge went through several stages of development.

Stage 1: This west side of Pine Creek was formed by a flow of lava in the form of Rhyolite, a red, coarse-grained volcanic rock. The older rock then eroded, leaving the purple quartz sandstone. The rock layers were then lithified, tilted, faulted, and eroded.

Stage 2: This area was covered by seawater, leaving sediment of sand and mud comprised of lime deposits.

Stage 3: Following the erosion of the sedimentary layers, volcanic eruptions covered the rock layers with lava, forming a basalt cap. This formation is evident on top of the hill prior to the descent into the park.

Stage 4: Over the years, by the natural process of erosion, the basalt cap broke down and was shifted by faults, creating the narrow Pine Creek Canyon.

Stage 5: Geologists estimate that over 5,000 years ago, precipitation began seeping underground through fractures and weak points in the rock, resulting in limestone aquifers. Springs emerged as a result of aquifers carrying the dissolved limestone and depositing calcium carbonate to form a travertine dam. Water eroded through the travertine and ultimately formed Tonto Natural Bridge."

"Travertine is a finely crystalline form of dissolved limestone formed by the deposition of calcium carbonate in fresh water. It is a chemical sedimentary rock derived from the evaporation of spring water rich in calcium carbonate.

As water tumbles over rocks and rain percolates through the ground, the naturally slightly-acid water dissolves out calcium carbonate from the underlying limestone. This solution eventually gathers in the aquifer that supplies the area’s springs. As the spring water emerges and comes in contact with the air, carbon dioxide is released not unlike opening a pop bottle. What goes into solution can precipitate out and calcite is forced out of solution when the water evaporates forming travertine. Calcite is a mineral having the formula CaCO3, calcium carbonate.

Travertine, a form of calcite, is mostly white when freshly deposited but turns gray upon weathering. It can also be colored red, brown, or yellow by impurities such as iron compounds. A mixture of calcium carbonate and plant life can also form travertine."

The Tonto Natural Bridge is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. The bridge stands 183 feet high over a 400 foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet at the widest point.


The vegetation in the park is dominated by oak trees. Other trees and shrubs include, juniper, alder, pinyon, hackberry, silk tassel and sumac. Prickly pear, century plant and bear grass are also found in the park.

The park provides a habitat for animals, insects and birds, both large and small. Turkey vultures, hawks, ospries, eagles, road runners, owls, woodpeckers, wrens and vireos are frequently seen.There are five types of bats that make the park their home. Other mammals include bobcats, cottontails, black bears, coyotes, gray foxes, elk and mountain lions.

The bark of the trees was so unique.

I have previously photographed these trees but I still find them to be interesting. The sunlight wasn't in the correct position for taking the picture but the shadows gave a different feeling.

Do you look at the whole tree, the leaves or the bark?

The bark of this tree was burned but the tree is still alive. Beautiful color and texture.

I wonder about the red bark. You can't miss these trees, though!

These are the pictures of the terrain before you start descending into the canyon.

There are switchbacks going down into the canyon.

Runoff from the aquifer goes over the bridge. The runoff is so slight.

Small rainbow

Beautiful colors in the rock

The pool of water at the bottom of the canyon. No..... that is not a fish in the water. It is actually a rock.

Looking at the travertine bridge.

While looking at the stones, different images kept popping out. Can you spot them or am I the only one with a vivid imagination?

Can you see a man's profile?

Can you see a face?

Can you see the head of a komodo dragon or maybe it is the head of a snake? I think the other rock is Voldemort as he dies at the end of book seven. Michael doesn't think it is Voldemort but he does see the komodo dragon.

A man's face with a large nose?

A dragon's head?

Two people? One has a headdress.

Can you see the bird with the beak or the large head of a man? Can you switch from one image to the other?

Do you see the angel wings or do you see the neck bones and shoulders?

We might not have seen the "leaves change color" but exploring the colors and textures of bark was quite enjoyable, too.


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