I've been living in AZ for over 11 years now and still hadn't ever stopped to see the Tonto Natural Bridge. I've been trying to get my kids interested in hiking by taking them on shorter hikes that have a "payoff" of some sort, like ruins, a waterfall, etc. Although it was a little hairy underneath the bridge, this one was a very good choice.
I checked the brochure that has a map and very brief descriptions of the trails. Most descriptions said each trail was difficult and recommended hiking shoes. During the ride up that morning, there was snow visible everywhere. Even along the road off of 87 there was a lot of snow. My son only had a pair of tennis shoes, so the idea of going out in snowy, muddy conditions didn't seem like it would work out. I decided for us to first take the Waterfall Trail, which is only 300 ft. long. We took that down to the waterfall cave and took some pictures of that. From there, you could see down into Pine Creek and that "trail". It looked pretty dry considering the recent snow and rain, and it also didn't look all that bad, even for little kids. I could see the little trail marker arrows on the rocks. We decided we would start along the Pine Creek Trail and make our way westward towards the natural bridge.
The going along Pine Creek was very slow, as expected. It was also a lot of fun for both of my kids to do some boulder hopping and stream crossing. At one point where the trail goes thru a "slot" of two boulders, my daughter said how inspiring it was
. The fact that the length of the trail was only a half mile made things much easier overall.
Finally the bridge came into view. We made our way towards and started making our way over to the Anna Mae Trail, which ascends up to one of the observation decks. I checked the map and saw that the Pine Creek Trail appeared to continue to go under the bridge and to a lower observation deck. We agreed that seemed to be a better way to go, not realizing exactly what were in for.
The closer we got to the bridge, the stream crossings got a little dicier with bigger drop offs, making it necessary to hand off the kids in a section or two, especially my son. At this point the waterfall on the west side of the bridge was visible and made for some spectacular scenery, which only lulled us in further. Once we got into the tunnel, a family was coming the other way. The one kid, who was a teenager, began to help us with some of the stream crossings. This was a welcome help because my son, while not able to fully negotiate some of the boulder hopping, still couldn't sit still and would continue to try to move on even if we weren't there to stop him for a second.
Once we got to the travertine "slide", there was a mild adrenaline kick-in, knowing that we needed to be very cognizant of making sure the kids didn't slide off into one of the pools. The teenager was helping us so much that I was beginning to wonder if he was a park employee (he wasn't). I held my son and lowered him about halfway on the slide, finally letting him slide a few feet to the bottom while the teenager got him and then placed him away from the stream. I had just a minute or so to help my daughter (who was also having an adrenaline rush at this time) thru the slide area. My wife took the slide closer to the pool and actually came close to taking a dip into the pool.
Once we got past that, we had a few more stream crossings. The last dicey part was making it across the rocks under the waterfall, since they were so slippery. We finally made it to the lower observation deck, where we took a break and some more photos and then made our way up the Gowan Trail.
The Gowan Loop is now the Gowan Trail since the southern half of it has been closed. I saw the section at the bottom and later the section at the top where they've barricaded it. Not sure why they did this, but this section does appear pretty steep. At the top we looked through the porthole directly below where we just were. My son decided to stand and jump on the rusty grate, at which point he got yanked quickly away.
We checked out the other "viewpoints" designated from the park and on the way back to the car we saw a snowman that must have built that morning.
It was very nice to have the kids enjoy this one as much as they did, since there was certainly a lot of potential for them to not like the difficulty level. Time to think of some more shorter "destination" hikes to take them on now.