Hike | Pine Creek Trail | Payson
Pine Creek Trail is one of four short but moderately difficult hikes found in Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. This heavily trafficked trail leads to the largest natural travertine bridge in the world—it’s picturesque arch and waterfall are sure to impress locals as well as out-of-town visitors.
- Length: .5 miles
- Trail Type: Out and back with loop options
- Elevation Gain/Loss: 260 ft.
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Kid Friendly: Yes
- Dog-Friendly: No dogs allowed on trails
- Accessibility: Paved roads lead to ample parking
- Fee/Permit: Adult (14+): $7.00 Youth (7–13): $4.00 Child (0–6): Free Discounts for Veterans
The Pine Creek Trail begins in the northernmost point of the park. The hike starts off heavily treed with alligator junipers that offer quite a bit of shade. The trail gradually descends like a wide staircase until you reach the bottom of the creek bed. Here, the canyon walls stretch roughly 40 to 50 ft. high. As you wind left up the creek bed, it becomes more and more narrow. The remainder of the trail provides little shade until you reach the bridge.
Follow the arrows and exercise caution as the terrain is rocky, slippery, and varied in terms of elevation. Scrambling is necessary in some areas. Shallow pools of green water dot the creek bed and felled trees often line the path. There are two caves that you can wander in, and the light against the stone and cave openings is dramatic and photo worthy. At the end of this half-mile hike, you’ll come to the northern opening of the bridge. The craggy stone walls of this entrance make the tunnel seem arterial and almost mythical. Many people linger under the bridge, and you can explore the area on either side. If you are able to navigate over the slippery rock to the southern entrance, you’ll get the chance to see the waterfall.
From this point, you can return to the park using the Gowan Trail, which begins at the wooden observation deck. The Gowan Trail is also half a mile long but steeper than the Pine Creek Trail. Once you reach the top by the picnic tables, you may want to take the path to the right that leads to Viewpoints #3 and #4. Tonto National Forest looks stunning in all of its pine-filled glory, and you also get the chance to see the origins of the waterfall.
If you’d like to visit the waterfall without negotiating the slippery rock through the tunnel, you can return on the Pine Creek Trail for just a little while before jumping onto the Anna Mae Trail. This will take you back up to the park where you can then descend down the switchbacks of the Gowan Trail to the southern entrance and observation deck. The hikes are all very short, and they could easily be completed in one morning or afternoon. The fourth hike in the park is the Waterfall Trail, which is only 300 ft. long and worth adding to your visit.
It’s true that Arizona offers so many incredible hiking experiences—but this one, for how short and accessible it is and for its history and view, should be a must on everyone’s list.
From Phoenix take AZ-202 Loop East. Just after crossing the 101, take Exit 13 onto AZ-87 N and continue towards Payson for about 86 miles. Continue on AZ-260 W/AZ-87 N for another 12 miles. Make a left onto NF-583A. The park will be on the left-hand side in about 3 miles. The park is 103 total miles from Phoenix.
- Though the park is in the Tonto National Forest, it is a state park and doesn't accept Interagency Annual Passes from the National Park Service. Consider supporting the Arizona State Park and Trails system with the purchase of either an Arizona Standard Annual Pass or a Premium Pass. Check the Arizona State Park and Trails website for further details.
- For direct access to the Pine Creek Trailhead, park in the northernmost lot, closest to the Historic Lodge and Park Store.
- The park offers clean, flush toilets as well as potable water.
- Four designated scenic viewpoints are marked throughout the park. I'd recommend the short walk to hit each one and snap a few photographs.
This blog was thoughtfully written by Jia Oak Baker. You can find her on Instagram at @violetsky29.
* Please remember to hike at your own risk. To learn more please refer to our Hiking Disclaimer.