5 Ways to Die in Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
Arizona’s Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is home to multiple waterfalls and a natural, travertine bridge that is thought to be the biggest on the planet. When it comes to scenery, the park is blessed. However, in the American Southwest, “scenic” is often code for potentially deadly. Here are five ways to kick your oxygen habit while visiting.
1. Unintentionally reenacting the final scene from Thelma and Louise.
To reach Tonto, you descend into a canyon on a road with a 14% downhill grade. It’s one of the windiest drives we’ve ever taken (the approach to Sedona is the other contender for that title). Don’t even consider hauling a trailer or camper down here – neither is allowed – and in case gradient and curves weren’t challenging enough, “watch for animals” signs add to the excitement.
2. Being mauled to death by a mama javelina.
For some reason I believed that javelinas were related to wolverines (probably because I suspect them both of being fictional). However, a wolverine is a giant, polygamous weasel, masquerading as a bear. A javelina, on the other hand, resembles a vampire version of a wild boar (they’re herbivores but they have fangs). Basically, you don’t want to antagonize either creature. When we visited Tonto, there were signs explaining that the javelinas had young with them and had recently attacked park visitors. Javelinas typically give birth between November and March.
3. Getting ambushed by a mountain lion.
Mountain lions roam through Tonto Natural Bridges State Park. They primarily hunt deer (we encountered two wide-eyed does lollygagging around the parking lot) and they also go after javelina. Although mountain lions have attacked people, such encounters are relatively rare, especially if you’re hiking in a group.
4. Being bitten by a black-tailed rattlesnake.
Warning signs indicated that there had been several sightings of black tailed rattlesnakes within the park. As the name suggests, these pit vipers are identifiable by the dark scales on their tails. Their venom is toxic. Rattlesnakes must have an affinity for natural bridges because, when we drove through Natural Bridges State Monument in Utah, a group of hikers was unable to access a trail because a rattlesnake was stretched across the path, sunning.
5. Touching a pus caterpillar (also known as an asp caterpillar).
Okay, so you won’t actually croak from this caterpillar’s sting, but you’ll wish for death. The pain from a sting has been described as: radiating, unrelenting, and excruciating. The caterpillar’s spines typically lodge in the skin, where they continue to release venom.
So why go to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park?
1. To walk into a waterfall.
The waterfall trail is compromised of rustic (read unevenly spaced) steps that guide visitors into a gulley. I kept glancing at the edge of the staircase, expecting to see a torrent of water plummeting to the valley floor. Instead, the walkway grew damp and then wet. Gazing up, I saw blackberry bushes and moss cascading down the cliff, with rivulets of water drizzling through the leaves and branches: I was actually in the waterfall. A cave lurked behind the trickling stream, with stalactites dripping from its ceiling. It was like stumbling into a fairy grotto or an Edward Robert Hughes painting.
2. To gawp at the natural bridge.
Head for viewpoint 3 to admire a second, fern-draped waterfall and lush canyon views. Veer to the right, until you’re standing on an area of metal grid work. Then head for viewpoint 4, where it becomes apparent that standing on the grid work positioned you just above the waterfall, which in turn spills over the natural bridge. As the water dribbles toward the canyon floor, droplets are tossed around by the wind. The result: a rainbow that arches just below the natural bridge, imitating its shape. Stray beads of water shimmer when they catch the light – it’s nature’s answer to glitter-bombing!
- Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is off Route 260/87, on NF-583.
- It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Visitors need to pay a per person admission fee (at the moment $5) in the gift shop, before entering the park.
- It is possible to access the viewpoints and trails from one, large parking lot beyond the gift shop.
- Bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
- Dogs are technically allowed, but we’d only give it a one-paw rating because four-legged friends are not permitted on any trails (basically limiting them to the area surrounding the parking lot). Also, the fauna is not particularly dog-friendly.
Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.