Pine, Arizona, makes a refreshing day trip for some hiking amid the pines, beautiful natural wonders – and some great pizza. Here are the best things to do.
It’s been another year of living in the city. And Cairo’s brick walls and apartment towers have become all too familiar.
When I’m in Arizona for Christmas with family, my father asks where I’d like to go this year. He’s got a new truck that doesn’t mind bumpy roads.
I’m thirsty for cool resin-scented air, and for those rare places not penetrated by city din or traffic. So we head Northeast where the state’s cactus-dotted Sonoran Desert gives way to snowy towns and ponderosa pines.
Getting to Pine
We wake up at dawn and it’s a full moon with pink skies in Scottsdale. We stop for coffee and microwaved burritos at Circle K. Then we take the AZ-87 N through the enormous Tonto National Forest. The land gets rockier and the trees get denser.
There are green rolling hills and curvy roads and patches of snow by the road. The change in the scenery, after less than a two-hour drive, is remarkable.
We head straight to a natural wonder I’d been wanting to visit since last year’s trip, when we stopped in Pine on our way to the Grand Canyon.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
A friendly ranger greets us at the visitor’s center. It’s a small cabin where a stuffed owl and bear’s head hang on the wall alongside old illustrations of the area’s first settlers. There are coloring books with local wildlife for children, and souvenirs like Arizona honey and mineral rocks in the tiny gift shop.
Black and white photos over a brick fireplace depict Scotsman David Gowan, who first documented the bridge in 1877 as he was hiding from Apache tribe members. Gowan later claimed squatter’s rights and persuaded his family to emigrate to the area.
The rustic Goodfellow Lodge is adjacent and it looks like a gorgeous place to spend the night nestled among the pines. Built in the 1920s, it’s designed to feel like the early 20th century.
The showpiece at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is the world’s largest natural travertine bridge, which stands 56 meters high over a 120-metre tunnel.
To get there we take a short and steep hike down through the rocky hills and end at a creek at the base of the natural bridge.
The Travertine Bridge
The bridge was formed over the centuries by geological forces that have carved out its shape. First, a series of underground springs with mineral-laden waters built up deposits of travertine. Then Pine Creek, a stream flowing through the canyon, eroded a passageway that left the rocks above standing as a natural bridge.
We watch a small waterfall trickle down into the creek and the surreal formations that tower above us recall a sci-fi movie set on a distant planet.
We make our way back uphill and then gaze down at the natural bridge.
The park offers four viewpoints that are easily accessible from the parking lot for views of the bridge from above and the other side. The pathways are great for taking in some nature and the pine trees and cacti that grow side by side.
There’s also a picnic area that makes a great resting point after the hike.
The Nature of the Mogollon Rim
We wander around the creek and explore the greenery, and the plants I’ve grown up with in Arizona. I love finally learning some of their names.
The Mogollon Rim includes ponderosa pine, pinyon, juniper and scrub oak that’s a relief from the dry Phoenix desert.
Information points set up around the park tell about the plants and their uses. There’s Canotia, leaf-less to reduce water loss and thrive in a dry environment. There’s shrub live oak, a food source for mule deer and porcupines. And Beargrass, used by early Native Americans to make rope, matting and clothes.
After a couple hours wandering the trail, we’re ready for lunch at one of my favorite spots in Pine.
Old County Inn
The Old County Inn serves woodfire pizza, delicious salads and craft beer in a cozy atmosphere. With its post-punk playing in the background, a menu of microbrews on a chalkboard and a staff uniform of red flannel, the place feels decidedly hipster. And it’s always packed.
It’s probably not what you’d expect from a small Arizona community founded by the Mormons. But then again Pine and nearby Strawberry are in the grip of a renaissance as rapidly-growing weekend destinations for Phoenix’s urban sophisticates.
We order a woodfired pizza called White with olive oil, fresh ricotta, mozzarella, grana padano and parsley. To drink, I get the ironically-named Scottsdale Blonde, a lightly hopped and very smooth beer brewed in Tempe.
The place is packed and service is swamped, but the delectable pizza is worth the wait.
We get back on the road for some more hiking while the sun’s still out.
Tonto National Forest – Pine Trailhead
The Pine Trailhead is just off the main road in Pine. It goes through a peaceful and verdant canyon, full of maples, oaks, ponderosa pines and a beautiful running creek.
We take an hour to hike through the trees and cross the creek by hopping across a line of rocks. The air is bright and clear and there are patches of snow on the ground.
It’s a great jumping off point for several trails in the area. Though when we’re there, it’s muddy and the clay sticks to our shoes and makes things a bit slippery.
The Pine Trailhead is also part of the Arizona Trail, which stretches some 1,287 kilometers from Mexico to Utah, and all across Arizona.
I’d never heard of the Arizona Trail until we saw signs for it around Pine. And now I dream of crossing the diverse path that links desert, small communities, forests and canyons.
Back to Phoenix
We get back on the road when the sun’s still bright. It sets on the tall Saguaros as we cross Fountain Hills and the outskirts of the city. Though it was only a short daytrip, the towering pines and invigorating hikes leave me refreshed and rested.