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Verde Valley Road Trip
Payson, Strawberry, Camp Verde
May 21, 2011
by Debbie M.

With a day full of outdoor adventure planned, our group left the valley in three vehicles early Saturday morning. Our destination held much promise: we were going to see the world’s largest travertine bridge, the state’s oldest standing schoolhouse, and the most extensive and best preserved petroglyphs in the Verde Valley.

Our first stop was the Tonto Natural Bridge, a state park located just off Highway 87, between Payson and the Pine/Strawberry area. At 185 feet high with a 400 foot long tunnel, the bridge is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. Climbing the stairs down to the bridge, we were fortunate to meet up with a park ranger who shared some interesting facts about the formation as well as past photos showing seasonal changes of the bridge itself. We were able to see what the area looked like in recent winter months and were glad that it was a warm, sunny May morning.

First stop: the Tonto Natural Bridge viewpoint. [photographer Andy is taking the photo]

It is unclear just how long the bridge has been in the making, but its origins date back thousands of years. The bridge is made of travertine, which is a kind of limestone formed from mineral springs.

Trip Leader Debbie and daughter, Heather.
We made our way under the bridge and were awed by the spectacular beauty of the place. Standing underneath and looking up 183 feet, one can see the waterfall, fed by Pine Creek, cascading over the upper ledge. After taking time to enjoy the area and take photos, we began the trek up through the tunnel. Carefully picking our way over the rocks, we hiked up the trail, climbing over slick rocks, squeezing between tight boulders, and occasionally sliding down slippery slopes. It was precarious in a few spots, but we made it to the top without mishap. We enjoyed a picnic lunch in the shade of some large trees, then packed up and headed to our next destination: the quaint town of Strawberry.
falls hikers
Present and Past Waterfalls
tunnel tunnel
slope slope
Slippery Slopes

The Strawberry Schoolhouse, on Fossil Creek Road, was built in 1884 and is the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona. There was a dispute over where to build the school originally, so a couple of local cowboys solved the problem by measuring a length of calf rope to find the midway point between two cabins. The schoolhouse was erected on the spot and remains standing there today. Considered quite luxurious for its time, the building was constructed of pine logs and had a wood burning stove, a clock, an organ, an outdoor bell, and even double-hung windows. Factory made desks were purchased instead of benches. Originally in Yavapai County, Bucky O’Neil was the school superintendent – the same man whose statue stands in the Prescott Courthouse Square today. The schoolhouse served its original purpose for over 30 years; then it provided temporary housing for newcomers to the area. Restoration of the building began in the 1960s, and the building is now a historical monument. In addition to touring the building, our group was able to do some play-acting; sitting in the desks, acting as teacher, and even donning a dunce cap.

school hikers
Trailblazers thirsty for education.

From Strawberry, we drove up to Route 260, then north on I-17 until we reached the turnoff to the V Bar V Ranch Heritage Site. The site boasts the largest known display of ancient rock art in the Verde Valley. There are literally hundreds of petroglyphs etched into the rock wall. Animal and human figures, spirals, fish shapes, and serpents are among the many shapes that reach higher than any man or woman could stretch; you can see the markings of where the artist must have propped a ladder. The rock art seen here is of the Beaver Creek style and is attributed to the Southern Sinagua between A.D. 1150 and 1400. The volunteer ranger explained how the inhabitants of the time were able to create a “calendar” by the etchings in the rock wall according to the where the sunlight fell during the various seasons. It is hard to believe that archeologists date the petroglyphs back almost 1,000 years ago.

ranch art
V Bar V Ranch boasts the largest petroglyphs in the Verde Valley.
Ancient cliff dwellings can be found at Montezuma Well.
Montezuma Well

Our road trip was not quite finished. The group was holding up well and ready to see more. Leaving V Bar V, we took a vote as to our next destination. Since most of the group had previously visited Montezuma’s Castle, we opted for the Montezuma Well instead. A good choice! The short hike down to the outlet provided welcome shade from the rising afternoon temperatures. We found a delightful oasis along with more ancient dwellings at the end of trail. The well itself is a large sinkhole with 1.5 million gallons of warm water flowing daily. This water empties into a ditch which is a water source for local residents.

Having spent the better part of the day together, it was time for our group to go their separate ways. Some headed directly back to the valley; others considered catching a view of Montezuma’s Castle on the drive back. My group headed for the Rock Springs Café for dinner and pie.

Arizona, well suited for road trips, offers an abundance of sights to see. Our trip was without a doubt, one of the best: packed with plenty of southwest history, splendid sights, and a terrific group of troopers to travel with!

Photos courtesy of Michael, Quy, Ceci, and Andy.

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updated May 25, 2020