Camping at Houston Mesa Campground/Day at Tonto Natural Bridge

Our last camping trip was at the beautiful Houston Mesa Campground just north of Payson, AZ.



My idea of a great camping trip is one that is:

about two hours from Phoenix–look what was nearby when I tried to check in (yes, I even had cellular/internet access) that was kind of bad because then I looked at my phone.


  • secluded campsite for the boys to play freely in the woods
  • flush toilets/running water (not a dealbreaker for the boys, but I sure love it!)
  • easy access to a premier Arizona natural paradise

We traveled the weekend of March 30, on the cusp of the season. I think the timing had everything to do with why we had a great time.I bet this area is busy in warmer months. We selected campsite number 13, paid $20.00 for one night and the boys played, built forts and read.


At night it was very cold, but we expected that and packed appropriately. I could see the Big Dipper perfectly through the window in our tent. So beautiful. Payson has a dark sky ordinance. As a busy mom, I find it magical to sleep under a black night sky with sharp white stars.



Houston Mesas is a ten minute drive from Tonto Natural Bridge


After a good breakfast outside in the fresh air we packed up and drove to Tonto Natural Bridge. I barely had time to charge my phone.


This was our second visit to this spectacular park. We hiked down to the moss waterfall (super short/easy hike for kids, it’s a set of stairs (so no strollers) but an easy walk if you don’t mind stairs. 


takes less than ten minutes and at the bottom is a nifty moss covered wall with water running down it.


Even in the summer, we visited in August and the same path had the same steady trickle of water.


I was intimidated to walk the 1/2 mile to the walkway leading to the base of the natural bridge.


I was afraid I was not in shape enough to do it. I am glad I tried, it was just fine.



Not only did I hike down with the boys, but I scrambled all over the rocks and explored the area below the bridge.


I can’t speak to your fitness level but I read all the time and only move if you poke me with a stick, so I’m a little out of shape.

It was outrageously beautiful. 


travertine bridge, cool and beautiful

And Fun! By lucky coincidence, Brady and Max are all about climbing right now. When they saw the giant rocks, they were elated.


climbing like a goat

We will come back many times! I know this cool and beautiful spot must be very busy in the summer but the weekend of March 30, the weather was warm and the park was uncrowded. Have you been? What was it like for you?


If you camp at Houston Mesa, maybe our spiral will still be there at number 13. or maybe you will make your own.

My birthday weekend and how I spent it

I celebrated my birthday on Saturday.

Hidden in the cooler was a birthday cake and candles.

For my birthday I wanted to see a brilliant night sky.

This blog post inspired me to make my birthday wish. I saw shooting stars too.

Pine trees.

We camped at a campsite with the lyrical name FR9350. The web says this camp site is on the rim, but actually it was a 1/4 mile walk. Our camp hosts were Bunny and Mike.

A waterfall.

Chips and salsa and bottomless glasses of iced tea.

We stopped at El Mexicano in Payson on Saturday for lunch and enjoyed lunch on Sunday on the way home

Saturday morning, we drove 2 hours north to a new campsite along the Mogollon Rim. We picked the site from my trusty book. This was my 3rd trip to the rim. We’ve stayed Black Canyon Rim, Crook Campground, Woods Canyon Lake Group site and this time FR 9350. For me, this was the best one simply because we could walk in ten minutes from the rear of our tent through woods to the rim without crossing any road or campsite.

The Best In Tent Camping: Arizona

We walked for an hour along the Rim Lake Vista Trail. The trail was level and easy to walk. We were gloriously close to the rim (20 yards?) so near enough to enjoy the view and far enough that I did not worry about losing Max.

Vista Point

The dramatic rise of the Mogollon Rim produces a sudden uplift to approaching storms resulting in a high incidence of lightning strikes during the summer, creating an active fire season from May to July.

Mogollon Rim is the site of frequent lightning strikes. If you plan to visit in the summer, be cautious. We stopped for a long while watching common blackhawks, easily 13 or 14 circling on the draft created by the rim. If you happen to see them, listen for them to scold you when you hike, because they do and they will!

Assortment of shots, showing the divebombing behavior (top row, center & right), the deep wingbeats (bottom row, left & center), & the typical Black Vulture-like soaring flight: They are losing their habitat, the Mogollon Rim is one of the few they have left.

My favorite gift is a new place to see, so we drove down the steep road to the park (14% grade, make sure your brakes work!)

We used the brakes all the way down, it was steep, windy and did I mention steep?

And discovered a jewel of a park, green grass, shady trees, soaring rock walls all around. The boys were too tired to take on a challenge, so we did an easy 10 minute hike to a waterfall.

and another short walk to the observation deck of the natural bridge. It is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. The bridge stands 183 feet high over a 400-foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point. There are three hiking trails, a picnic area, and a group use area. My pictures of the park are not very good. This page gives a good idea of what you can expect to find if you visit the park. Park admission was $5.00 per adult and $2.00 for children 7 and up.

My pictures are terrible, but your take away from this shot is that if you walk to observation point 3 and 4, you can see 1) stand on the natural bridge and 2) see the bridge and enjoy the view. It is tremendous and worth the price of admission. It would be easy to spend a nice day here hiking and picnicking.

We plan to come back when the boys are not worn out and hike the Gowan trail to the Natural Bridge. Give yourself an hour, 2 liters of water and proper shoes.

My pictures are terrible, so please multiply this time 1000. If you look to the right from this vantage point and crane your neck a bit you can see into the chasm below the bridge. It is deep and has a score of happy hikers scrambling through the chasm below the bridge, behind a curtain of a waterfall. Lovely.

Thanks for enjoying my birthday weekend with me. I hope it inspires you to get out and enjoy a beautiful place. Where would you like to go for your birthday, if you could have any kind of day you like?