Off the Beaten Path in Payson, AZ
By Carrie Willink
Payson, AZ, is an hour and a half from the Escape Campervans Phoenix rental site. At most 5,000’ elevation, Payson is a popular destination in the summer to escape the desert heat, and in the winter for Phoenix residents to experience a bit of snow!
Payson is a beautiful little mountain town which many have not heard of. It is off the beaten path, but along the way, you will drive through some of the most beautiful classic Arizona landscapes. Rolling mountains with thousands of saguaro cacti! Be sure and fuel up before you make the trip as you will not see any stops in site for at least an hour of driving. But have your camera out as each curve gives you a new beautiful perspective of the desert!
Payson itself isn’t a town you may write home about, but it is very nice and extremely quaint. You will find your classic fast food and semi-fast food places. A personal favorite for our family is “Native Grill & Wings” which is a local Buffalo Wild Wings-type sports bar. The drinks are priced well and the wings are delicious!
There are many camping spots around the area that are beautiful but if you need some showers or hook-ups, we suggest Payson Campground & RV resort. They were extremely kind upfront and have hook-up sites or non-hook-up sites. The facilities were very clean and there was a play place for the kids. The main reason we like it is it’s central to everything!
Now let’s chat about the main reason you should visit: the hikes!
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
You will find this gem 25 minutes north of Payson. It is highly regulated and costs $10/vehicle for parking. This place is perfect if you want a nice hike or just want to see some breathtaking landscape without too much effort. Many of the viewpoints are within just a short walking distance from the parking lot.
This park is known for the natural bridge, which is a 183 ft high natural travertine bridge, believed to be the largest one in the world, it really is an unbelievable site. Legend has it, the bridge was found by David Gowan in 1877 as he was being chased by Apache Indians.
There is a 2.5-mile hike that will have you climbing over boulders and under trees or there is a nice .75 mile hike that will take you right down to the bottom of the Natural Bridge.
You can visit any time of year but call ahead in times of rain or snow to make sure the trails are open and accessible.
Water Wheel Trail
This trail is about 20 min north of Payson as well. Free Parking. This is a 1.5 in and out hike. About .35 in you will find the first of the falls and this is absolutely gorgeous. If you don’t have time to truck on you can stay at this place. You do need to cross over the river, so depending on water level it could be at your waste or your ankles so be ready to get wet! After you cross over you will head up the trail to another beautiful huge waterfall. You can swim around the bottom and climb the rocks. Some bring picnics and stay for the day!
Note: This area is known for flash floods. Be sure and do your research before going!
Horton Creek Trail
This trail is about 30 minutes outside of Payson. Parking can be confusing because this trail begins near a campground. Just be sure and park in the designated area.
8.5-mile out and back trail. This is ranked moderate for most. It gets pretty hard in some areas especially holding a baby. ? This trail had many beautiful textures from the woods to tall pine trees and a beautiful creek along the way. The trail at times kind of fades out but mostly you can tell where to go. When you finally get to the main waterfall you will know! It is gorgeous and you can climb around it a bit. The creek has many places you can park it along the way and enjoy the peaceful sound of the water and the smell of the fresh forest air!
The views during this 30 min drive from Payson are gorgeous! The people at the welcome center are so kind and they have so much information on the area if you have a chance to chat. You’ll definitely want to see the view from here as well.
Rim Top Trail is an easy, 3.5-mile hike one-way. Most of it is paved and very flat. However, you have an absolutely gorgeous view of rolling layers of mountains the whole hike! This is great for any skill level. There are also 4 pull off areas if you just decide you would like to drive it instead of hike. Pack a lunch or hammock and hang out for a while at one of these viewpoints. You won’t regret it!
Payson is one of our favorite places because of the slow pace and beautiful landscapes. We do hope you enjoy your time and soak in the fresh air!