When considering where to hike in Payson, Arizona, there is no lack of amazing options. One of my favorites, however, is a family-friendly lollipop route from Cypress Trail to the Boulders Loop Trail. This is a great place to explore the forest, and enjoy some seasonal creeks. It’s also perfect for wildflowers when the weather is right, and the boulders are an all-year attraction. No matter your hiking abilities, this is a great place to give a try, you might just take a shorter out-and-back route depending on your stamina and gear.
Is Boulders Loop Trail Right for You?
I’ve done this trail so many times, and it is beautiful whether you finish the whole thing or not. You can experience all the seasons in this area, including winter in Arizona. It’s very nice as a stroll, and you can turn around at any point. I’ve also done this as a trail to train for harder hikes, by seeing how quickly I can finish the 5+ miles. Besides my solo hikes, I also see families and dogs on this trail almost every time I go out. So, I think it is safe to say that when considering where to hike in Payson, the Boulders Loop Trail is a great stop for most people.
That all being said, there are a few things to consider. First, there is often a little bit of water on the trail. That means anyone with kids should keep an extra eye on their little ones. This trail is also in the National Forest, so while it feels like a neighborhood walk, it is fairly wild. Don’t let it fool you into not going prepared. Better safe than sorry.
The Experience of the Boulders Loop Trail
If you start from the Cypress trailhead (directions below), you will start your journey on a relatively level path that meanders through the forest. There are a few trail junctions, but keep your eyes peeled for the PATS logo along the way. This trail is fairly well marked, although having a map of the route downloaded is good as well.
Eventually, after walking through the trees for a time, you will cross the creek or creek bed. After this point, there are a few more crossings along level ground. Generally, I find that can I make the crossings without getting too wet. There are usually rocks to step on or bit of sand to walk on. It’s rarely deep water.
Eventually, you will come to a sandy clearing where you will notice a wooden, national forest sign that indicates that the loop trail is splitting. I like to take the right-hand path for a counter-clockwise hike, but either direction will work. If you go to the right, you will hike up into the boulders. The trail will twist quite a bit which will require you to do a bit of navigation. At places here, the trail can be hard to follow. I use my map and the PATS logo signs to stay on track.
Eventually, you will come to a wider trail, and this will cross a large, grassy clearing where OHV use is evident. Past this point, you will begin traveling along a deep wash with private property on the other side. The trail will turn towards the left, and you will get some elevation gain in the boulder-covered hills.
After climbing back down, you will cross the creek again before finding yourself back in the sandy clearing where the trail branched. At this point, continue straight, following the signs for the trailhead, back the way you came.
Need to Know Information
Trail difficulty: Easy
Trail length: 5.2 miles
Elevation gain: 282 feet
Toilet facilities at the trailhead: No
Entrance fee: None
Parking notes: Limited
Land manager: Tonto National Forest
Access updates: Tonto National Forest alerts
Directions to the Trailhead
From the 87, follow Phoenix Street to the east all the way to its end. The parking area is a cul de sac. Please be sure to not block the street or any driveways when you park. To get to the trailhead, you will follow a path around the rectangular structure along the road- there are little trail signs on the road as indicators. You will know you are in the right place when you see the wooden sign for the trail.
Preparation and Safety on the Trail
In addition to the safety considerations above, these are some extra things to consider for this trail. First, as I mentioned previously, there is often a little bit of running water on the trail, particularly when the snow is melting. While the water isn’t deep, it is important to practice water safety anyway. Stay safe yourself, and watch your kids and pups.
Second, if you do this whole trail, there will be sections that are shared between hikers and OHV. This means that you could be hiking on the same trail that motorized vehicles may be navigating as well. I have not personally had an issue with other users while on this trail, but I do always make sure that I am listening and looking for vehicles while traveling on shared use trails.
Other Options – Payson Area Trails System
While the Boulders Loop Trail is a wonderful place to explore and experience winter in Arizona, there are plenty of other options when considering where to hike in Payson. One sub-set of trails to take a peek at are those included in the Payson Area Trails System or PATS. The PATS trails are part of a partnership between the Town of Payson and the Tonto National Forest. One of the nicest things about them, if you are staying in Payson, is that they can generally be easily and readily be accessed from town. (With maybe the one exception being the Monument Peak Loop Trail- which is down a dirt road).
These trails also have a variety of difficulties, but many of them are easy to moderate in difficulty. So, many of them are really nice opportunities for a day out with the family. Or a quiet walk through the forest.
That all being said, I can admit that not all of these trails will be for everyone. As of posting this in 2021, I have not done all of the PATS, and I don’t have any intention of doing all of them, as many parts of the trail system are in town. While I can enjoy a nice neighborhood walk as much as anyone, I don’t like walking on city streets while hiking. That being said- those options can be really really nice for others, so my con might be your pro.
Another consideration for the PATS trails is that many of them also share trails that are used by OHV. I’ve personally never had an issue with any other users in this area, but it is good to be aware while hiking so that everyone can stay safe.
Of the trails that I have done, the Boulders Loop Trail is my favorite, but I’ve also done the Peach Loop Trail and Monument Peak Trail.
Monument Peak Trail
In terms of access, Monument Peak Trail was a little rugged. I made it to the trailhead in my very tiny car, so I think just about any vehicle could make it. However, it was still a little more nerve-wracking to access than either the Boulders Loop Trail or Peach Loop Trail.
From the trailhead, the hike is a fairly flat and circles Monument Peak (as the name would suggest). It will take you through meadows and beautiful forests, and when the snow melts or these has been rain, there can also be water running through natural channels coming off the mountain. It’s really a kind of magical place.
What’s also very interesting about this trail is that it is in this sort of in-between space. You will feel like you are completely embedded in the wild, but you can see houses along the way.
I think this is the perfect trail for anyone looking for a wild-feeling trail, without needing to drive far, do anything super hard, and you want to escape some of the crowds.
Peach Loop Trail
The Peach Loop Trail had a few downsides, but I still enjoyed it. If you are spending a lot of time in Payson and are a pretty avid hiker, it’s nice to check it off your list.
That being said, you will notice that it isn’t listed on the Town of Payson’s official list of trails. I am not exactly sure why they decided to leave it off, but navigating here can be a little challenging and parking is also not easy.
The Peach Loop Trail is mostly made up of shared use trails that are shared between OHV and hikers. So, keep your eyes and ears open while walking here and be courteous to OHV folks. There are also many different trails out here, so it is easy to miss the turns for the loop. AllTrails worked well for me out here, but obviously make sure to have another map on-hand and let people know where you are going.
In terms of difficulty, this trail is also harder than the Boulders Loop Trail and the Monument Peak Trail. There is lots of up-and-down hiking through the hills. And there is one particular section is that both washed out and very steep (you will see this mentioned in the AllTrails reviews). Bring good shoes and if you come to the steep part and feel unprepared, turn around. I agree with other hikers in suggesting that you plan to take the trail counter-clockwise, so that you can hike up this, rather than down it.
Finally, it is a bit confusing to park at the trailhead. I can’t even really tell you exactly where to park. You need to drive into a small dead-end street, open a gate, and then park on the other side of the gate. I didn’t really understand this, because I got shy. So I think you could possibly also park out of the way in the neighborhood. It’s better to look for the right spot though.
Arizona Through the Seasons
For many who have never had the opportunity to visit Arizona, the things that come to mind are hot deserts, cacti (and boy do we have magnificent cacti), and the ubiquitous Sedona. What less people might know is that we also have forests, rugged bodies of water, and snow… yes, you can experience a snowy winter in Arizona.
There are plenty of places to enjoy the winter season here, but one of my favorite is, in fact, the Boulders Loop Trail. This is because (a) Payson does get snow in the winter, and (b) the boulders, mountains, and streams of this trail make for a winter wonderland.
What is really wonderful is that you can get cozy in Payson, and then just head down the street to this beautiful trail. For a relaxing winter weekend in Arizona, this is one of my best suggestions for where to hike in Payson.
If you want to learn more about what to see in the state, check out our Guide to Arizona. And if you’d like to save this for later, pin it!