Sometimes, when I am staying somewhere, whether I am a regular visitor or just have one opportunity to pass through, I want to know about hiking opportunities right in town. I look for these kinds of trails when I have limited time, or I just lack the ability to drive more than 30 min out of town. These trails are often lesser known, and it can be hard to find good information on online. So, I wanted to provide you with a list of five hiking trails in Payson that I have enjoyed.
My goal is to give you a sense for which trail will be right for your needs, but these will not be comprehensive guides to each one. Expect this post to equip you with some great ideas for where to hike in Payson, Arizona, and point you in the direction of more information (should more be needed). I’ve also organized these so that my favorites come first.
Five Amazing Hiking Trails in Payson, AZ
#1 Water Wheel Falls
The Water Wheel Falls trail is my favorite of the hiking trails in Payson, Az, because it leads to a beautiful waterfall. This is a popular spot, however, so if you want to enjoy any solitude, come early. People love swimming in the creek that comes down from the waterfall. The falls themselves are a popular Instagram photo spot due to the log ladder at the bottom. This is also a short trail, being about 1.6 miles out and back. And it is beautiful from start to finish.
However, there are some things to consider when deciding whether or not you want to visit this spot. First, about half way down the trail, you will need to cross the creek to the right, and this is not easy. I have done a lot of creek crossings in my life, but here I have been (1) flat out stopped from crossing when the water is too high, and (2) hurt myself trying to cross when the water wasn’t too high. There are huge, slippery boulders that you kind of have to shimmy between, and scale. It can definitely be dangerous. If that sounds like a little too much for you, or if you get there and have doubts, you can easily enjoy the exceptional beauty of the lower creek area on the trail. There are waterfalls in both directions even without getting to the end. (There is also a forest road that you can take that avoid the creek crossing).
On the Trail
If you do cross, you will roughly follow the creek. The trail after this point is vastly different than the well-defined, sandy path of the first half of the trek. Now you will be navigating along spider trails, through the riparian plant life of the area. Enjoy the beautiful oasis as you go. You will know the waterfall when you find it. It is the most sheer of the falls you have seen thus far and has the ladder log.
There is not really much point to climbing up above the falls- there is private land not far from the top. So, please respect the signage.
If you need to take the alternate route, which is safer but not as pretty and misses most of the creek, park in one of the paid lots (and pay the fee). Then follow the highway (VERY CAREFULLY!) to a spot on the east side of the road where a small dirt road connects with the tarmac. The road will take you up and over a hill, and then you will need to keep your eyes open for a right-hand branch that leads from the dirt road towards the creek. There is often a little ad hoc sign here, but it isn’t always noticeable. Just note that the turn off is a pretty established path at the bottom of the hill. Make it out to the creek and then head left towards the waterfall.
If you are wondering about the water wheel itself… well, it isn’t at the waterfall. The water wheel is actually towards the beginning of the trail. It is tucked away in the foliage on the left-hand side of the trail.
Safety and Fees
The trail is on US Forest Service land within the Tonto National Forest, so please pay the fee to park. If you have an America the Beautiful Pass, bring that along; it works for US National Forest fee areas (unless otherwise specified).
ALSO, PRACTICE SUPREME WATER SAFETY HERE! I got hurt on this trail trying to cross, and people have died in flash floods here. Seriously, do not take the water for granted. It is fun, but can kill people. So, stay safe and make sure that your kids and animals are safe too.
#2 Boulders Loop Trail
After the Water Wheel Falls trail, the Boulders Loop Trail is one of my top favorite hiking trails in Payson, AZ. So much so, that I have an entire post about this trail. Check out my Guide to the Boulders Loop Trail for all the details.
Basically, this is a great trail if you are looking for a relatively level trek that is family friendly, and has some really variable landscapes. It’s also long enough for a challenging training hike if you time how long it takes to do the full 5+ mile loop.
This trail is on US Forest Service land, but it is also managed as part of the Payson Area Trail System, so it is free.
#3 Monument Peak
The Monument Peak loop is a 3.5 mile loop that is also part of the Payson Area Trail System. In terms of this list of hiking trails in Payson, it is the hardest to get to if you have a tiny car. The trailhead is down a dirt road, which is normally navigable with a car, but it might make some nervous. However, when thinking about where to hike in Payson, this trail always comes to my mind because of the convenient length of the trail, and its relatively less crowded nature.
The trail itself circles Monument Peak, which isn’t quite as impressive as its name might suggest. But I enjoyed the verdant forest that the trail weaves its way through, and if you come when snowmelt is starting to melt into the spring and summer, you will find some very beautiful flows on the trail.
On The Trail
When I visited, I found this to be a very peaceful place. There were other people parked at the trailhead, but I didn’t run into anyone on the trail. If you are looking for a trail that’s close by, but feels more removed, this is good one.
My only suggestion in regards to safety is that many parts of the trail double as OHV trails. So, as I always say when it comes to multi-use trails, watch out for other users, and make sure to walk towards the outside of the trail. This will allow people to pass safely.
In order to get to the trailhead, follow Granite Dells east until the road turns from blacktop to dirt. Down the dirt road, on the left-hand side of the track, you will find the trailhead, with a small US Forest Service sign.
#4 Peach Orchard Trail Loop
The Peach Orchard Loop Trail is another one of the PATS hiking trails in Payson, however, it isn’t on their official list of trails. So, I’m including this here because I had an enjoyable experience on the track, but it isn’t the easiest hiking trail to navigate. I think this trail is best for those who have explored other spots in their quest to uncover where to hike in Payson.
The trailhead is right across from the Payson Golf Course, and starts behind a gate that connects to a small, residential cul de sac. I found it pretty confusing when I was trying to park. But the intention seems to be that you open the gate for yourself and then park on the other side, so you are off the road and not bothering any of the neighbors.
On the Trail
The trail that leads off from there is more like a small, OHV road than anything. And it definitely is used by OHVers. I went on a weekday, so there wasn’t much traffic. Although, even then, I did see people on the road. So, I think for the best experience, it’s nice to go when there might be less people driving the road.
That, and I would also suggest referring to AllTrails or a similar map while hiking here. There are a lot of branching trails and it can be hard to follow the loop. There isn’t much signage to speak of. That, and there is a steep part of the trail that a lot of hikers have noted. I didn’t find it too hard, but I think it’s best to go up the steep part, so hiking the loop clockwise is ideal.
With all of that out of the way, there were some really special moments that I had on this trail. It wasn’t as forested as the other options on this list, so it was a view into a different side of Payson’s landscape. I loved the open spaces. I loved the evidence of ranching on the land – cows off in the distance. Moments of dramatic trees. It’s a beautiful place and I felt so removed from the city, even close by.
#5 Shoefly Ruins
Unless you are an archeologist, I don’t think you could make a day out of Shoefly, and it is too short of a trail for a workout at only 0.25 miles. That being said, I think this is a good place to stop by, especially if you visit the Water Wheel Falls trail. Shoefly is on the way in to the waterfall trailhead out of Payson.
These ruins are evidence of the indigenous communities that have thrived on these lands for hundreds and thousands of years, and I always think it is good to visit and contemplate. What’s left might not feel spectacular, but the fact that this place has survived everything it has speaks to the ingenuity of its creators. Celebrating indigenous culture is a must, and this is one easily accessible site to do that.
Safety on the Trail
Safety while hiking should always be your number one concern, and then after that, caring for the environment and the community that you are visiting.
Along with the pointers above, for visitors, please remember that Payson is a small community that has been impacted heavily by tourism in recent years. For some people, this is great and supports their livelihood, and for others it can be stressful. Traffic can be bad, stores and restaurants crowded, and sometimes tourist behavior hurts local people. So, please, remember to be a polite guest. Drive carefully and kindly, and rather than throwing inhibitions to the wind while traveling, be extra considerate when visiting.
More on Payson and Travel in Arizona
If you are interested in learning a little bit more about visiting Payson, and want to know more about the hiking trails in Payson, AZ, I have guides to each for you.
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