Payson, Arizona may not be at the top of everyone’s list for visiting this particular part of the United States. However, it is a hub for travel north in the summer, and there is a lot that this little town has to offer to the respectful and mindful traveler. When considering what to do in Payson, and whether or not you’d like to visit, if you are a hiker or history-lover, there is something for you here. This guide will walk you through a few of my favorite things to do in and around town, and discuss what the key to being a polite visitor is while here.
- 1 What to Do In Payson: In Town
- 2 What to Do Around Payson
- 3 Respectful and Sustainable Travel
- 4 Learn More About Arizona
What to Do In Payson: In Town
Most people just pass through Payson on their way up north in the summer. (And the traffic in town can become very stressful due to this.) However, it is well worth stopping in to learn more about the history of the area and support local businesses.
Rim County Museum
The Rim County Museum is a small, locally run institution that has two sections. The first is the museum itself, and the other is the historic house of famous Western author, Zane Grey. When considering what to do in Payson, I’d suggest giving this place a stop regardless of whether you are a history buff or not. They have done a very nice job with the museum, it’s located in a beautiful park, and the story of this little town is unique.
They are only open Fridays and Saturdays, however, with limited hours. So, check the website for hours and tours.
The cost to enter is $5 for either the museum or house tour or $10 for both, and you can find the museum at: 700 S Green Valley Parkway, Payson AZ
The main museum has artifacts and stories from Payson’s past and the many people who have called it home. In 2020-2021, they did somewhat of a renovation and remodel. So, this little place is well cared for and features some new exhibits if you had visited previously.
If you want to visit Zane Grey’s house, you will be required to take a tour. While not all of us enjoy taking tours, this is a good thing in regards to this little home. There is really only one room, and I quite think that it wouldn’t be interesting to those of us unfamiliar with the works and life of Zane Grey without someone to teach us more about him. On the tour you will get to sit down in the house and listen to stories from the author’s life and how he fell in love with the Payson of yester-year. It certainly was another time, and I think taking the time to learn more about this historic building is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture of Payson.
Just outside the museum, there is a beautiful town park, Green Valley Park. While I wouldn’t normally list a park on one of these guides, this little spot is really picturesque and it is very lively on weekends. If you want to take an easy stroll or enjoy people watching, this is the perfect little spot.
Furthermore, people come to fish, exercise and more. In the summer in particular, it is a beautiful, green place to relax and unwind.
Good food is always a must no matter where you go, and Payson is no exception. While some of my favorite restaurants have come and gone, there are a couple places I would still suggest you stop by for a taste of something good.
Common Grounds – This little coffee shop is nestled next to a church and serves up very good coffee, tea, and pastries. They even do some inspired holiday-themed drinks. If you have some time, consider skipping Starbucks for this little spot. 219 S Colcord Rd, Payson, Az, 85541.
Sweet Country Charm Fudge and Gifts – A staple of the drive north in Payson, the Sweet Country Charm is part of a vibrant shopping center. They’ve got a huge assortment of candies and goodies, along with their fudge. If you have a sweet tooth, this is a great spot to indulge at, and you can pick up some treats to go if you are just passing through town. Find them at: 618 N Beeline Hwy, Payson, AZ 85541.
Danzeisen Creamery – This is a newer spot in town, but its home to one of Arizona’s homegrown dairy companies. You can get some very very good milkshakes at this spot; they’ve got fancy ones and more straight forward flavors. If you want to stop by – 500 S. Beeline Hwy., Payson, AZ 85541 Suite B
When it comes to dinner food, my favorite places have either closed in the past couple years or undergone some changes of the chefs, but if you are looking for higher end food, you might consider Duza’s Kitchen. And there is also fairly good BBQ to be had at Rim Country BBQ.
Are any of your favorites missing from this list? Let me know! We’d love to try some new spots and add to our list of what to do in Payson. We also love to spread the news about other great small businesses.
What to Do Around Payson
When it comes to planning a getaway to Payson, some kind of outdoor adventure is almost always in the cards. There are some great options right in town, as well as some really cool spots not all that far away.
Loads of Hiking
I have several posts on in-town hiking, because I think the town’s trails are super high quality and should be included on any “what to do in Payson list.”
The Boulders Loop Trail – is one of my absolute favorites. If one does the entire lollipop, it’s about 5 miles. But it is very easy to just take a stroll through the woods in this area. There are beautiful stone formations, giant boulders, and often flowing water.
Monument Peak Loop – This trail is down a dirt road, so it offers a little bit of solitude. It will take you around the very small Monument Peak.
Peach Orchard – Best served on a quiet weekday (if you are on foot), the Peach Orchard loop takes advantage of OHV roads through the open countryside. There are beautiful views of the rolling hills from here.
Just Out of Town
Waterwheel Falls – You can either take a rugged trail to the falls, or walk along a forest road, but either way, Waterwheel Falls is one of my favorite places to visit when I am in Payson. It can get busy, but the flowing creek alone is well worth seeing. This is a fee area for the Tonto National Forest- but there are kiosks at the trailhead where you can pay.
Fossil Springs – This is a pretty popular hike, that I have an entire guide on. It’s about 8 miles RT, so definitely no joke (and not a trail to wear flip flops for). But it follows an old dirt road down into a beautiful canyon with running water and verdant riparian areas. You do need to snag a permit to go, so check out the guide for more information.
Barnhardt Trail – This is the longest trail on this list, but it is a short 20-30 min out of town, and it is spectacular. The trail will take you up into the Mazatzal mountains, where you can see beautiful rock formations in a rainbow of colors. When the season is right, there are also waterfalls to be seen at the top. That all being said, this hike ranges from 6-12 miles depending on how far up you hike, it is entirely uphill on the way out, and a dirt road is the only access to the trailhead.
The Mogollon Rim can be seen from just about anywhere around Payson. At a first glance, it looks like a massive cliff that splits the lowlands from Arizona from the higher, colder forests. In fact, if you are coming from Payson and travelling up, you will notice that the temperature is much cooler on the top and the forest is more robust.
Needless to say, this beautiful and unique geological feature is popular place to visit. There is a 50+ mile trail that follows its length, perfect for backpackers. There is also a dirt road that can be driven along its upper edge. I’ve made a day out of driving this in the past, and many people car camp off this road as well. And there is also a large lake at the eastern end of the rim where people recreate in all kinds of ways from boating to fishing to hiking.
Whether you just want to stop for some pictures, or spend days in this area, the Mogollon Rim is one of the most unique stops on this “what to do in Payson” list.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
I have an entire post on Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, so you can imagine that I enjoy this place. There are some very cool trails here, if not particularly long, and the formation for which the park is named is outstandingly beautiful. If you are not comfortable with hiking steep and sometimes slippery-wet trails, there are plenty of places on the rim to look down on the bridge.
But if you are comfortable hiking (and it is very steep and wild) you can walk under the bridge. There is a little waterfall and some very cool formations here, so it’s definitely worth the experience if you can safely handle the conditions (and the park has the trail open).
Please note that this is another fee area, and the trails may be closed when unsafe. Do not disregard rangers and signage when trails are closed.
Respectful and Sustainable Travel
While the United States has become a cultural staple in movies and pop culture globally, it is important to remember that the people of the United States have varied cultures and need the same peace in their homes as anyone else. So, whether you are a domestic traveler or visiting from out of the country, please practice culturally respectful travel practices. (Which can honestly be applied just about anywhere).
Avoid renting full-sized short-term rentals (Airbnb/VRBO/etc). These take up precious living space in both small towns and cities, and undermine local communities by replacing neighbors with investors and rotations of strangers. If you do rent a home, do not hold parties there.
While driving and being out and about in the town, please be extra polite. Many people have the perception that they can do whatever they want while on vacation, but culturally respectful travel principles would tell us that the opposite is true. You are a guest is someone else’s home. Take care of that place and the people who live there.
Remember, without thriving local communities, tourism can’t exist.
It is also important to practice Leave No Trace on the trails, and please do not park blocking roads, drive-ways, or in no-parking zones. If a location is full when you arrive, try visiting later in the day, or visit an alternative spot.
Learn More About Arizona
If you are interested in exploring more of Arizona, we have a load of posts on hiking across the state as well as discussions of Arizona’s coolest destinations in our Guide to Arizona.
If you love the idea of Payson, but will be limited to the Phoenix metro-area, there are some great places to check out. For a small town feel within the city, Litchfield Park is a unique place that harkens back to the 50-60s. There are also loads of hiking in Phoenix – Butcher Jones is a short trail just outside of Fountain Hills (on the way to Payson) that has beautiful views of the Saguaro Lake.
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