Less than one hundred miles northeast of Phoenix, Arizona, giant rocks and towering pines replace the desert scenery of the "Valley of the Sun," and the rugged escarpment of the Mogollon Rim offers up its expansive views for miles around. If you're in Phoenix and looking to get away for a day, this is an opportunity you can't miss!
The backdrop of the drive to the Rim is also spectacular. The Beeline Highway, State Route 87 between Greater Phoenix and Payson, climbs and snakes its way through mountain terrain and diverse landscapes. The elevation of Phoenix as measured at the Sky Harbor Airport is 1,124 feet. During the first part of the drive, saguaros, other cacti and low desert shrubs pepper the mountains around you. As you ascend in elevation, the saguaros thin out and eventually disappear. By the time you reach Payson, at the edge of the Mogollon Rim, at an altitude of almost 5,000 feet, you'll be hugged by evergreen forests.
When you turn east onto Arizona State Route 260 at Payson and continue toward the Rim itself, you'll pass campgrounds, RV parks and resorts. This is a popular vacation area for Phoenix area residents, who come to escape the heat of summer, admire the fall colors, or experience snow in winter.
Here's everything you'll want to know about the Mogollon Rim, one of the best day trips you can take from Phoenix.
The Mogollon Rim is a roughly 200-mile-long limestone and granite cliff carved diagonally across the state of Arizona, reaching 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. It was formed by upheavals followed by flooding and erosion during the Mesozoic Era (252-66 million years ago). Although ponderosa pine forests dominate its slopes and plateau, you can also find oak, chapparal, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. The area offers many recreational opportunities, with campgrounds, lakes, trails, and lookouts.
There are two stories as to how the Mogollon Rim got its name. One story claims it was named after Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, the Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico from 1712 to 1715. According to the other story, the name comes from the Spanish word for mistletoe, an invasive plant in the area that can harm ponderosa trees. Whatever the true story of the origin of its name, the Rim's scenery is dramatic.
Thirty miles past Payson, you come to Mogollon Rim Road (Forest Road 300). This route runs northwest for about forty-five miles past campgrounds, lakes, hiking trails, and lookouts to where it meets State Route 87. I have never driven that full length. It takes several hours to do so. Except for the first three miles or so, the road is dirt/gravel. Caution and slow speeds are required. There are places where the road runs close to the edges of cliffs, so make sure to drive alert.
However, you needn't drive very far along the road to be treated to breathtaking views. It's just a few miles to Military Sinkhole and Rim Lakes Vista, where you'll find panoramic, unobstructed views. Standing on a rugged cliff overlooking forests and hills dropping thousands of feet below will fill you with awe. It can also be a bit unnerving if you have any fear of heights.
If you want to take some time to walk while enjoying the view, Rim Lakes Vista Trail #622 is a popular mostly-paved hiking path running just a few feet from the Rim's edge. The trail is 3.5 miles long, making for a round-trip of 7 miles. But if you want a shorter hike, you can turn back at any point along the trail.
After you've had enough of enjoying the view and breathing in the fresh, piney scent of the mountain air, head back to Route 260 to return to Payson.
Note: If you feel up to driving the full Rim Road and have enough time to do so, turn south when you reach State Route 87 to head back toward Payson and Phoenix. Make sure you check road conditions before starting the drive.
Christoper Creek is a short, scenic road running off Route 260 about fourteen miles west of Rim Road. It makes for a pretty diversion on your way back to Payson. The road passes through the mountain village of Christopher Creek, which sits on the banks of a creek and boasts wide-open views of the jagged cliffs of the Mogollon Rim, before re-joining Route 260.
Payson is a modern town very near the geographic center of Arizona. If you have time on your way back to Phoenix, stop and visit the art galleries and antique stores on Historic Main Street. The Bee Line Cafe on Route 87 in Payson is a good place to stop for a bite to eat. The family-owned restaurant serves basic American food in a diner that still features a lunch counter. It is known for its pies.
The temperature in the Mogollon Rim can be twenty to thirty degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Phoenix. Dress accordingly. Take a sweater or jacket, water and good walking shoes. And don't forget your camera!
Looking for more ideas for Arizona outings? Check out Phoenix Day Trip: Drive The Apache Trail.