One of the most popular weekend destinations for Phoenix residents, the area in and around Payson offers a perfect spot to get away from the city environment year-round and the scorching temperatures in the summer. Surrounded by forests and lakes, Payson offers outdoor activities year-round, with miles of hiking and biking trails, birdwatching and fishing opportunities, and the chance to spend time outdoors in an environment that’s so different from much of the state.
Fall is especially beautiful in and around Payson, with some of the best leaf-peeping opportunities in Arizona.
Given its proximity to Phoenix — under a two-hour drive — the small town gets crowded on weekends, especially in the summer. But there are plenty of things to do for everyone — outdoor enthusiasts and those who love the charm of small towns alike. Here are a few popular things to do in and around Payson.
1. Enjoy The Outdoors In Town At Green Valley Park
Outdoor recreation is important to Payson residents and visitors alike. One of the best local parks for it is Green Valley Park, called the Jewel of Payson. The park features three lakes, a playground, picnic areas, an amphitheater, and vast open spaces on 43 acres. Visitors can enjoy leisurely walks, fishing, watching gorgeous sunsets, and local activities like outdoor concerts.
Green Valley Park is also home to the Rim Country Historical Museum and Zane Grey Cabin.
2. Learn About The History Of Central Arizona At The Rim Country Museum And Zane Grey Cabin
You’ll find the Rim Country Museum and Zane Grey Cabin on the shore of the larger man-made lake at the Green Valley Park, off Main Street in town. Here, you’ll learn about the Rim Country, named for the Mogollon Rim, a 50-mile-radius area surrounding Payson. The museum displays highlight the history of this area: geological, ancient, but mostly Western culture.
Next to the museum building, you’ll see the Zane Grey Cabin. One of the best-known writers of Western novels, Zane Grey loved Arizona, and at some point, he had a cabin under the Mogollon Rim, near Prescott. He used the one-room cabin as a writing retreat between 1921 and 1929.
His original cabin, used as a museum, burned down in the infamous Dude Fire in 1990. The cabin you can visit today is a replica of the original.
Editor’s Note: Due to COVID-19, the museum is currently closed until further notice.
3. Shop For Unique Gifts
Payson offers unique shopping opportunities, including a selection of antiques, crafts, and handmade items by local artisans. Main Street offers great places to shop and eat. The Swiss Village Shops are favorites of visitors, but you’ll find larger shopping centers at the intersection of Arizona Routes 260 and 87.
Shop for antiques and “Explore the Attic” on Route 260, stop for “Tymeless Antiques and Treasures” on Main Street, or browse The Carpenter’s Wife store for unique gift items. You’ll also find art galleries in town showcasing the work of local artists.
4. Explore An Archaeological Site At Shoofly Village Ruins
Travel back in time about a thousand years when visiting the ruins of an ancient settlement at the Shoofly Indian Village Archaeological Site.
Though you won’t find standing structures here, you’ll see the base of many homes built by ancient Mogollon Rim people who lived here between 1000 and 1250 A.D. The prehistoric settlement once comprised over 80 rooms with courtyards and plazas, surrounded by a massive stone wall, and it was home to about 250 people at its height.
The people of Shoofly Village had close cultural ties with the Hohokam and the Salado people who lived in the mountains and the desert just south of them, though they had their own distinctive culture. They traded with their neighbors and made a living by farming, gathering wild plants, and hunting.
Walking the trail, look in the distance for gorgeous views of the Mogollon Rim. You’ll find the ruins off Houston Mesa Road, a few miles past the town.
5. Take a Hike To The Water Wheel Falls
If you follow Houston Mesa Road a little farther, you’ll get to the trailhead for one of the most enjoyable hikes in the area, the Water Wheel Falls trail.
The 1.5-mile-long trail follows a stream and leads to a small waterfall and pool large enough to swim in. The trail is flat and easy, starting out wide and easy to follow. Farther along you’ll reach some boulders and rocky areas you need to cross, and the trail seems to disappear in a few places. Follow the river, and you’ll find it again.
The shaded trail ends at a waterfall and swimming hole with smooth rocks all around. The water is shallow, more fit for a soak than a swim, but it’s enjoyable, especially in the hot summer months.
For the best experience, take this trail only during dry weather; stay away from it during times of flash flooding.
6. Drive The Scenic Rim Road
The scenic Rim Road Drive (Forest Road 300) is a 45-mile dirt road between State Routes 260 and 87, about 30 miles north of Payson.
If entered from Route 260, the first few miles of the road are paved, and even if you only drive as far as the pavement goes, you are rewarded by gorgeous vistas. You’ll find two viewpoints — Military Sinkhole and Rim Lakes Vista — both sitting on cliff-top ledges offering panoramic views that seem to stretch forever.
Next, you’ll pass the turnoff to Woods Canyon Lake, and find that the pavement ends. Still, it’s good enough for sedans, though it might be more comfortable for high clearance vehicles. The scenic road continues as it skirts the Rim’s edge, passing through forests and meadows, offering plenty of opportunities to stop. You’ll pass side-roads into the woods, often leading to lakes like Bear Canyon Lake, Knoll Lake, Chevelon, and Black Canyon. Recreational areas like Kohl Springs Campground offer opportunities for a picnic.
7. Enjoy Gorgeous Views Of The Mogollon Rim On The Rim Lakes Vista Trail
One of the easiest and most scenic trails off Rim Road Drive is the Rim Lakes Vista Trail. The trail is 3.5 miles long and connects a few of the viewpoints on the road running between the Mogollon Campground and the Rim Lakes Vista trailheads.
Starting at the Mogollon Campground, the first mile is paved and fully accessible, featuring three viewpoints of gorgeous vistas of the Rim below. The rest of the trail is still an easy walk along the rim’s edge, with plenty of opportunities to stop for gorgeous vistas.
8. Hike, Fish, Or Swim At Willow Springs Lake
Instead of turning onto the scenic Rim Road, if you follow Route 260 a few more miles, you’ll reach Willow Springs Lake, a favorite of locals and Phoenix residents alike. Willow Springs Lake is the closest lake to Payson on the Mogollon Rim, and it gets busy on the weekends in the summer months.
Still, the lake is large enough to accommodate the visitors even on the busiest weekend. You’ll find two paved parking lots and a paved boat ramp. Though you might see motorized boats on the lake, you are more likely to see paddleboats and kayaks. Fishing is a favorite activity at the lake, especially between April and September. A few areas are great for swimming, or you can just follow the trail around the lake for an enjoyable walk.
9. Visit Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
Tonto Natural Bridge is one of the largest travertine bridges in the world. Most natural bridges are formed in sandstone or limestone, so being formed in travertine makes Tonto Bridge unique. The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park protects this unique site while assuring that visitors can see and enjoy it.
The bridge is visible from four different viewpoints on the paved and accessible trail on top just off the parking lot. For a closer look, take the Gowan Trail to the observation deck at the bottom of the bridge. Wear good hiking/walking shoes and be careful since the trail can be slippery.
The park also features a historic lodge, with a visitor center and museum within the building. In the museum, you can learn about the Tonto Natural Bridge, geology with a focus on travertine, the history of ancient people who lived here, and the historic Tonto Lodge.
Editor’s Note: The Gowan Trail is currently closed for construction.
Payson is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery and outdoor recreation opportunities in Arizona. The area is the most popular spot for Phoenix residents during the summer months, making it especially busy on the weekends when you’ll battle traffic on all the roads. Try to visit weekdays during the summer months if possible. The area also offers great opportunities to see fall foliage in Arizona. Since it is close to Phoenix and temperatures are warmer, expect to see the best fall colors during late October.