Payson and Rim Country is a hiking enthusiasts dream. Because of its location at the base of the Mogollon Rim area terrain varies from high desert lower-elevation trails to cool Ponderosa and Aspen forests at the higher elevations. The trails range in difficulty from easy to more challenging, each providing stunning and diverse scenery. Here are some popular Forest Service Trails, though there are many, many more excellent hiking trails to explore.
Fossil Springs Trail is north of Payson. This strenuous forest service trail descends four miles into a 1600' deep canyon to reach beautiful Fossil Creek and the historic old damn with its waterfall. Loose rock and the steep ascent make the return climb out challenging, and lead to many search and rescue calls. Always bring plenty of water and wear hiking boots.
In summertime, the hike out can be brutally hot and takes twice as long as the hike in. This 8.3 mile down and back hike should only be undertaken by hikers that understand and can handle its rigor. A permit is required April 1st through October 1st.
Doll Baby Trail to Spanish Ruins (Difficulty – Moderate)
Doll Baby Ranch Road to Spanish Ruins is a 2.8 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Payson, Arizona that features ruins and a panoramic view at the top. The trial is rated as moderate and hiking boots are recommended because of the rocky terrain.
The trail is well-defined and easy to follow. You will follow a rugged forest service road up to the cliffs. Once you near the top and pass through a gate, you will then turn off of the forest service trail to the left on a small trail leading up some boulders to the top of the mesa. Once on top of the Mesa you will follow a trail near the edge to the mysterious ruins. The views from the top are spectacular!!
Doll Baby Trail to the Spanish Ruins Panoramic View from the top, with yours truly standing in the middle. The ruins are to my far right near the edge of the cliff.
This hike begins in Washington Park in Payson, Arizona. The trail is named after Colonel Thomas C. Devin who used the route off the Mogollon Rim in 1868. Besides tremendous views of the canyon below, you will see the remnants of an attempted tunnel through the Mogollon Rim by the Atlantic & Pacific railroad. Now all that can be seen of the historic tunnel is a hole in the rock.
The springs near the "tunnel" are beautiful and well worth the hike. Also of interest is the old Arizona Game & Fish Department Fish Hatchery site with beautiful springs and the flowering banks.
On top of the rim is the site of the “Apache Battle of Big Dry Wash." You will see continue another half-mile past the historical marker of the “Apache Battle of Big Dry Wash”, you will see the General Springs Cabin built in 1918.
Water Wheel Falls Hiking Trail and Ellison Creek Swimming Hole
Tucked between Payson, Arizona and the base of the Mogollon Rim, this watering hole is a picturesque destination full of gorgeous natural landscapes. The Water Wheel Falls area features flowing waterfalls, shimmering pools, and cool water along the East Verde River. The Ellison Creek Swimming hole is at the base of a long cascading waterfall that rushes down a huge stone embankment and is complete with a carved log staircase.
The Water Wheel Waterfalls and Hiking Trail are named for the depression era mining wheel that sits a short distance from the trailhead. The wheel was built in the 1930’s by a miner named James Greer. It powered an ore crusher that extracted gold, when it was still found in the area.
Horton Creek Trail is a 8.5 mile heavily trafficked out and back trail located near Payson, Arizona that features a waterfall and is rated as moderate. This trail starts at Upper Tonto Creek Campground and follows Horton Creek, past waterfall, lush colonies of roses, wild grape, ferns and strawberries cover the forest floor when the trail gets close to the creek.
It winds through magnificent stands of pine. Beyond the north end of the trail, water gushes out of the ground, forming Horton Spring. Great for loop hikes. The trail is accessible year-round. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.
Oak Springs Trail (Difficulty – Easy)
Oak Spring Trail is a 4 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Pine, Arizona north of Payson that features a great forest setting and is rated as easy.
This trail is one of the top spots for fall colors in Arizona and the canyon is filled with vibrant colors in October and November. The trail through the Oak Canyon is part of the larger Arizona trail. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.
Red Rock Spring Trail is a 2 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Pine, Arizona that offers scenic views and is rated as moderate. The trail starts downward in the ponderosa pine forest and descends 600 feet into junipers, pinyon pines, cedars, and oak trees.
Red Rock Spring flows year-round and was used by both Apaches and settlers as a watering hole that is still utilized by area wildlife. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow, offering spectacular views of the Mogollon Rim and mountain ranges. It is primarily used for hiking and trail running.
See Canyon Trail is an 8 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Payson, Arizona that features a river and is rated as difficult, with an elevation gain of 1,715 feet. The trail is relatively easy, but most of the gain in elevation is the last .5 miles up the rim. There is also a 1 mile round trip diversion to See Springs if you so choose. The trail ends at the top of the Mogollon Rim with a limited view. The best scenery is the flowing creek and the lush Ponderosa Pine forest filled with ferns along the way. You will cross the creek several times during the hike.
This scenic trail follows beside a clear mountain stream through the lush green forest to the top of the Mogollon Rim. The trail is best used from April until November and can be accessed from Christopher Creek below or the #300 road on the Rim above. Dogs are also able to use this trail.
Military Sinkhole Trail is a 4.4 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located east of Payson near Forest Lakes, Arizona that features a great forest setting and is rated as moderate. It is considered the easiest trail down the Mogollon Rim in terms of hazards and steepness.
Views from the parking lot at the top 300 road trailhead are spectacular. The trail is well-maintained and easy to follow. It can be done from the 260 trailhead up to the 300 road trailhead, or in reverse.
Gowan Trail/Tonto Natural Bridge (Difficulty – Easy)
Gowan Trail is a 0.4 mile heavily trafficked out and back trail located near Payson, Arizona that features a waterfall. Gowan Trail offers spectacular views of the Tonto National Bridge and leads down to an observation deck showcasing the water and caverns below.
The Tonto Natural Bridge is the largest travertine natural bridge in the world, and this trail allows you to see its magnificence another perspective. The trail is accessible year-round.
Woods Canyon Lake Trail is a 3.7-mile easy hike trail featuring a lake located just atop the Mogollon Rim a little north and east of Payson, Arizona. The trail is popular for bird watching as you will often see eagles, osprey, and herons. It is not uncommon to see one of the lakes bald eagles or ospreys diving out of the sky above the catch trout in the lake below.
The trail is best utilized March until November as the road is closed in the coldest winter months. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.
The Cabin Loop Trail System is the link between the earliest fire guard cabin network in this area of the Mogollon Rim and has its roots in the beginning of the Forest Service era here. The trail passes through some of the most spectacular country in Arizona and you will encounter a variety of landforms, vegetative communities, and a number of springs and perennial water sources.
This trail system is the above the Mogollon Rim and is made up of the following five hiking trails and cabins: (1) Houston Brothers Trail: Aspen Spring and Pinchot cabins; (2) Barbershop Trail: Buck Springs cabin; (3) U-Bar Trail: Dane Spring, Pinchot, and Buck Springs cabins, (4) Fred Haught Trail: Pinchot and General Springs cabins, (5) General Crook Trail: General Springs cabin, Mogollon Rim views.
Bear Canyon Lake Shoreline Trail (Difficulty - Easy to Moderate)
Bear Canyon Lake Shoreline Trail is an easy 3.5 mile loop around Bear Canyon Lake that features some of the best scenery in Rim Country. This Trail is not actually a complete loop unless are able to cross the spillway from the west shore to the dam. The east shore trail is more of fishermen's path and is a little more rugged than the western shoreline trail.
Located north and east of Payson, Arizona, the trail primarily follows the perimeter of the lake with occasional diversions into the forest. The trail is used by hikers, fishermen, and wildlife/scenery viewers.
The towering ponderosa pines provide shade and scenery. The lake has a population of bald eagles, and in the spring the forest floor is covered with violets, wild roses, and wild strawberries. Ponderosa Pine and Douglas firs are the predominant vegetation here.
Barnhardt Trail is a 10.2 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Payson, Arizona that features a lot of waterfalls and is rated as difficult. The trail is accessible year-round but because of its lower elevation it can be hot in the summer months and a high clearance vehicle is recommended for the dirt road accessing the trail head.
Besides the beautiful waterfalls this trail features unique geological formations, diverse plant life, and spectacular views. The waterfalls are generally at their peak in the spring.
North and east of Payson in the early 1880’s there was an attempt to bore a hole through the Mogollon Rim to facilitate a train route from Globe, AZ to Flagstaff, AZ. The project failed, but today you can still visit the tunnel by making the 1.7 mile hike up to the tunnel beginning at the Washington Park Trailhead north of Payson, Arizona as seen in the video. In the alternative, you can also make a short but steep .75 mile hike to the site from the top of the Mogollon Rim. The East Verde River runs along the trail and there are are also stunning rock formations in the forest near the trail.
Willow Springs Lake Trail is an easy 5.7 mile loop trail located on top of the Mogollon Rim north and east of Payson, Arizona and mostly follows the perimeter of the lake. The trail loops around Willow Springs Lake and features a variety of wildlife among tall Ponderosa pines and other vegetation.
If you are looking for a scenic water feature nature walk in the cool pines that is also suitable for all skill levels, Willow Springs Lake Loop may be a good choice.