A quarter-mile interpretive trail winds through scant ruins of this prehistoric settlement northeast of town. Occupied 1000-1250, it had a stone wall encircling courtyards, plazas, and about 80 rooms. Part of the trail has been paved for easy access. A pleasant picnic area lies nearby. From AZ 87 on the north edge of Payson, turn northeast three miles on Houston Mesa Road (keep right at the fork about two miles in), then turn right at the sign to a parking area.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
Deposits left by mineral springs have created the world's largest natural travertine bridge—and it's still growing! The springs flow as they have for many thousands of years, making the massive arch even larger and watering lush vegetation. You might not even realize you're standing on top when you arrive—the bridge measures 400 feet in width, 183 feet in height, and spans a canyon 150 feet wide. Graceful travertine formations underneath look like those inside a limestone cave. A small waterfall cascades over the top of the arch, forming jewel-like droplets of water that sparkle in the sun and create pretty rainbows. The park (928/476-4202, $3/person age 14 and up) is open 8 a.m.–7 p.m. daily from Memorial to Labor Day weekends, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily Nov.–March, and 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily the rest of the year; closed Christmas. From Payson, go 11 miles north on AZ 87, then turn left three miles on a paved road at the sign. The last 1.5 miles are steep and winding; it's recommended that vehicles and trailers over 16 feet use the parking lot at the top of the grade.
You can admire both sides of the bridge from viewpoints at the top and from trails in the canyon. Wheelchair users can reach three of the viewpoints. On Waterfall Trail, you descend steps part way down the canyon to a spring-fed waterfall for a close-up look at travertine formations and some caves; the trail is only 300 feet long one-way. Gowan Loop Trail drops 200 feet in elevation to an observation platform at the lower end of the bridge, where you can admire the waterfall and explore the inside of the bridge's vast tunnel-like interior; the trail continues across Pine Creek and ascends the far canyon wall, then loops back across the top of the bridge in about half a mile. The short and steep Anna Mae Trail has some loose rock on a descent to the canyon floor just upstream from the bridge. Pine Creek Trail descends to the creek above the bridge; markers along the boulder-strewn creekbed show the way down to the bridge; rim to bridge is about half a mile. Adventurous hikers can rock scramble over huge boulders on a route through the bridge, most easily done in the upstream direction between Gowan Loop and Anna Mae or Pine Creek Trails; high water may occasionally prevent access. For safety and preservation of the environment, park staff ask that you don't enter caves, climb on moss or cliffs, and don't go under the waterfall; there's no swimming or wading inside the bridge. Visitors often see javelina on the park grounds. Pets cannot go on the trails, but they're okay on a leash atop the bridge.
Picnic areas in this pretty forested valley make fine spots for lunch; groups can reserve day-use ramadas. Interpretive programs are offered on some days. A gift shop in the lodge sells books on the region. Groups can arrange tours and overnight accommodations.
This little town lies 15 miles north of Payson amidst pine-forested hills. Pine-Strawberry Museum (928/467-3547, www.pinestrawhs.org) has good pioneer exhibits in a 1917former LDS church beside the Community Center; it's open 1–4 p.m. Sun. and 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Sat. from May 15 to Oct. 15, then 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Sat. the rest of the year. Pine-Strawberry Arts & Crafts Guild sponsors arts and craft festivals in Pine on the weekends of Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day.
The Randall House (3821 N. Hwy. 87, 928/476-4077, Wed.-Sun. for breakfast and lunch, $5-8) has a home-like setting and dates back to 1881; a guest cottage next door costs $125 d including breakfast. Pine Victorian Bed & Breakfast (928/978-4018 or 877/974-6329, $145-245 d including tax) has a different theme for each room, all of which have a private bath; cabins available too. Rimside Grill & Cabins (3270 N. Hwy. 87 on the south side of Pine at MP 267, 928/476-3349 Fri.-Sun. for breakfast, Wed.-Sun. for lunch and dinner, call for winter hours, $8-14) serves American food in the dining room and on the deck and patio; there's often weekend entertainment in summer; the small cabin costs $85 d and the large one with kitchen is $125-150. The post office lies across from the museum. Pine has a few trailer parks that may accept overnighters.
This tiny village sits just below the Mogollon Rim, 19 miles north of Payson. Wild strawberries used to grow here, but nowadays they're hard to find. Turn west 1.5 miles on Fossil Springs Road at Strawberry Lodge to see Arizona's oldest schoolhouse (928/476-3097, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat. and noon–4 p.m. Sun.); pioneers built the one-room log structure in 1885. The very scenic Fossil Springs Road continues west and descends a long grade to Fossil Creek, connects with an access road to Childs on the Verde River, then joins AZ 260 near Camp Verde; high-clearance vehicles do best on this largely unpaved road. See the Red Rock Ranger District for trail information in the Fossil Creek area.
The Strawberry Festival in June has entertainment, crafts, and strawberries.
The more expensive rooms in Strawberry Lodge (Fossil Creek Rd. and Hwy. 87, 928/476-3333, $50-70 d) include fireplaces and balconies; an American restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, $8-16. Cabins on Strawberry Hill Resort (5306 Hwy. 87, 928/476-4252 local or 480/575-7866 Phoenix area, www.azcabins.com, $150 d) have kitchenettes and wood-burning stoves. Each room has its own personality in the Windmill Corner Inn (5075 Hwy. 87, 928/476-3064, $63 d weekdays, $78-93 d Fri.-Sat.). Giuseppe's (5076 Hwy. 87, 928/476-3355, Fri.-Sun. for lunch, Wed.-Sun. for dinner, $10-24) serves fine Italian cuisine including steaks, seafood, and pizza.
Tonto Creek Hatchery
Rainbow, brook, cutthroat, and sometimes Apache trout grow up at this hatchery just below the Mogollon Rim. Visitors can take the interpretive walk, learn about the life history of trout, peer into the incubator and production rooms, and view fingerlings and catchable trout in outdoor raceways. A show pond has large fish that you can feed. Trout in the raceways shouldn't be touched or fed because of the danger of spreading diseases. Open daily 8 a.m.–4 p.m.; 928/478-4200. From Payson, head east 17 miles on AZ 260 to Kohl's Ranch Lodge, then turn north 4.2 miles on Forest Road 289 at the sign.
Rancho Tonto Catch-A-Trout (928/478-0002) offers fishing in a pond at an old homestead 2.1 miles in on Forest Road 289, then right 0.2 mile. You must pay for what you catch. An attractive pine log guest house ($200 weekdays, $250 Fri.–Sat.) has three bedrooms and can accommodate up to nine people.
Highline National Recreation Area
Highline Trail weaves in and out for 51 miles beneath the cliffs of the Mogollon Rim. Settlers built the trail in the 1800s to link their ranches and homesteads. Today hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bicyclists use the many interconnecting trails for a wide variety of journeys.
Pine Trailhead, at the west end, lies 15 miles north of Payson just off AZ 87. Two-Sixty Trailhead marks the east end, 27 miles east of Payson just off AZ 260. You can also reach the Highline from four other trailheads, from trails descending the Mogollon Rim above, and from valleys below. You can see effects of the 1990 Dude Fire on the central section. The Tonto National Forest Highline Trails Guide offers a map and brief trail descriptions; pick it up at Forest Service offices or the Payson Chamber of Commerce.
Native Americans knew this vast country of desert and mountains as Mazatzal, "Land of the Deer." The name still fits, as only scattered ruins tell of the tribes, pioneers, and miners who passed this way. The wilderness covers over 252,500 acres beginning eight miles west of Payson and extending 30 miles south. Climate zones range from the Lower Sonoran Desert, with saguaro and palo verde (2,200–4,000 feet); up through the dry grasslands, oaks, pinyons, and junipers of the Upper Sonoran Desert (4,000–7,000 feet); to the Transition Zone, with ponderosa pines and a few pockets of firs on the upper slopes (7,000–7,900 feet). You might meet deer, javelina, black bear, or even a mountain lion. Hikers in this big country should be self-sufficient with maps, compass, and water; you can't rely on springs and streams in the summer. The 2004 Willow Fire burned more than half of the wilderness and damaged many trails, so check with the Payson Ranger District Office (928/474-7900) for current conditions.
On to Young