Hiking Water Wheel Falls, Arizona

A hike near Payson showed brilliant colors
A hike near Payson showed brilliant colors

Hiking the Water Wheel Falls hike near Payson, AZ delighted all of our senses. See a map of the Water Wheel Falls hike at the bottom of this post.

If you’ve been following along on my 50 Hikes 50 States Hiking Project, either my husband, my daughter or both generally join me on my hikes. For this hike in Arizona, my 16-year old daughter joined me near Payson, Arizona, to hike the Water Wheel Falls hike.

Hiking with Teenagers

We sat for many moments taking it all in at this hike near Payson, AZ
We sat for many moments taking it all in at this hike near Payson, AZ

I first want to say that my kid is amazing, and anyone would be lucky to have her. She’s a high achieving, smart, analytical young adult who will change the world. She’s pissed at Boomers, she hates being mistaken for a Millennial, and she owns her future. She’s also 16.

Which means drama is high. And while hiking through Arizona with my teen, I learned all I needed to know about high school drama.

My daughter attends boarding school where she’s been there for just a couple of months. As a mom, I have fretted if we made the right decision to send her there, and despite positive phone calls and assurances, I couldn’t wait to get my arms around her and hug her. There’s nothing like being face to face with your kid, getting a hug, and really understanding if your kid is okay or not. Teens take change in big and little strides. I wanted to make sure the most recent strides were even-keeled and healthy.

Picking a Hike in Arizona

The Water Wheel Falls hike near Payson has it all
The Water Wheel Falls hike near Payson has it all

So picking a hike in Arizona stressed me out. First, Arizona’s geography, from red rocks to canyons, deserts to forests, sand to stone, fascinates me. Arizona is a favorite state, and picking a hike within it was a challenge. Trying to keep to my criteria–a 3-5 mile loop, moderate skill level, and quintessentially unique to the state–was difficult to determine for Arizona.

When you think Arizona, is your first thought “Grand Canyon” or “hot” or “desert?” But half the state is forested in Ponderosa while the other half grows stands of saguaro and organ pipe cacti. Like California and Colorado, Arizona’s geography touches on many ecosystems. Thus, when picking my hike for Arizona, I tried to get a little bit of everything into the hike. This was not easy, especially because my daughter would be with me.

A Fun Hike in Arizona

Lots of falls at the Water Wheel Falls hike in AZ
Lots of water falls at the Water Wheel Falls hike in AZ

Back to the teen.

Because I wanted to investigate and dig deep with her to confirm her message that all was well, I knew I had to pick a fun hike. One where she would open up and talk.

For her, “fun” is not hot, long, hard, dry, steep, nor boring. It must have a water source: a waterfall always wins. It also must have something challenging about it; ladders, boulders, bridges.

Combine the teen’s needs with my original criteria and add in a dose of Arizona, and I had my work cut out for me.

I reviewed tons of Arizona websites and dug into AllTrails. I asked Hiking Jason on Twitter (@jasoncleghorn) for a suggestion. Although I loved that he suggested Sedona, I wanted to stay away from its tourism for this hike. It would conflict with the conversations I was hoping to have with my daughter. Plus, I was headed to Sedona later in the week with the rest of my family and wanted to savor its beauty then with them.

Have I blabbered enough about this decision? And yes, it did keep me up at night.

The Water Wheel Falls Hike

Yup, there's even a water wheel at the falls.
Yup, there’s even a water wheel at the falls.

Finally, I decided. I picked my kid up from school, and we headed east from Camp Verde through the Gila Mountains to be a bit north of Scottsdale in an area called Payson.

Payson, Arizona’s Mediterranean climate and ode to Zane Grey, the great American west author, make for a great backdrop to the Tonto National Forest which surrounds the city. Within the forest, you’ll find great hikes. Fall was in the air, the cottonwoods and hardwoods beamed bright yellows, and my daughter giggled when I told her we were going to a waterfall. Who knew that the geographic center of Arizona would have water, red rocks, canyons, cacti, pines, and hardwoods? Granted, there was no desert, but I figured we hit 4 out of 5. Bonus!

The Water Wheel Falls Hikes starts about 8 miles outside of Payson (Directions: From the intersection of 87 A and 260 (in Payson), take 260 north for 2 miles to Houston Mesa Road. Turn right / north on Houston Mesa Road and continue to 7.75 miles to the Water Wheel Hiking Trailhead, on the right side of the road.) You’ll need to pay a $10 day use fee; my America the Beautiful Pass didn’t work. Bring cash. The fee is from April 1 to Oct 31. A well-marked US Forest Service parking lot fills quickly in the high season. There’s a compost toilet, but not much information on the bulletin board. What you need to know: pack in, pack out. Bring a bathing suit.

Be sure to look closely at the water wheel construction
Be sure to look closely at the water wheel construction

To the left of the compost toilet is the trailhead. To the left of that is the trailhead’s name sake. Built in the early 1900s out of old milk can jugs, a water wheel churned and crushed ore to extract gold. Near the trailhead, you’ll also find a memorial. A flash flood crashed through here in the 2017 monsoon season, taking about a dozen hikers with it. So, if you’re here during monsoon season in the summer, pay attention to warnings and weather apps.


Head up the trail. We enjoyed it on a weekday in the Fall; I suspect the summer draws large crowds to swim in the fun swimming holes. On my feet, I wore trail shoes; my daughter had on hiking boots. I wished for my boots.

The trail starts in sand and rock under large sycamore trees. Soon you’ll see the East Verde River flowing with chilly mountain water, and you’ll come across several beach areas to enjoy and wade into the swimming holes. Then the trail comes to a large red rock, slick-rock feature you’ll need to boulder up, around, and across.

Bouldering a Hike

Do you want to go bouldering near Payson?
Do you want to go bouldering near Payson?

Bouldering is where my daughter came alive! The edges of the slick rock abutted the deep canyons where the stream jetted through the narrow passageways, gushing into cascading waterfalls. She couldn’t resist sitting on the edge and posing for Instagram while my heart jumped out of my chest due to the ledges and edges. Yet, the more she climbed, the more I heard about her friends and her life at boarding school. The challenge opened her up, and I learned more than ever about her life.

Whereas this couple decided to cross the creek, we did not. My legs couldn’t reach!

Climbing the slick rock, red with black streaks of iron, isn’t difficult. Just take your time and find assured footing. We scrambled and bouldered for a couple hundred feet, only to have to go down to the water level and through some downed trees. From there, we scrambled again up another slick rock face to the juncture of the East Verde River with Ellison Creek. Sadly, the water was too high for us to cross, but the trail continues for another mile or so up the Ellison Creek to more cascades and more swimming holes.

By this time, I had heard all the high school drama and also had heard how she was handling all the high school drama.

She’s fine.

She’s really great.

Hiking with teenagers is the best
Hiking with teenagers is the best

And, she loved the hike so much she wants to plan it as a school outing.

This was big.

For my daughter to like a hike I picked and for her to want to bring her friends back to it is a 100% score!

Hungry, we headed into Payson and grabbed some great Mexican food at La Sierra. Get the spinach enchiladas! We topped it off with a frozen yogurt next door (we got a 10% discount with the La Sierra receipt.)

Even though we had to cut the hike short due to the high water, we’ll both be back again. Perhaps together, with our friends, or alone. Who knows, but I know Water Wheel Falls will see me again. In my bathing suit. With my boots on.

What You Need to Know (Click for interactive map)

When hiking Water Wheel Falls, bring a bathing suit in the warmer months so you can enjoy the swimming holes. Also bring water, snacks, and appropriate clothing for the weather. The altitude is also quite high, so bring more water than you think necessary. Water will help with the Arizona dryness and the higher altitude.

Map of Water Wheel Falls hike near Payson, AZ
Map of Water Wheel Falls hike near Payson, AZ

In the map below, we hiked the red trail. We couldn’t cross the river, so we did not do the yellow trail, although that’s where the Water Wheel Falls trail officially goes. The red trail was about 1.5 miles round trip. The yellow plus red would be about 4 miles round trip.

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