Looking for a desert escape in Arizona? Keep reading for a guide to Payson, Arizona and things to do: a small town with huge charm bursting with activities.
Towards the beginning of our 7 week road trip, we spent about a week in Arizona. The desert in June is HOT, y’all. But magical. We loved every town we visited in Arizona and I can’t wait to share more with you! Let’s start with our first stop: Payson.
We spent 3 days in Payson towards the middle of June. This was our fist longer stay with the camper and we loved it! The heat of the desert in June is obviously a little unbearable during the middle of the day, so we stuck to early morning and late evening activities. We were shocked with some of the landscapes we saw. We did a hike to Water Wheel Falls and were so surprised how cold the water was! Many of our neighbors were escaping Phoenix for the weekend. It seemed to be a popular destination for locals, which is always a good sign.
Within this guide, you’ll find the perfect places to stay and what to do. Be sure to let me know in the comments if you’ve visited Payson and I missed things to do or if you plan to visit in the future!
Table of Contents
Before You Go
Payson, Arizona is a small city located on the eastern portion of the state within the Tonto National Forest. Payson is known as the heart of Arizona rim country. It is almost in the geographical center of Arizona! If you like to travel off the beaten path, this is the city for you. While Payson is not typically a big tourist destination, it’s a great sized city with tons of hiking and exploring to be done. You won’t have to fight huge crowds to get good views and the town is perfectly sized to where everything is pretty easy to locate. Many Phoenix citizens love to come here for weekend getaways. Payson is also delightfully affordable. We absolutely loved our time in Payson (aside from the blistering heat wave) and we think you will too!
How to get here
Payson is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but not too far from some bigger Arizona cities. If you’re flying, you’ll definitely need a rental car to get to Payson from there airport. The closest major airport is Phoenix, about 1.5 hours away.
If you’re on a road trip, Payson would be a good stop on your way to Page, AZ, Utah, or if coming from the west to Albuquerque.
When to go
Arizona is HOT in the summer and cold in the winter. Because it’s in the desert, the weather can change at a moment’s notice and is often to the extremes. We were here in early June and lucky for us, the entire Western US was experiencing a major heat wave. The best time to visit would be spring or autumn if you’re planning to do a lot of hiking. Which you should.
If summer is the only time you have, just plan to do things early in the morning and late in the evening. We utilized the middle of the day to take naps and avoid the hottest part of the day.
Winters can be chilly. Not like Canada or the tips of the Colorado Rockies, so it’s doable just pack plenty of layers.
Where to Stay
If you’re like us and have a rig/trailer/tent, we highly recommend Payson Campground! It was awesome. Super convenient to town, plenty of shaded spots, and full hook ups!
Otherwise, if you are staying in a traditional home not on wheels, try these options:
Budget: Quality Inn Payson
Median: Best Western Inn of Payson
Luxury: Mazatzal Hotel and Casino
What to eat
Do not leave Payson without hitting up Danzeisen Creamery and having a shake stack! It was DELICIOUS. They’re also known for their cotton candy milk. We didn’t try it because that’s not our jam, but it’s an award winner so maybe you’ll want to try it!
CRNE Tacos Fuego
What to do in Payson, Arizona
Payson is located right in the middle of Tonto National Forest. There is a ton of hiking and exploring to be done here!
If you’re here in the summer, make sure you do the Water Wheel hike. It’s about 1.2 miles (2.4 roundtrip) to an awesome swimming hole. Just know, the water is FREEZING but very refreshing after a good hike!
The Boulders Loop Trailhead
Horton Creek Trail
Monument Peak Loop
Visit the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park: This was something we didn’t know even existed but we’re so glad we did it! We visited in about an hour. The trails to the bridge are very short. It comes to a travertine bridge that you can explore under and around!
Verde River Hot Springs: If you’ve taken my advice and are here any time other than the blistering summer, make sure you take a suit and plan to soak in these hot springs! They are 99-102 degrees year round and only about a mile hike off the trail!
Rim Country Museum and Zane Grey Cabin: Here you can learn about early Arizona life as well as visit the cabin of famous Western author, Zane Grey. To be honest, I have never heard of this person but it has a lot of reviews and is on almost every “must do” list for the area!
Payson Farmer’s Market: If you find yourself in Payson on a Saturday, don’t miss the farmer’s market at Sawmill Crossing Plaza
Day trips from Payson
Drive Scenic Rim Road: I’m putting this as a day trip because the entire route is over 50 miles. Scenic Rim road follows the Mogollon rim and has incredible views
Meteor Crater: About 2 hours away, you can see a meteor impact site!
Petrified Forest National Park: Also 2 hours away, this national park is perfect for a day trip. You can drive through the whole park in about an hour or choose to spend a bit more time and take a few hikes! It’s also one of the few national parks that are dog friendly.
Let me know in the comments if you plan your trip using this guide! What did I miss?