Payson, Arizona is commonly known as the “Heart of Arizona” due to its central geographic location and rich natural landscape, surrounded almost entirely by the Tonto National Forest. Unlike drier desert regions of Arizona, the city enjoys a temperate Mediterranean climate and showcases a large number of coldwater lakes atop the spectacular Mogollon Rim formation. It is best known as the setting for author Zane Grey’s novels and films and as the site of the world’s oldest continuous rodeo, held annually since 1884. Outdoor activities abound in the region, including ample sites for fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and rock and crystal collection.
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Mogollon Rim is an escarpment that is part of the Colorado Plateau, extending more than 200 miles throughout Arizona between Yavapai County and the state’s border with New Mexico. Its name is a reference to Spanish Governor of New Mexico Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón, who served from 1712 to 1715. It is perhaps best known as the site of author Zane Grey’s famed hunting cabin, which was destroyed by fire in 1990. The rim showcases high sandstone and limestone cliff formations such as the Kaibab and Coconino cliffs and is home to beautiful canyons such as Fossil Creek and Pine Canyons. Expansive Ponderosa pine forests are showcased throughout the rim’s slopes and plateaus, with hiking and horseback trails meandering through forested regions. Fishing and backcountry skiing opportunities are also available, along with the Camp Colley outdoor adventure camp.
1824 S. Thompson St, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, Phone: 928-527-3600
2.Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
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Tonto Natural Bridge State Park showcases the world’s largest natural travertine bridge, which spans the length of a 400-foot tunnel and reaches 150 feet wide by 183 feet high. The natural bridge was originally discovered in 1877 by pioneer David Gowan, who constructed a lodge that housed members of his family until 1948 and is preserved on the National Register of Historic Places today. A variety of trails are offered throughout the park surrounding the bridge, including the 0.5-mile Pine Creek and Gowan Trails and the Waterfall Trail, which showcases a waterfall cave at its end. Picnic tables and a recreation area are also offered, along with a gift shop for visitors. The park’s Goodfellow Lodge may be rented for private special events, including weddings and overnight groups.
Highway 87, Pine, AZ 85544, Phone: 928-476-4202
3.Rim Country Museum
© Rim Country Museum
Rim Country Museum is a historical museum that is owned by the Northern Gila County Historical Society, operated in conjunction with the Arizona Historical Society. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays and showcases a variety of exhibits, including an exhibit on famed author Zane Grey, who depicted the region’s Old West history in his novels. Exhibits detail the region’s Apache indigenous and pioneer history, along with its participation in the late 19th-century gold rush and mining boom in Arizona. Other exhibits include a reconstructed sawmill and blacksmith shop and a display on the Payson Rodeo, considered to be the oldest continuous rodeo in the world. Guided tours are available for groups of 10 or more, including field trips for elementary and secondary school students.
700 S Green Valley Pkwy, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-474-3483
4.Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery
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Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery is located within the Tonto National Forest and is operated by the United States Forest Service’s Hatchery Program. The hatchery was constructed in 1937 and is located at an elevation of more than 6,500 feet, featuring residential and commercial structures for daily fishing operations that produce more than 15% of the state’s trout stock. Visitors to the hatchery can learn about the facility’s fish catches and production, which focuses on rainbow, brook, cutthroat, and Apache trout varieties. Wildlife and bird watching are also popular activities at the site, and several campgrounds and fishing spots are offered near the facility throughout the national forest.
3898 N Tonto Creek Rd # 1, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-478-4200
5.Green Valley Park
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Green Valley Park was dedicated in October of 1997 and spans more than 30 acres throughout the Payson region, including three lakes that cover 13 acres of water surface and 17 acres of day-use public land. The park has won awards for its cooperative water reclamation efforts, which reuses wastewater for park landscaping irrigation and civic reuse. It is a partner facility with Arizona’s Urban Fishing Program, an initiative of the state’s Game and Fish Department, which strives to stock urban fishing areas to provide an alternative for remote and resort fishing spots. The park is also a popular spot for boating, picnicking, and jogging, with nearly four miles of trails offered throughout the facility.
1000 W Country Club Dr, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-474-5242
6.Mazatzal Hotel and Casino
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Mazatzal Hotel and Casino is operated by the Tonto Apache Indian Reservation and is located at a height of over 5,000 feet. More than 400 progressive and single reel slot machines are offered at the casino, along with live blackjack and poker tables, video poker games, and weekly bingo tournaments. A players’ club offers exclusive member benefits, including dining and hotel rewards for frequent casino visitors. The resort’s all-suite hotel features spacious, comfortable rooms overlooking the Mazatzal Mountains, with all guests receiving access to amenities such as the hotel’s indoor swimming pool, spa, and fitness center. Two full-service restaurants serve classic American favorites, and $10 daily lunch buffets highlight seafood options. Concerts, comedy shows, and DJ sets are presented periodically at the resort’s lounge.
Highway 87, Mile Marker 251, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-474-6044
7.Rancho Tonto Catch-A-Trout
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Rancho Tonto Catch-A-Trout is located on the former homestead property of “Green Valley” Sam Haught, best known as the rescuer of historic MGM mascot Leo the Lion. The property borders beautiful Tonto Creek and is open as a day-use fishing facility for catching rainbow trout. All-inclusive fishing prices offer visitors pole, bait, net, and bucket rental, with free cleaning, packaging, and professional assistance available for all catches. Visitors only pay for fish caught, with no limits on catches and no proof of license required. A three-bedroom rental guest house is available for fishers, sleeping nine guests and offering amenities such as DirecTV.
HC2 Box 98, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-478-0002
8.Naco Paleo Site
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Naco Paleo Site is located approximately 12 miles east of the city of Payson near the turnoff for Kohl’s Ranch and is a popular spot for fossil collection. The site features significant Pennsylvanian Shale-Limestone deposits that collected approximately 300 million years ago, when much of Arizona was submerged 50 feet underwater. Invertebrate fossil collection is permitted at the site, which is rich with fossils of modern-day fish, reptile, and insect ancestors. A large parking lot area is provided at the site, accommodating standard vehicles, motorhomes, and travel trailers. Visitors should bring their own tools for excavation and should note that vertebrate fossil collection without a permit is strictly prohibited by the Bureau of Land Management.
AZ-260, Payson, AZ 85541
9.Shoofly Indian Ruins
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Shoofly Indian Ruins are located near Payson atop Houston Mesa and preserve a large living complex formerly occupied by Mogollon indigenous people between 1000 and 1250 A.D. At the height of the complex’s use, it was believed to have contained nearly 80 structures, including a large two-story central building with 26 rooms, and housed a population of as many as 250 people. The ruins were initially discovered in 1940 by archaeologist John Hughes and excavated in the mid-1980s by a team from Arizona State University. Today, the 3.75-acre complex’s ruins are visible to the public via self-guided tours, including the rock foundations of many buildings and the remains of a large stone wall fortification around the complex.
1-5 Houston Mesa Rd, Payson, AZ 85541
10.Ellison Creek Waterfall
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Ellison Creek Waterfall is a waterfall and swimming hole that is located between Payson and the Mogollon Rim, accessible via a moderate one-mile hike from a parking lot off Houston Mesa Road. A dirt road to the waterfall traverses areas of dense foliage and slate formations, traveling alongside a river for half its duration. At its terminus, it provides access to a waterfall at an elevation of 3,650 feet that serves as a popular local swimming hole at its base. Dogs are permitted on the trail and at the waterfall on leashes, and restroom facilities are provided at the trailhead. Visitors should note that the waterfall can site be very busy on summer weekends and are advised to wear slip-proof shoes for safety navigating the area near the waterfall.
Ellison Creek, Arizona 85541
11.Gerardo's Firewood Cafe
© Gerardo's Firewood Café
Gerardo's Firewood Café is a family-owned Italian restaurant that was opened in 2000 by chef Gerardo Moceri, who had relocated to the Arizona region two years prior to cook for the Boulder’s Resort. The restaurant serves a wide variety of classic Italian favorites, including specialty brick-oven pizzas, gourmet pasta dishes, and handcrafted calzones, with gluten-free options available upon request. An all-student staff from Payson’s high school culinary program operates the restaurant’s kitchen, supervised by Moceri as a training program for aspiring chefs. Catering for private special events, including weddings, birthday parties, and corporate events, is available with 48 hours advance reservation.
512 N Beeline Hwy, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-468-6500
© Macky's Grill
Macky's Grill was opened in 1997 by Oregon natives Greg and Cari Day. Following Greg’s death from cancer in 2016, the restaurant remains a family-owned restaurant, operated by the couple’s children and providing Rim Country’s best service in a casual, community-focused environment. The cowboy-themed grill serves a wide variety of American and Southwestern fare, including creative bar appetizers, gourmet hot dogs and burgers, and steak, rib, and seafood entrees. Sandwich platters add cups of the restaurant’s signature Macky’s Famous chili or soup, served with fries, coleslaw, or pasta salad. The restaurant also features an extensive beer and wine menu and offers a weather-permitting dog-friendly patio.
201 W Main St, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-474-7411
© Fargo's Steakhouse
Fargo's Steakhouse is operated by restaurant industry veterans Rick and Jeri Stockman and was opened in 2004 following the owners’ move to Arizona from Tennessee. The steakhouse strives to be a community gathering place destination, offering daily lunch and dinner serve and a seasonal dog-friendly patio. Lunch options include artisanal wraps, sandwiches, and burgers and a variety of creative appetizers, while dinner selections focus on gourmet steak, fish, and seafood entrees. Reservations are available for groups of six or more diners, with call-ahead seating service also offered a maximum of 30 minutes prior to group arrival.
620 East Hwy 260, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-474-7455
14.Mogollon Moose Bakery
© Mogollon Moose Bakery
Mogollon Moose Bakery was opened by executive chef Kristi Church, who strives to bring health-conscious fare to the Payson region. All of the bakery’s fare is crafted from scratch, with menu options influenced by Church’s experience working as a chef in Alaska. Custom-blend coffee is provided by local company Rock Top Roasters, inspired by the roasts of Alaska’s Kaladi Brothers Coffee. A wide variety of breakfast and lunch fare is served, including healthy breakfast bowls, soup and sandwich combination platters, and artisanal panini sandwiches. To-go side dishes are available for purchase, along with the bakery’s wide selection of light-gluten muffins, bars, pastries, and cakes.
407 W Main St, Payson, AZ 85541, Phone: 928-363-4049
14 Best Things to Do in Payson, Arizona
- Mogollon Rim, Photo: Courtesy of Tyger - Fotolia.com
- Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth Keifer - Fotolia.com
- Rim Country Museum, Photo: Rim Country Museum
- Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, Photo: Courtesy of karagrubis - Fotolia.com
- Green Valley Park, Photo: Courtesy of Victoria - Fotolia.com
- Mazatzal Hotel and Casino, Photo: Courtesy of Joshua Resnick - Fotolia.com
- Rancho Tonto Catch-A-Trout, Photo: Courtesy of Chepko Danil - Fotolia.com
- Naco Paleo Site, Photo: Courtesy of Rainer Fuhrmann - Fotolia.com
- Shoofly Indian Ruins, Photo: Courtesy of dachux21 - Fotolia.com
- Ellison Creek Waterfall, Photo: Courtesy of Fotolia.com
- Gerardo's Firewood Cafe, Photo: Gerardo's Firewood Café
- Macky's Grill, Photo: Macky's Grill
- Fargo's Steakhouse, Photo: Fargo's Steakhouse
- Mogollon Moose Bakery, Photo: Mogollon Moose Bakery
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of adogslifephoto - Fotolia.com