This stunning trail that has granite canyons towering over pristine blue-green water has probably been on my list of hikes to do in Arizona forever now. However, I finally made it happen when one of my close friends moved to Payson and we went to go together to check it out. Water Wheel Falls is easily one of the most beautiful short hikes to do in Payson.
Water Wheel Falls is so scenic that it has multiple swimming holes, granite canyons, and waterfalls that make it one of the most beautiful trails in the state. You cannot find yourself bored here if you enjoy being by water and if you’re looking for a summer escape to beat the heat. Don’t be surprised if you see so many people, especially on the weekend, hiking here.
About Water Wheel Falls
Length: 1.6 miles
Elevation gain: 150 feet
Route type: Out & back
Hiking level: Moderate
Water Wheel Falls got its name from this old wheel that is shown at the beginning of the trail. It was built in 1930 and this wheel was used to power up an ore crusher, making the process to extract gold possible.
Water Wheel Falls’ water comes from the East Verde River. It does have narrow gorges surrounding the blue-green water, which gives people the perfect opportunity to do some cliff-diving (exercised with caution). There are several sections along the river where you can swim around anywhere. You can also find several spots for sunbathing and there’s also plenty of shade to be found from the trees.
Since this trail is getting more and more traffic, you need to purchase a permit in able to park by the trail. You can get the Discovery Pass permit from a few of these areas listed here in Tonto National Forest OR you can go by Shoofly Ruins, just a few miles away from the hiking spot of Water Wheel Falls, and find the pay station there. It costed us $12 for the day. You want to present this in your dashboard or hang it up; I do not recommend you try to get away not purchasing a permit/pass nor park along the signs that says “No parking here” when the parking lot fills up because those are risky moves.
As beautiful as Water Wheel Falls look, it is known for a tragic accident back in 2017 when a flash flood took the lives of 10 family members when it started off in Ellison Creek and down to the pools. Therefore, this trail is known for flash floods occurring and one way to find out when is NOT the right time to go is to check up on the weather: any chance of rain is not a good place to be here.
Speaking of Ellison Creek, although it is a section of its own from the trail, you have an option to continue and go farther from Water Wheel Falls to Ellison Creek Cascades, where a waterfall with more blue-green water can be found.
Water Wheel Falls is also kid-friendly and pet-friendly, but your pet must be on a leash.
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What to Wear to Water Wheel Falls
Water Wheel Falls is one of those hikes where you will walk through slippery sandy rocks and then give you an opportunity to swim after. I recommend you wear hiking boots or hiking shoes to walk comfortably first through the rocky surfaces and bring an addition of water shoes. So packing a backpack to fit your other pair of shoes along with plenty of water and snacks is smart.
Since there’s not always going to be shade in parts of the swim holes and gorges, I recommend to always wear sunscreen and of course, to wear your bathing suit under your hiking clothes. The water is also going to be very cold (although swimmable; this is mainly because it’s snowmelt), so if you want to swim but are bothered by getting cold easily or risking hypothermia, I recommend wearing wetsuits or thermal rashguards over your bathing suits.
Hiking Water Wheel Falls
The trail starts off pretty easy and flat through sandy pathways with lots of trees present. You’ll find small pools and falls running through and some picnic tables set up. After, you’ll start to see some more rocks to hike over, which can have some steepness to them.
A quarter-mile in, you will see this granite hill and granite canyons that overlook the river. Get to this spot and swim in the river and you’ll have an amazing opportunity to see the waterfalls at a good distance (it was hard to photograph standing on the rocks close to the river). You may also see some water trickling from just standing on the granite hills.
As you keep walking uphill on the steep granite hill, you get to see different angles of the mesmerizing geology of the canyon and see some water flowing off of them. When you past this, you will then be led to see the top of the waterfall I was referring to.
As I mentioned above, you always have the option to continue farther by going into Ellison Creek Cascades and if you follow along the banks for another mile, you’ll meet Ellison Falls.