Located in the high elevation of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, the scenery and weather in Payson may seem more like Maine than a town in one of the hottest states of America’s vast southwest.
The area is rich in history which includes the many Native Americans that once resided nearby, railroads, and the mining industry.
Nowadays Payson’s economy is largely built on tourism and the dollars it generates from local, national, and international visitors.
The city of Payson has an excellent website detailing all the sites and activities the high mountain town has to offer. It’s worth a look and will help you spend your time here efficiently.
Below are 13 things to do in Payson.
1. Rim Country Museum and Zane Grey Cabin
Of all the historic sites you’re likely to visit in Payson, perhaps the most fascinating and educational will be the Rim Country Museum and Zane Grey Cabin.
Located on South Green Valley Parkway in Payson, the facilities are operated by the local historical society, and will give you an awesome glimpse into early Arizona life.
You’ll learn about the life of famous author Zane Grey, who was a prolific and much-loved author of western novels that still sell well today, decades after his death.
Other favorite exhibits are the Apache Display, Payson Rodeo Heritage Display, and the Blacksmith Shop Display.
2. Payson Farmers Market
Located on South Beeline Highway in Payson, the Payson Farmers Market has been going strong since 2009, and has been a popular gathering place since then.
The market is held at Sawmill Crossing Plaza, and takes place on Saturday mornings, but only in late fall and summer, so check online before you go.
More than just a place to grab some produce and hit the road, the farmers market is a social event that features food that’s grown or produced within 100 miles of Payson, which is an efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce and distribute food.
Keep an eye out for cool treats like wild Arizona honey and natural agave nectar.
3. Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery
Fish hatcheries are cool places to learn about fish, and how they’re introduced into the wild to bolster populations of native fish.
Located on North Tonto Creek Road, the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery is free to visit, and if you or the little ones would like to feed the baby fish, called fry, that’s OK too.
You’ll see the fish, which are segregated by size, from the time they hatch to when they’re nearly ready for the area’s lakes, rivers and streams.
Among the fished reared here are rainbow, brown and cut-throat trout, which are favorites of local anglers.
4. Green Valley Park
Since late 1996, Green Valley Park on West Country Club Drive in Payson has been a favorite spot for locals and visitors alike.
It’s recognized as having some of the best ‘urban fishing’ in the country, and with nearly 17 acres of walking trails, trees, a lake, and covered picnic areas, finding enough things to do won’t be a problem.
There’s plenty of free parking, and there’s no admission fee either.
The park is one of the most scenic you’re every likely to visit, and it hosts live music and other events in the warm months, so check it out.
5. Mazatzal Wilderness Area
Located about an hour northeast of Phoenix near Payson, the Mazatzal Mountains were referred to as ‘the place with many deer’ in the language of the Native Americans who inhabited the area long before the settlers arrived.
The highest peak in the area is nearly 8,000 feet, and in addition to deer, it’s home to hundreds of species of birds, and bears, mountain lions, and coyotes too.
The Mazatzal Wilderness area spans more than 250,000 acres, and was founded in 1940 to protect the land and its flora and fauna.
The easiest access is from the Barnhardt Mesa parking area, which leads to many trails of varying difficulties. There aren’t any facilities, so bring food and water.
6. Deming Pioneer Park
Deming Pioneer Park in Payson is operated by the Northern Gila County Historical Society, and has just reopened after some much needed renovations.
The park is at the corner of Main and McLane, and was opened nearly 15 years ago to pay homage to the brave pioneers who explored and settled in the area more than a century ago.
The park features many windows, behind which are different displays representing the town of Payson’s geological history, Native American history and culture, aspects of pioneer life, and the life and history of the pioneers themselves.
The park is a great place to stretch those legs and learn a thing or two also.
7. Do a Little Fossil Hunting
Though it may not look like it, hundreds of millions of years ago the majority of Arizona was covered by a shallow sea that was less than 100 feet deep.
The creatures that swam through the water back would seem like props in a cheap science fiction flick these days.
Over the millennia, the seas dried up and were replaced by bone-dry deserts and upland mountains, but the previous inhabitants left their remains behind, and many of them are easily found at the Paleo Site in Payson.
You never know what you’ll find chipping through the flaky rock, but it’s a lot of fun and the little ones will get a big kick out of it.
8. Go Fishing
The Mogollon Rim surrounding Payson is a favorite of Arizona anglers from all parts of the state, who flock to the area for its beautiful lakes, rivers, and streams that are full of native and stocked fish of many different species.
The streams in particular are home to many native species of trout, and some of the larger reservoirs are home to stocked game fish that aren’t native to the area, like large and smallmouth bass, walleye, and even northern pike, which in case you’ve never seen one, look like barracuda and can get as big as a man’s leg.
Check out the Arizona Fish and Game Department’s webpage for specifics.
9. Shoofly Village Ruins
Though originally discovered in 1930 by an archaeologist exploring the canyons around Payson, the Shoofly Village Ruins weren’t studied or excavated until more than 50 years later.
In the early years of the 20th century, Native American ruins were much more common, thus nobody took them very seriously.
It’s estimated that the Shoofly Ruins were inhabited between 750 and 1,000 years ago, by the Mogollon people.
Just a short drive up Arizona Highway 87 from Payson, the ruins are easily accessible, and there are restrooms and a picnic area if you’d like to relax and have a snack after seeing the sights.
10. Hike the Railroad Tunnel Trail
Railroads have always been important drivers of Arizona’s economy.
Even in the 20th century, Payson wasn’t accessible by trucks due to poor, seasonal roads that were impassable for much of the year.
In the 1880s, a rail line was proposed to run from Globe, Arizona to Flagstaff, that would provide much needed transportation for the vitally important mining industry.
Due to cost overruns, the line was never finished, but the remnants can be visited today, on a moderately difficult hike of less than a mile.
The site is free and open year-round, so ask a local for the rather tricky directions.
11. Verde River Hot Springs
Even in the summer, the afternoons and evenings in Payson can get downright chilly.
After a long day of hiking through the backcountry and visiting all the area’s sites, nothing will soothe those weary bones more than a soak in Verde Hot Springs.
The springs once supported a thriving resort which was largely the domain of wealthy Arizonans.
These days though, the pools are just as warm and comforting, but there’s not much left of the resort.
The road in can be tricky at times, and you’ll need to hike a mile or so from the parking area. Bring a towel, flip-flops, water and food as there aren’t any services in the area.
12. Payson Candle Factory
Candles make great Christmas gifts. Especially ones that are hand made in rugged Arizona.
For more than 30 years, the people at Payson Candle Factory on North Beeline Highway have been making candles, and teaching others to do it too.
Though not big by factory standards, you can view the production area and see how professionals do it, and if you’d like to try your hand at it, that’s encouraged.
It’s tougher than it looks, so don’t expect a masterpiece.
The shop is full of other cool Arizona stuff too, so stop in and say hello and pick up few stocking stuffers.
13. Visit the Monument of the Battle of Big Dry Wash
Fought in July, 1882, The Battle of Big Dry Wash was one of the last confrontations between U.S. Army troops and the White Mountain Apache Warriors that were steadfastly fighting for their homeland and way of life.
This battle stood out from others in that the Apache’s planned ambush was spotted, and they were caught off guard when the soldiers attacked.
They usually fought hit-and-run style campaigns against the more heavily armed soldiers, but were forced into a conventional skirmish, which resulted in the Apache Chief’s death.
Check out the town of Payson’s website for directions and hours of operation.