Group Drive & Hike: Water Wheel Waterfalls in Payson, Arizona

Odometer (Legend): 543,531


Odometer (ILX):  172,944


Trip Distance:  175 Miles



What if I told you Arizonans there’s a place within an hour of Phoenix where you can slice 20 degrees off the temperature and dip your toes in the refreshing East Verde River?  Maybe it would be best if I kept this place a secret, but since I’m feeling generous I’ll clue you in to this secluded little watering hole.


It’s the season of “beat the heat” so many of the destinations you’re likely to see me hit up this summer will be to higher elevations where I can get a reprieve from the Phoenix oven.  This one in particular has been on my Destination Spreadsheet for some time now.  On Saturday morning, my house in Scottsdale became the meeting point for a variety of cars and people ready for adventure.  Here were our attendees:

  • Tyson, Clayton, and Miles:  2013 Acura ILX
  • Peter and Jack:  2002 BMW 325iT
  • James and Rob:  2016 Chrysler 300
  • Paul:  2013 Acura TL SH-AWD
  • Kyle:  2005 Pontiac GTO
  • Sunny:  2013 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T
  • Brad and Kenny:  2013 Audi RS5

Brad described it as “quite a menagerie.”  A menagerie is defined as:  A collection of wild animals kept in captivity for exhibition.  Sounds about right when referring to this bunch of cars & gents.  Though, in this case, all were unleashed from captivity allowed to roam freely in the hills of the Tonto National Forest surrounding Payson, Arizona.  The one-way trek to our destination was only about 80 miles but ascended 3,800 feet in elevation.


For the most part it’s a 65-mph split highway but the curves can be fun and they require constant attention.  The ILX with 3 occupants and 100-degree temperatures bogged down on the steeper grades and I found myself downshifting to 5th gear and even 4th occasionally to keep up with the pack.  From Payson, we continued north past a couple of roundabouts and hung a right on Houston Mesa Road.  The road narrowed to two lanes and had some nice curves for the next 8 miles until we arrived at Water Wheel Campground.  Luckily, we found ample parking to stash our 7 vehicles but things were filling up quickly with a lot of Saturday adventure-seekers like ourselves.  Parking was $8 via cash / self-service, with envelopes to be deposited in an opening in a post near the trailhead.


The hike itself does not stick to any specific route but rather follows the East Verde River upstream however a hiker decides to follow it.  We did find a path along the west side of the river that had some welcomed shade from overhead trees – even at 88 degrees I managed to break a pretty aggressive sweat.  The sound of the gushing river next to us helped give a sense of refreshment even without taking a dip.  There came a time when we needed to crawl up and over some large boulders and we paved our own way, or followed people who were ahead of us.


At one point it looked like we needed to cross the river itself so we carefully collected our balance and hopped across.  The rocks were slippery at times.  For the return, I opted to just remove my shoes & socks and put them in my backpack so that I could walk barefoot across the water and not worry about a slip & fall incident.  The water was chilly but it felt great.  We wandered a bit further upstream and saw a series of waterfalls coming down.  Jack whipped out the selfie stick for a group photograph and Kyle got brave enough to jump in the water.


By the time we made it back to our vehicles, we’d only been hiking about an hour and a half round trip.  The overall hike distance is about 2 miles each way, and I think we probably only went about half that.  So there is much more to see and we all want to get back up there, but we were ready for lunch and a few people needed to be back by late afternoon so we headed back to Payson.  For grub, we dined on the patio at Buffalo Bar & Grill.  The wait staff had already lined up several small tables for us in anticipation of our arrival and the service was top-notch.


It was great to break away from the Valley’s heat and get up to the mountains for some clean air and a little time with Mother Nature.  Water Wheel Falls was just what the doctor ordered for a quick day-trip.  Thanks to my friends for joining!  Here’s a short video with some highlights of our excursion.

Pre-departure in Scottsdale


Fuel stop at the Chevron in Fort McDowell:  Tyson, Peter, Jack, James, Rob


Backwards baseball caps for the bros.


Kyle caught this pic of my ILX, Sunny’s Sonata, and Peter’s 3-series in his sideview mirror.


Getting through Payson and to the campground.


Kyle’s mean GTO in the rearview.


Parking at Water Wheel Falls


Paul’s TL was blindingly clean in the Arizona sunlight.


Clayton gave us a wave before we started the hike.


Information at the trailhead.


Coming up on the first of a series of falls.


Here’s where we had to crawl up and over some rocks on the river’s edge.


Sunny preparing to cross the East Verde.


James got a little wet.


Group shot thanks to Jack’s selfie stick.


Solo shot.


Back in Payson with our diverse lineup of vehicles.


Peter’s wagon rolled 205,000 yesterday and still looks great.


Buffalo Burger at Buffalo Bar & Grill.




Sunny and I took the Legend out and ended up next to a nice lady in a Vigor 5-speed!


I spotted a G2 Legend sedan in Beverly Hillbillies (1993 movie) about 10 minutes in!


And a very thoughtful friend brought me back a souvenir from his Hawaii trip.


Get over to TSX Travels!  Josh is about to have some big news SOON.


19 Responses to “Group Drive & Hike: Water Wheel Waterfalls in Payson, Arizona”

  1. Where is the big news at TSX Travels?? I clicked on your link but no new updates 😉

    Also, I wish mountains were located close to sweltering hot Miaimi. I have to drive 900 miles north to reach the mountains. 😦 Our heat index temperatures in Miami rival those of Phoenix. Very high humidity.

  2. Ok. You won today. In Phoenix, you had a temperature of 116 and heat index of 113 or higher today. Hottest heat index i have seen in Miami is 108. I read that sometimes it is so hot in Phoenix that your car tires can blow out because the pavement is so hot?? Is this accurate? Has this ever happened to you?

    • Yes! We frequently see shredded tire remains on the interstates. When people travel with cracked or very worn tires around here, they are very likely to have blowouts. My ILX exterior readout maxed out at 120 degrees yesterday. Luckily I was at a pool party at the time staying refreshed as best I could. It’s been pretty crazy hot. I read that yesterday was the 5th warmest day in Phoenix history or something like that.

  3. Midnight Mystery Says:

    Arizona looks nice, but I’ve never been west of San Antonio, TX, and that was in July 2005, my sister was graduating basic training, I was young, very young…

    Seeing Josh’s TSX achieve such mileage is making me want one…

    As for the ILX, I know, I perfer cool weather driving because the engine can put more power down…

    • Yes agree, the car definitely does not like warmer temperatures very much! I’m very happy for Josh and his upcoming milestone. Glad you are enjoying watching his progress as much as I have.

  4. This was a fun one. I think its worth to go back and explore the trail a little deeper and spend a little longer out there. Good group too and nice video.

  5. You found water in AZ again! Hope the heat wave passes soon. Besides tires shredding on highways, how hot do you think it has to get before a car’s plastics start to melt?

    • Hey Brad, you know what, that’s a good question. I would hope that all automakers put their vehicles through rigorous hot-weather testing (and I know they do because I’ve seen their camo’d prototype vehicles here in AZ as well as in Death Valley, CA) but betting there are still some materials in every vehicle that are susceptible to heat. My brother (upon tearing apart my NSX door panel) told me he encountered a lot of brittle 24 year old plastic in there. I can’t tell you how many tubes of Chap Stick I’ve had to throw away because I’ve left them in the car and they turn to melted goop.

  6. Quite an assortment of vehicles! We’re well into winter here, with today being our shortest day with only 8 hours & 35 minutes of sunlight. Doesn’t help we’ve had a few days in the negatives too. Enjoy the sunshine and can’t wait to see Josh roll 500k!

    • Wow, that’s a really short day! I always forget about the season swap with all you folks in the other hemisphere 🙂 Wish I could send some sunshine your way – it seems we’re getting too much of it! Haha. Josh is keeping us all on pins & needles this week.

  7. Looks like a great weekend drive! I’m yearning for those Canadian and AK temps right now. Looks like Josh will be opening up the package soon!

    • Any day now! There’s a chance I’ll be around when he does. Depends on how his work assignments this week go and when he hits it. I’ll be in Boise Saturday so yeah.

  8. How far is Boise from your house in Phoenix?

  9. Josh lives practically in your backyard compared to the Alaska trip you just took 😉

  10. That water looks mighty refreshing! On a side note, I wish for you a place to store all your cars at the same location. Let’s see if we can make that happen! Don’t melt down there in Phoenix…..

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