Water Wheel Falls Hiking Trail: A Scenic Adventure Awaits 2024

If you’re looking for a scenic and enjoyable adventure, we highly recommend the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail in Arizona. This 1.6-mile out-and-back trail near Payson offers a moderately challenging route that rewards hikers with stunning beauty, fun swimming holes, waterfalls, and even cliff jumping opportunities. Trust us, you won’t want to miss out on this incredible experience.

We love how the Water Wheel Falls trail allows you to follow the banks of two rivers, eventually leading you to a crystal-clear swimming hole. The trail is perfect for families, dog owners (leashed dogs are welcome), and anyone looking for a stunning outdoor experience from March to October. Just remember that there’s a $9 parking fee or you can use your annual National Parks Pass.

Get ready to experience one of Arizona’s best water hikes and uncover the hidden beauty that lies on the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail.

Overview of Water Wheel Falls Hiking Trail

We absolutely loved our experience at the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail. This beautiful trail is located in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, just 9 miles north of Payson. It is a short 1.6-mile hike that offers fabulous views and follows the banks of two rivers, ultimately ending at a crystal-clear swimming hole.

The hike is perfect for a day out and is considered fairly easy, with just 150 feet of elevation gain. It offers a unique blend of adventure and tranquility, and you can complete this hike within just a few hours.

Hiking to Water Wheel Falls is always exciting as the trail is well-known for fun swimming holes, waterfalls, and even cliff jumping opportunities. The name Water Wheel Falls comes from a defunct water wheel that greets hikers at the trailhead. This wheel was used to power a gold ore crusher for a nearby mine during the 1930s.

Just a friendly reminder to be cautious while on the trail since it is in a significant flash flood area. Make sure to check the weather conditions before heading out on your hike, and always be prepared for unexpected changes.

A beautiful waterfall cascading down a rocky cliff, surrounded by lush greenery and trees. The serene hiking trail leading up to the waterfall offers a peaceful and picturesque experience for nature lovers.

The Hike: Trail Statistics

If you’re looking for a moderately challenging and picturesque hike, the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail is just the place for you. Located near Payson, Arizona, this popular trail offers breathtaking views, fun swimming holes, and cliff jumping opportunities. Let’s dive into the trail statistics to help you plan your visit.


The Water Wheel Falls hiking trail is a short yet captivating 1.6-mile out-and-back trail. This makes it perfect for a quick adventure in the Tonto National Forest, allowing you to enjoy the beauty of this scenic hike without taking up your entire day. It’s a great hiking option for those looking to escape into nature and immerse themselves in Arizona’s breathtaking landscapes.

Elevation Gain

Although the trail is relatively short, it does include some elevation gain, providing a moderate challenge for hikers at different skill levels. The elevation gain on the Water Wheel Falls trail is approximately 600 feet. As you hike along the banks of the two rivers, you’ll encounter dramatic waterfalls, deep gorges, and a clear, refreshing swimming hole at the end.

Best Season

To make the most of your hiking experience at Water Wheel Falls, we recommend visiting during the late spring and early summer months. During this time, the weather is typically warmer, making it a perfect time to enjoy the trail’s picturesque swimming holes and waterfalls up close. It’s important to check the weather conditions before embarking on this adventure, as flash floods can occur in the area, which can make the trail dangerous. Always take necessary precautions and prioritize safety while enjoying this beautiful hike.

Whether you’re an experienced hiker or just looking for a unique and rewarding outdoor experience, the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail offers a captivating combination of distance, elevation gain, and scenic beauty that you won’t want to miss. Happy hiking!

A serene hiking trail leading to a stunning waterfall with crystal clear water flowing down the rocks

Gear Recommendations

We know that the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail offers a beautiful experience with its flowing falls and fun swimming holes. To make the most of your adventure, we have some gear recommendations for you.

Wearing sturdy, comfortable hiking shoes is essential for navigating the uneven, rocky terrain found on this trail. Taking along an adequate amount of water is vital, even though the hike is a short 1.6 miles (2.5 km) round trip. A reusable water bottle or hydration pack should do the trick.

Packing a few light layers such as a windbreaker or rain jacket might be helpful, as weather conditions can change rapidly in the outdoors. Don’t forget sun protection! Make sure to bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to shield yourself from the Arizona sun.

If you plan on taking a dip in the swimming holes, you’ll want to bring a swimsuit and a quick-drying towel. A waterproof pouch for your smartphone and a waterproof camera are excellent options if you’re looking to capture some memorable shots without worrying about water damage.

Finally, remember that there is a $9 fee to access the trail and parking area, so bring some cash with you.

With the right gear, you’ll be all set to enjoy hiking and swimming at the stunning Water Wheel Falls trail in Arizona!

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Wildlife and Flora

While exploring the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail in Arizona, we discovered a myriad of fascinating wildlife and lush flora that help create a memorable outdoor experience.

As we ventured along the trail, we encountered several species of birds, squirrels, and other small mammals that call this area home. The sound of chirping birds created a serene soundtrack, accompanying us throughout our hike. Interestingly, the Tonto National Forest is also home to larger mammals like elk and black bears, though sightings are rare and typically occur at higher elevations.

One of the most striking aspects of the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail is the vibrant plant life, where a seemingly endless variety of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers flourish. Throughout the hike, we marveled at the towering ponderosa pines and junipers that provided much-needed shade in the Arizona sun.

In addition, we observed fascinating desert plants like prickly pear and cholla cacti that are scattered across the landscape, adding a unique touch to this beautiful hike. As we reached the falls and swimming hole, the greenery transformed into a lush oasis, with ferns and vibrant wildflowers surrounding the water.

Overall, the abundant wildlife and flora at the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail enhanced our experience, leaving us with a newfound appreciation for the natural beauty of Arizona.

A tranquil waterfall with clear blue water flowing down the rocks, surrounded by a lush forest

Checklist Before Hiking

Before embarking on the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail, we want to ensure that you are well-prepared for the adventure. Here’s a checklist to help you pack everything you need and have a safe, enjoyable experience.

Appropriate Clothing and Footwear: The trail can be rocky and uneven, so make sure to wear comfortable hiking shoes with good traction. Light, breathable clothes are recommended, as well as a hat and sunglasses for sun protection.

Water and Snacks: It’s essential to stay hydrated during the hike, so bring enough water for the entire trip. Snacks like granola bars or trail mix will help keep your energy levels up.

Travel Essentials: A small backpack to carry your belongings, a map of the area (or a GPS device), and a fully charged cell phone in case of emergencies are crucial. Don’t forget your camera or smartphone to capture the stunning views!

First Aid Kit: In case of minor injuries, a first aid kit with bandages, antiseptic wipes, and pain relief medication is always good to have on hand.

Leave No Trace Principles: Respect the environment and wildlife by following the leave no trace principles. Pack out any trash, stay on designated trails, and don’t disturb plants or animals.

Check Weather and Trail Conditions: Before heading out, ensure that the weather is suitable for hiking and that there are no alerts or closures due to dangerous conditions. Always be prepared for sudden changes in the weather, so extra layers of clothing are a wise choice.

By keeping these essentials in mind, we can make our Water Wheel Falls hiking trail adventure a safe and memorable one. Happy hiking!

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Do’s and Don’ts

The Water Wheel Falls hiking trail is a beautiful adventure with fun swimming holes, waterfalls, and even cliff jumping opportunities. As you embark on this exciting journey, it’s essential to know the do’s and don’ts to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.


  • Stay on the trail: Preserve the natural environment by sticking to the marked path. Doing so not only protects the ecosystem but also prevents you from getting lost.
  • Pack out what you pack in: Bring a reusable bag or container to carry any trash or waste you create during the hike. Leaving litter behind is harmful to the environment and wildlife.
  • Hike with a buddy: It’s always safer to hike with a companion or a group. In case of emergency, having someone there to help can make a significant difference.
  • Check the weather: Be prepared for the weather conditions by checking the forecast before starting your hike. Sudden changes can impact the safety of the trail, especially if there are flash floods or other natural events.
  • Bring a map: While the trail is relatively short, having a map ensures you stay on the right track and can locate points of interest along the way.


  • Ignore safety signs: Pay attention to posted signage regarding hazards or warnings. These signs are there to inform and protect you.
  • Approach wildlife: While it’s exciting to spot wildlife, remember to maintain your distance and never approach or feed animals. Interactions with humans can be dangerous for both you and the wildlife.
  • Go off-trail for shortcuts: Venturing off the designated path can cause injury or damage to the fragile ecosystem. Stick to the trail to preserve the beauty of the environment and ensure your safety.
  • Forge ahead in adverse conditions: Watch out for sudden changes in weather or trail conditions. If you encounter flooding, strong winds, or other obstacles that could make the hike dangerous, turn back and stay safe.
  • Wear inappropriate footwear: Make sure to wear sturdy, closed-toe hiking shoes or boots to protect your feet on the rocky and uneven terrain of this trail.

Remember, the overall goal is to enjoy the extraordinary beauty of the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail while ensuring the safety of yourself, others, and the environment. Following these do’s and don’ts makes every step of your journey a memorable and responsible adventure.

water wheel falls hiking trail

How to Get There

Planning a trip to the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail? Fantastic! This short hike offers incredible beauty, waterfalls, swimming holes, and even some cliff jumping opportunities. Let’s dive into the details on how to get there.

Driving Directions

To reach the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail, you’ll want to head towards Payson, Arizona. The trailhead is located at the Water Wheel Campground, which has a parking lot for both campers and hikers. From Payson, follow Highway 260 East for around 7.5 miles until you reach Mile Marker 260.8. Once you’ve reached this point, there will be a small dirt road (Forest Road 420) on your right side. Turn onto this dirt road and follow it for about 0.5 miles until you reach the parking lot.

Please note that parking at the trailhead requires a fee of $10, which is payable between April 1st and October 31st. Parking is free from November 1st to March 31st.

Public Transport Options

Unfortunately, there aren’t any public transport options to take you directly to the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail. However, you can still get close to the area by using Greyhound or Flixbus services. These buses will take you as far as Payson, from where you would need to arrange for a taxi, rideshare, or a friend to help you reach the trailhead.

Keep in mind that the trail can be quite popular during peak season, so make sure to plan your visit accordingly and arrive early to secure a parking spot. Pack your swimming gear, and don’t forget to bring plenty of drinking water and sunscreen for your adventure at Water Wheel Falls!

Other Nearby Hiking Trips

While exploring the beautiful Water Wheel Falls hiking trail in Arizona, you might want to check out some other nearby hiking trips for a more wholesome experience. These trails offer a variety of scenic views, difficulty levels, and experiences that are sure to make your visit a memorable one.

If you’re looking for a challenging yet rewarding hike, the Barnhardt Trail is an excellent option. This trail is famous for its lush greenery, breathtaking waterfalls, and picturesque canyons. With a length of approximately 8 miles and an elevation gain of 2600 ft, this trail is perfect for experienced hikers who are ready for a challenge.

For those who prefer a more accessible trail with stunning scenery, the Horton Creek Trail is a must-visit. This 8-mile round-trip hike is considered moderate and features serene creeks, captivating waterfalls, and a dense forest canopy. The trail is well-maintained and offers various spots for picnicking, making it an ideal choice for families and casual hikers.

Another great option is the See Canyon Trail. This picturesque 7-mile round-trip trail is moderately challenging and offers a diverse array of landscapes, including meadows, forests, and streams. One of the highlights of this trail is the spectacular view of the Mogollon Rim that you can enjoy as you make your way through the serene wooded areas.

For those interested in a shorter, but no less stunning hike, the Pine Trailhead to Highline Trail might be what you’re looking for. This trail is a 4.5-mile round trip that takes you through verdant pine forests along the Mogollon Rim. The gentle slopes and picturesque vistas make this trail suitable for hikers of all skill levels.

There’s no shortage of fabulous trails around the Water Wheel Falls hiking area. Whether you’re seeking a leisurely walk or an exhilarating hike, the options are plenty to keep you entertained and engaged. Happy hiking!

Post-Hike Dining Options

After exploring the beautiful Water Wheel Falls hiking trail, you may be in the mood for some delicious food. Luckily, there are several great dining options nearby for you to refuel after your hike. We’ve selected a few restaurants with a variety of cuisines, so there is something for everyone to enjoy.

The Lumberjack Grille is a cozy spot with a rustic feel, perfect for those craving comfort food. Known for their juicy burgers and crispy fries, this restaurant will satisfy your hunger after a long day outdoors. Additionally, they offer vegetarian options and delightful desserts, making it an excellent choice for the entire family.

If you’re in the mood for Mexican cuisine, Taco Riendo is a must-visit. Offering a wide variety of tacos, burritos, and other Mexican favorites, their flavorful dishes will certainly hit the spot. Don’t forget to try their homemade salsa and guacamole to add an extra kick to your meal.

For pizza lovers, The Oregano Pizza Parlor serves up mouthwatering pies with fresh ingredients and a fantastic crust. With a diverse menu consisting of traditional favorites and creative combinations, there’s a pizza for everyone at Oregano’s. Additionally, they offer a selection of pasta dishes and salads for those looking for a lighter option.

Finally, if you’re seeking a healthier fare, Greens & More is an ideal choice. This quaint café features an array of salads, wraps, and smoothies made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Not only is their food delicious, but it’s also a nourishing way to refuel after your hike at Water Wheel Falls.

We hope these dining options enhance your overall experience at the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail. Whether you crave comfort food or a healthy meal, there’s something for everyone at these nearby eateries. Enjoy your post-hike feast!

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A beautiful waterfall cascading down a rocky cliff surrounded by lush greenery and trees.

Our Opinion on the Water Wheel Falls Hiking Trail

We recently had the chance to explore the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail, and we can’t wait to share our experience with you. Located in the Tonto National Forest near Payson, Arizona, this short hike takes you along the banks of two rivers and ends at a beautiful swimming hole. We found this trail to be the perfect combination of fun and adventure within a relatively short distance.

The trail itself is 1.6 miles long and considered moderately challenging, with an elevation gain of 150 ft. We appreciated that it wasn’t too difficult, making it suitable for most hikers. Along the way, we were greeted by picturesque waterfalls, inviting swimming holes, and even opportunities for cliff jumping, which made the hike all the more exciting.

Another aspect of the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail that we enjoyed was its popularity. The trail is frequently visited by other hikers, so we were able to share our experience with like-minded people who also appreciated the beauty around them. If you prefer a more quiet and secluded hike, this may not be for you. But we enjoyed the camaraderie and sense of community that came from hiking alongside other nature enthusiasts.

In terms of practical considerations, we found the area to be well-maintained and easy to navigate. It’s important to note that dogs are permitted on the trail but must be kept on a leash. Overall, we highly recommend giving the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail a try, especially if you love getting up close and personal with nature’s beauty in a friendly, social setting.

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Welcome to our FAQs about the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail! We’ve put together some answers to commonly asked questions about the trail to help you plan your visit. Let’s explore some of the main aspects of this beautiful trail.

What is the difficulty level of Water Wheel Falls hiking trail?

The Water Wheel Falls hiking trail is generally considered a moderately challenging hike. This is because the 1.6-mile out-and-back trail near Payson, Arizona has some steep inclines, rocky areas, and water crossings. However, it is still suitable for most ages and skill levels, but you need to be prepared for slightly strenuous activity and use caution while navigating the rocky terrain and water features.

What is the distance of the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail?

The total distance of the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail is 1.6 miles, which makes it a relatively short yet enjoyable hike for those looking for a quick adventure in nature. Since it’s an out-and-back trail, you’ll be covering the same ground in both directions, so make sure to factor in the return trip when planning your outing. You can find more details about the trail here.

What are the highlights of the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail?

The trail offers hikers a variety of natural highlights, starting with the two rivers it follows, which provide ample opportunities for scenic water views. The primary attraction, of course, is the crystal-clear swimming hole at the end of the hike, where you can take a refreshing dip or partake in some cliff jumping. Along the way, hikers will also pass waterfalls and swimming spots, making for an exhilarating experience. Visit this link for more details about the beauty of the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail.

The Water Wheel Falls hiking trail in Arizona is a must-visit destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers. With its stunning waterfalls, scenic hiking trails, and picturesque surroundings, it offers a unique and unforgettable experience for all who visit. So, pack your bags and head out to this beautiful destination for an adventure of a lifetime!

Have you ever visited the Water Wheel Falls hiking trail in Arizona? Share your experience with us in the comments below! We would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations for fellow travelers.

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Enrico Hartwich
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