12 Things to Do in Payson With Kids
Payson, AZ is about a 2hr drive from Phoenix and offers pine trees and cooler temps, with endless hiking or camping options. It’s a popular weekend destination, especially in the summer! You can’t go wrong with a day trip too, although we’re pretty sure you’ll find Payson such a nice reprieve from Phoenix weather that you’ll want to stay a few days.
Payson has some fun history! Founded in 1882, it held its first rodeo in 1884 – and considers this event to be the world’s continuous rodeo, as it has been held every year since. Early 1900’s author Zane Grey also purchased land in the Payson area and visited often. You can visit his cabin as part of a museum display. There’s also the oldest ranger station still standing in the Southwest, and a handful of cabins from the early settler period.
Here is a list of 12 things to do in Payson with kids. We’ve also included some options near Pine and Strawberry, which are an easy 20 min drive north. (Note: please check the websites of each destination for hours or restrictions, as things may have changed due to social distancing. For more information about Payson and the surrounding area, visit the official city website.)
Mogollon Rim Visitor’s Center – this little stop has spectacular views! (Also, Mogollon is not pronounced like you’re probably saying it. It’s mug-EE-yun. It comes from a past Spanish governor of New Mexico, Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon.) The center is usually open only during the summer, and has some fun info inside as well as helpful employees to answer any questions. There are restrooms too if needed.
Shoofly Indian Village Ruins – reminiscent of the Sears Kay Ruins that we love, these village ruins were home to the native people of Arizona from 1000-1200 AD. It’s a network of paved trails that gives a fascinating history glimpse even kids will enjoy. There are a few picnic tables and restrooms available.
Strawberry Schoolhouse – this little gem is just off Hwy 87, and worth a stop. This one room schoolhouse is from the late 1880’s. Be sure check hours, and request an appointment to see inside if needed!
Pine – Strawberry Museum – another little fun history stop. Adults are $1, children 11 and under are free.
Rim Country Musuem and Zane Grey Cabin – hands on history at its best! Adults are $5/person, kids 12 and under are free to tour the museum and cabin, and learn about the Dude Fire. Or just wander outside for free! This area is also right next to Green Valley Park, with walking trails around the lake.
Where to Stay – the Payson area has many lodging options! There are a few basic hotel options right in town. If you don’t mind staying out of town a bit, try Kohls Ranch, Rim Country Ranch, or Christopher Creek Lodge. The Strawberry Inn is popular too and so adorable! We loved our stay there in a family cabin.
Where to stay, camping style – we actually prefer camping when visiting Payson! And you really won’t find a bad setting to camp, it’s just a matter of what amenities you need, and what distance you want to be from other activities. (Also, spots book quickly at Payson campgrounds, or are on a first come, first served basis. So plan early!) Some favorite camping spots are Spillway Campground, Houston Mesa Campground, Christopher Creek Campground, Ponderosa Campground, and Rim Campground. All reservations for these places and others can be made on Recreation.gov. PHXkids contributor Liz has shared about their camping experience at Houston Mesa here.
Where to eat – Payson has common fast food options, from Culvers to Sonic to Arby’s to Chili’s and more. If you’re looking for local favorites, try El Rancho Mexican, Crosswinds, Duza’s Kitchen, Macky’s Grill, Beeline Cafe, Old Country Inn or Pinewood Tavern (Pine), and Bandits (Strawberry). For coffee, there’s Common Grounds, Pinecreek Fudge and Espresso (Pine), and Starbucks or Dunkin. There’s also a Walmart and grocery stores for food and other items.
Playgrounds – nature is awesome, and sometimes kids just want a playground. Payson has several! Check out B. Daniel Community Park in Star Valley, and Rumsey Park or Green Valley Park in Payson. More parks can be found here. We also stumbled across an unnamed park behind Mazatzal Hotel and Casino, right on the south end of town. It’s on the Tonto Apache Reservation, but no signs indicated it being unavailable so we played.
Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery – this is a fantastic place to take the family! The hatchery produces and stocks various types of trout (including the Arizona state fish, the Apache trout), and offers hiking trails around wetlands and streams, and picnic areas. The tour of the hatchery is self guided.
Rim Country Recreation – rent or have delivered kayaks, canoes, and SUPs from this highly rated Payson business! They have mountain bikes as well. Willow Springs Lake, 25 minutes from town, is a popular destination to enjoy the water. Rates: $40 for single kayaks and paddleboards, $80 for extra large tandems and canoes.
Pine Creek Lavender Farm – tour this beautiful historic lavender farm, and browse the store full of homemade products. There’s something about this beautiful and stately plant that is calming to the soul, and the farm does a wonderful job capturing the essence for visitors.
Best hiking trails for kids – good news! There are so many great hiking trails for kids in Payson, from toddler to teen! We’re going to briefly mention our favorites, and the more popular area hikes. Always remember that summers and weekends tend to draw the crowds. So go early if you can, and stay safe.
Tonto National Bridge State Park – a must see in Payson! The Waterfall Trail may look steep, but it’s actually one of the more easier trails and, surprise, has a waterfall view depending on the season! Read more about visiting Tonto with kids here. Entrance fee is $7/adult, $4/child (ages 7-13, 6 and under free), restrooms at the main parking lot.
Horton Creek Trail – this 3.5 mile trail is great because you can access water without even completing the hike! Rated as easy, it’s moderate the last mile. No fees, restrooms at nearby campground.
Water Wheel Falls – another great trail that leads to a fabulous swimming hole in just 1.6 miles! Or again, you can access the water along the way if you have littles. Fee is $9/car, restrooms at the trailhead.
Maxwell Hiking Trail – a good option for adventuresome families or those with kids over 10! It’s only 1.4 miles round trip, but has some steep portions down to West Clear Creek. No fees, no restrooms.
Railroad Tunnel Trail – not for younger kids due to loose rock and drop offs, this 1 mile trail takes you to an old 1880’s train tunnel! No fees, no restrooms.
First Crossing Day Use Area – great for toddlers, this trail simply follows the East Verde River for plenty of water fun! Fee is $9/car, with restrooms.
East Verde Park – this little gem is amazing. The parking lot is small but you’re instantly at the water! No fees, no restrooms.
For more great hiking options near Payson (and all over Arizona) check out AZ Utopia. Absolutely love this website and the descriptions are accurate as far as what to expect.