Hiking Water Wheel Falls near Payson with Kids. Water Wheel Falls near Payson, AZ has been on our list for awhile. It did not disappoint!
There are two ways to reach this waterfall. The first route is most common, and we did this in May 2022. The second route is actually much easier, great for younger kids, and we did this route in April 2023. Both hikes are featured in this post.
Hike Route #1 for Water Wheel Falls
This 1.6 mile out and back trail follows a creek, to an amazing swimming hole with a gorgeous waterfall.
The trail is easy to moderate, and we would rate it difficult (but not impossible) for littles. Our toddler hiked the entire way to the falls, but had to have help multiple times with the water crossings and rock scrambling. Older kids will love the boulder hopping! We also highly recommend using AllTrails for this hike, as the trail is not always defined; it’s easy to be confused on where to go.
At the falls, there are several pools of water to enjoy (we caught little fish and crawdads!), and you can climb to the top for an epic view. Note that the rocks can be slippery. Pack a lunch, swim in the chilly water, and stay a few hours to enjoy nature.
If hiking isn’t your thing, there are several easily reached swimming areas in the early part of the trail, and some creek play areas just down from the parking lot! Overall, this is a fantastic water spot for all ages and hiking abilities – put it on your list to visit soon!
Parking at this trailhead is $10/car, exact cash only (but no fee Nov 1-March 31). There are vault toilets as well. Google Maps will bring up the correct location. Travel on Houston Mesa Road (FR 199) for 7 ½ miles, parking lot will be on the right. This spot fills up very fast on the weekends, and Friday-Sunday during the summer. Also, there is no cell service at the trailhead or on the trail. Plan ahead!
Hike Route #2 for Water Wheel Falls
The best way to find this route is to look up Ellison Creek Cascades on AllTrails.com . (You can use the app to follow the route without paying for the upgrade.)
If you’re looking for verbal directions, here you go:
Park at the Second Crossing Day Use Area (Google Maps brings up the correct location, restrooms here too) about 20 min north of Payson. A Tonto Day Pass ($8) is required to park, cash only, OR drive a bit further past the parking lot and there is a FREE area just off the side of the road. This is where we parked, and then we found the graveled, forest service road a couple hundred feet away.
You’ll go past a gate, meant to keep cars off, and will walk about 0.5 miles, going past another gate as well. Once the road dips down, look on your right for a path, marked with several large rocks. Take this path down the hill (it’s not steep but do watch littles), and then go left towards the rocks. The remaining 0.2 miles requires some rock hopping but nothing serious. If our toddler did it last summer, so can you!
Why is it called Water Wheel Falls? Look for the old wooden water wheel at the beginning of the hike (on the left). It was built in the early 1900’s, by a miner to power an ore crusher that extracted gold.
Top things to bring: plenty of water and food, water shoes, life vests for non-swimmers, sunscreen, and smiles!
Of note, this is a flash flood area. So please use caution when hiking as the creek can rise drastically with rain. Check the weather reports before hiking, and avoid if there is rain on the radar.