Fossil Creek, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the lakes atop the Mogollon Rim are among the biggest draws for visitors to the Payson area.
But it’s hard to beat Houston Mesa Road, which stretches a little more than 10 miles east through Tonto National Forest from State Route 87 to Control Road, for inexpensive recreational options. Visitors can hike, camp, climb, bike on paths or the road, drive an off-road vehicle, swim, fish and explore a Native American site.
And almost all of these are accompanied by spectacular views of what locals affectionately call Rim Country.
“The Houston Mesa corridor is a very well-known area that not only offers some unique facilities along it, but it also is one of the main access routes to the Rim,” said Chelsea Muise, recreation officer for the Payson and Pleasant Valley ranger districts of Tonto National Forest. “People we talk to say they love it. It’s a big draw in the Payson area.”
It’s also an easy drive. The road is paved through the community of Whispering Pines to Control Road, and bridges recently were completed over the East Verde River at Second Crossing and Third Crossing.
A short drive from the end of Houston Mesa on well-maintained dirt forest roads leads to Washington Park, with access to the Highline National Recreation Trail, Arizona National Scenic Trail and Railroad Tunnel. Hardy hikers and runners can take Colonel Devin Trail all the way to the top of the rim.
Here’s what visitors will find, beginning from SR 87 and traveling east along Houston Mesa Road. For information on these sites, call the Payson Ranger District of Tonto National Forest at 928-474-7900 or go to www.fs.usda.gov/tonto.
Houston Mesa Campground
This is just a quarter-mile east of SR 87 on the north side of Houston Mesa Road. There are 75 campsites; 50 can be reserved and 25 are on a first-come, first-served basis. Amenities include water, flush toilets, a dump station, picnic tables and fire rings. From $22 a night, with fees for additional vehicles. There is a 14-day limit.
Houston Mesa Equestrian Camp
The entrance is directly across Houston Mesa Road from the regular campground. There are 30 sites for up to 10 people each and two group sites that can accommodate up to 65 people each. The Horse Camp Trail connects the campground to Houston Mesa Trail and Houston Loop Trail. Family units are from $16 per night and the group units are $95 per night.
“Those group areas are pretty much full every weekend and on holidays,” Muise said.
Houston Mesa Trailhead
The trailhead is on the south side of the road less than a mile from SR 87. A 3-mile trail connects to the 3.8-mile Houston Loop, creating a nearly 7-mile hiking or mountain-biking route. The trail also can be reached from the Equestrian Camp. A connector from Tyler Parkway that will include an interpretive trail at Goat Camp Ruins is in the works.
Shoofly Village Ruins
The entrance is on the right, 33/4 miles from SR 87. An easy-to-walk paved path of a quarter-mile takes visitors back in time through an interpretive tour of an ancient village.
You’ll have to use your imagination because what remains are mostly the bases of some rock walls, but there once were about 80 rooms in this structure, with a rock wall encircling the complex. The route includes 11 interpretive stations that explain what you’re looking at and what life might have been like below the Rim 800 years ago.
At 4.7 miles long, Forest Road 198, also known as Pyeatt Draw Road, is an easy mountain-biking route that provides access to the Pyeatt Draw four-wheeling area.
“It is one of our lesser-developed roads,” Muise said. “There are some camping areas and the fairly well-known rock-climbing 4×4 area that B.F. Goodrich named (in 2006) as one of the top four-wheel-drive routes in the country.”
The bed of Ellison Creek at Pyeatt Draw includes a series of rock ledges and outcroppings that challenge four-wheelers. The forest road parallels the creek, allowing access into and out of the off-roading area.
First Crossing Recreation Area
The first of four day-use areas along the East Verde River, First Crossing is 7 miles east of SR 87. There are toilets and picnic tables. Pay the $8 fee at the drop box in the parking area. The river has swimming holes and fishing. The Arizona Game and Fish Department stocks it with trout and bass. No camping is allowed at the four river crossings.
Water Wheel Recreation Area
Just another half-mile up the road, Water Wheel is the most popular destination for day-use visitors. There is an $8 fee, and the parking lot fills quickly on hot days.
“It’s named for an old water wheel,” Muise said. “A lot of people come to see that. There’s also a waterfall that’s about 25 feet high between Water Wheel and Second Crossing. You can follow the creek bed to reach it.”
Second Crossing Recreation Area
From Water Wheel, Houston Mesa Road rises quickly with a couple of steep switchbacks, then drops just as quickly to Second Crossing, where one of the new bridges has been installed. Rainbow and brown trout, smallmouth bass and sunfish are stocked here. There is an $8 fee.
“It’s a fisherman’s mecca in that area,” Muise said. “I think Game and Fish stocks in that area twice a week. There is a lot of good fishing and a couple of good water holes for swimming and wading.”
Third Crossing Recreation Area
Less than a mile farther along Houston Mesa, a bridge has been built at Third Crossing, the final day-use area. It also requires an $8 daily fee. Third Crossing, like the other day-use areas, offers fishing and swimming holes, and it is also near trails that are popular with all-terrain vehicle riders.
Verde Glen Camping Area
After passing through Whispering Pines (if it’s a Saturday, there’s a chance the fire department is serving breakfast), look for dispersed camping at Verde Glen. Reach it by turning right on Control Road (FR 64) and going a half-mile to the camping area. There is no charge, and there are no services. Bring water and take all your trash with you.
Turn left on FR 64 and follow the signs to Washington Park, where the Highline Trail winds along the base of the Mogollon Rim. It provides access to Colonel Devin Trail, which ascends to the top of the Rim, and the Railroad Tunnel Trail.
The Railroad Tunnel was an attempt in the early 1880s to cut a 3,000-foot-long opening through the Rim that would allow rail transport of copper ore from Globe to Flagstaff. They made it, oh, about 70 feet before the money dried up. An old fish hatchery and a nearby spring make this a favorite destination for hikers.
Note that dispersed camping within 200 feet of the East Verde River in the Washington Park area was banned in April to protect the habitat of the Chiricahua leopard frog.
“That’s all the high points of the recreational areas,” Muise said. “Those are the big features that people are drawn to when they go down Houston Mesa Road.”