water wheel falls

Uncover Arizona’s Hidden Paradise: Water Wheel Falls and Secret Swimming Holes Await!


Near Payson, Arizona, Water Wheel Falls are a refreshing oasis and a popular summer swimming site. If you’re willing to explore a bit further, you’ll discover more cascades and swimming holes that are less crowded than the falls. The brief hike along the Verde River and Ellison Creek is beautiful and entertaining for children. However, its uneven and occasionally slick surfaces make it difficult in places. If you wish to avoid the crowds at the falls or have members of your party who are unable to traverse uneven topography, there are a number of lovely riverside spots along the way.

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Trail Brief Description

The trail to Water Wheel Falls is initially broad and level, passing picnic benches in densely forested areas along the river. There will presumably be fishermen hoping for good fortune.

The Water Wheel

Keep an eye out for a trail on the left that will lead you to the waterwheel for which this region is named. It is in disrepair and is not located on the water, but it is a quick and simple diversion.

According to Stan Brown, James Greer constructed the water wheel in the early 1900s to pulverize ore for a mining claim.

Memorial for Victims of Flash Floods

Uncover Arizona's Hidden Paradise: Water Wheel Falls and Secret Swimming Holes Await!

You will find a memorial for a family who perished here in 2017 during a flash deluge shortly after the water wheel. I trust it goes without saying, but always check the weather and avoid the area if a flash flood is possible.

The trail is level and smooth for a little while longer before you reach a rocky section and begin to ascend along the river’s edge. This section is uneven and may be challenging for young infants or individuals with limited mobility.

Eventually, Ellison Creek will enter from the right, and there will be a number of beautiful cascades. Here is where you must rock jump across the river. Heather, our trail mother, will be there to assist you if you’re fortunate.

Or, if you just saw a large group of teenagers heading for the falls and are envisioning a massive party over there, take your time and follow the river upstream just a bit further to a small swimming hole with a questionable rope swing. Honestly, it doesn’t even qualify as a rope swing, but that didn’t stop Heather from testing it out.

You can also travel a short distance further up the river to experience some beautiful waterfalls (and relative solitude). Do not be astonished if others discover your plan and investigate it as well. The children adored it.

Water Wheel Falls

Once you observe the party departing, you may proceed to the falls. Already more than halfway there! You will likely discover that a new party group is arriving just in time, but it’s all fine. You will immediately feel better after jumping into that cool, refreshing water.

Water Wheel Falls and Secret Swimming Holes Await!

We have been known to plunge off the falls with caution, but it requires a leap to reach the deep water, and there are submerged boulders, so use caution.

Simply always use caution! We witnessed two women who had to be carried out after suffering foot injuries. One limped out with assistance from two others, while the other was carried out on a stretcher. Be prudent and deliberate. That is more entertaining!

Map & Directions

Water Wheel is located in Tonto National Forest in Payson, Arizona.

Turn right (east) on Houston Mesa Road after traveling north from Payson. Follow this road for roughly 7 miles until you reach the Water Wheel parking area.

Fees/Passes From April 1 through October 31, this parking lot requires a fee (currently $10) that can be paid in currency using one of the envelopes at the trailhead. Some individuals have used Tonto Passes, but I have not seen it listed as a valid pass anywhere, including on the back of the Tonto Pass or the website.