Note: Water Wheel Falls and portions of Tonto National Forest are closed “until rescinded or August 31, 2018”.
This short hike near Payson, Arizona, meanders along Ellison Creek through a playground of boulders, pools, and natural water slides. The trail is not well established and involves several creek crossings and scrambling over slippery granite, but should be manageable for most dogs and kids over five.
- Distance: 1.8 miles out and back
- Hike Time: 1-2 hours
- Elevation Gain/Loss: 150 feet
- Fee: $9
- Dogs: Yes
- Difficulty: Easy
Water Wheel Falls gets its name for a defunct water wheel that greets hikers at the trailhead. The wheel was used to power a gold ore crusher for a nearby mine during the 1930s. Great Depression era ingenuity is evident in the wheel’s blades, which were built from halved milk cans.
There is plenty to enjoy on this short jaunt along Ellison Creek. Most of the hike brings you near the water, and there are ample opportunities for swimming before you reach the falls. The water flows from snowmelt on the Mogollon Rim, so expect it to be cold.
The beauty of this area makes it hard to believe that it was the site of a disastrous flash flood that killed 10 people in 2017. Massive piles of debris along the canyon floor serve as a reminder of the monstrous power that water can wield in this desert environment. It is important to exercise extreme caution in any canyon during the monsoon season. In Arizona, it begins June 15 and ends on September 30.
To be completely safe, you might consider staying out of canyons during the monsoon entirely. If you absolutely must go, check the forecast and go as early as possible. In general, storm cells build in the early afternoon and reach their peak later in the day.
From Payson, follow Houston Mesa Road north east for eight miles. The trailhead is well marked and has space for about 40 vehicles, with overflow parking available along the road.
Once you reach the parking lot, head eastward along the East Verde River for about 1200 feet until it meets Ellison Creek. Then, follow Ellison Creek southeast.
There is a short section in the middle where the creek passes through a narrow rock canyon with a beautiful waterfall. You will need to pass to the left of it for about 200 feet on a granite slab. From there, continue southeast until you hit Water Wheel Falls.
- Water: Carry 1-2 liters of water.
- Footwear: Wear waterproof shoes with a good grip.
- Best Time to Travel: April through October. Use extreme caution during the monsoon season (June 15 – September 30).
- Safety: Watch for deer on Houston Mesa Road and rattlesnakes on the trail. Do not enter the canyon during storm activity (or if their is any potential for it).