Visit Water Wheel Falls Hiking Trail In Payson, AZ

If you live in the Phoenix valley then you know how brutal the summers can get. When it is 100+ degrees many are looking for an escape from the heat. Luckily Water Wheel Falls is a beautiful desert oasis only 1.5 hours away and happens to be a very family friendly hike!

I know I’m not the only one who favorites this gem either. It is a very popular swimming spot but if you’re new to the area, or just visiting, this would be a great Arizona swimming hole to know about- especially if you’re up for a little exploring beyond the falls to find even more cascading falls and swimming holes.

In this guide we’ll go over the best seasons for hiking Water Wheel Falls, parking fees, and the best way to approach the hike!

Water Wheel Falls Hiking Stats

Hiking Distance | 1.6 miles RT
Difficulty | Easy
Elevation Gain | 150 feet
Total Time | 2 hours
Permits/Fees | Yes, cash only. Bring small bills!
Trailhead | Water Wheel Falls Hiking Trail
Road Conditions | Paved, 2WD.
Dog Friendly | Yes, leashed. They’ll love the water!

Follow the trail on AllTrails!

Best Seasons For Hiking Water Wheel Falls

The best months for hiking this trail are April through September. If it happens to be a late winter then waiting until May would probably be best, especially if you plan on swimming. The water is FREEZING but during the hot months it is a welcome refresh.

It is very important to note this area is prone to flashfloods. From the parking lot all the way to the falls you will be in a flashflood zone. Always check the weather prior to your visit for rainfall. Even if there is rainfall miles away, but it is not necessarily raining in Payson, it is considered dangerous for the water flows from miles and miles away down the Easter Verde River and Ellison Creek.

In 2017 a flashflood tore through Water Wheel Falls, taking the lives of 10 people. They had no warning and hardly any time to react. This event was a local tragedy that will always serve as a reminder to the importance of watching the weather forecast, even as far away as the Tonto National Forest.

Getting There

It is very easy getting to the parking lot for Water Wheel Falls! Just put the name in Google Maps and it will map you right to it.

From Payson, head north and turn right onto Houston Mesa Road. You’ll follow this road for a little over 7 miles to the very well marked Water Wheel parking lot. The lot sits past First Water Crossing (you’ll see signs), and if you make it to Second Water Crossing you’ve gone too far.

The parking lot hosts restrooms and a decent amount of parking spots, but it will fill up fast on prime swimming weekends. A day use fee is required so bring small bills because I swear the amount is always changing!

Hiking To Water Wheel Falls

From the parking lot you’ll be able to easily spot the dirt trail that leads you to the falls. It starts out wide, flat, and pretty sandy as you hike along a portion of the East Verde River. Along the way there are some open spots where you can set up for the day and wade into the water. This is especially nice if you have little ones. Early in the morning you’ll often times see fisherman too. But, if you want to make it to the falls you’ll fight the urge to stop early- it gets better!

Eventually you’ll hike upon a steep rock incline. Yes, you have to hike up this! It is the steepest part of the hike and can be slippery if you’re not wearing the right shoes. Once up top you’ll see a creek branching off on the right which is Ellison Creek.

You’ll cross the East Verde River and hike up Ellison Creek until you reach Water Wheel Falls. Along the way it can get slippery and a little tricky as you’re climbing over rocks. The little ones may need a hand but overall it isn’t anything too strenuous.

Everyone usually climbs onto the log and jumps off into the pool of water below. The emerald green water is extremely refreshing!

You can explore past Water Wheel Falls even more if you’re feeling adventurous and find some more cascading falls.

Once you’ve had your fill just retrace your steps back to the trailhead!

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