To get a background on the area’s history, go to Green Valley Park, where the Rim Country Museum, 700 Green Valley Pkwy. (www.rimcountrymuseum.org; tel. 928/474-3483) is housed in the oldest forest ranger station and residence still standing in the Southwest. Inside you’ll find displays on the region as well as a special Zane Grey exhibit and a reconstruction of the cabin Grey lived in on and off from 1921 to 1929, before an argument with Arizona Game & Fish rangers led to his promise to leave Arizona and never return. Grey made good on it, even though 28 of his 57 novels have Arizona settings. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday from 10am to 4pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, and $3 for children 12 to 18.
About 5 miles north of town, off Ariz. 87 on Houston Mesa Road, you can visit the ruins of Shoofly Village in the Tonto National Forest. This village was first occupied nearly a thousand years ago by peoples related to the Hohokam and Salado. It once contained 79 rooms, though today only rock foundations remain. An interpretive trail helps bring the site to life.
If you’re feeling lucky, spend some time and money at the Mazatzal Casino (www.mazatzalcasino.com; tel. 800/777-7529 or 928/474-6044), a half-mile south of Payson on Ariz. 87. The casino is run by the Tonto Apaches.
The area’s most popular attraction is Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, 10 miles northwest of Payson on Ariz. 87 (www.azstateparks.com; tel. 928/476-4202), which preserves the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. In 1877, gold prospector David Gowan, while being chased by Apaches, became the first white man to see this natural bridge, which stands 183 feet high and 150 feet across at its widest point. Admission to the park is $7 for adults and $4 for children 7 to 13. The park is open Thursday through Monday from 9am to 5pm.
About 15 miles north of Payson on Ariz. 87 is the village of Pine, and another 3 miles beyond this, the village of Strawberry. Here, in a quiet setting in the forest, you’ll find a few shops selling antiques and crafts and, on Ariz. 87 in Pine, the Pine-Strawberry Museum (www.pinestrawhs.org; tel. 928/476-3547), a small museum that chronicles the history of this area. From May 15 to October 15, the museum is open Monday through Thursday from 10am to 2pm and Friday through Sunday from 10am to 4pm; other months the museum is open Monday through Saturday 10am to 2pm. Admission is $1 (kids 10 and under get in for free). From Strawberry, drive west 1 3/4 miles on Fossil Creek Road to visit the old Strawberry Schoolhouse (www.pinestrawhs.org/schoolhouse.html), a restored log building dating from 1885 and billed as the oldest standing schoolhouse in Arizona. It’s open mid-May to mid-October Saturday from 10am to 4pm and Sunday from noon to 4pm; mid-June through early August, the schoolhouse is also open Friday and Monday from 10am to 4pm.
If you continue west past the schoolhouse, the gravel Fossil Creek Road leads 10 miles down into a deep and spectacular canyon. It’s a bit hair-raising, but if you like views, it’s well worth the white knuckles and dust. At the bottom, Fossil Creek offers some of the most idyllic little swimming holes you could ever hope to find. If you make it down here on a weekday, you just might have a swimming hole all to yourself. A permit is required to enter from April 1 to October 1 and can be obtained at www.recreation.gov.
One of the most popular scenic drives in the area is along the top of the Mogollon Rim on 45-mile-long Forest Road (F.R.) 300. As the road clings to the edge of the rim, you’ll get stunning views of the forest far below. There are plenty of places to stop, including lakes, picnic areas, trail heads, and campgrounds. This is a good gravel road and can be negotiated in summer in a standard passenger car. In winter, however, the road is not maintained. To access the rim road from Payson, head east on Ariz. 260 or north on Ariz. 87 for 30 miles and watch for signs.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.