Grab your favorite pair of cut-offs, pack a sandwich lunch and dive in – we’re taking you on a tour of Arizona’s best shady spots to get wet.
At the confluence of the East Verde River and Ellison Creek north of Payson, rampaging natural water features drench the heart of Zane Grey country. Steeped in frontier history, the craggy canyons that steer the waterways onto a collision course of flowing channels and unbridled spouts have provided homesteads for pioneers and fodder for Western novels. This is where John Wayne would take a bath.
These days it’s more party vibe than cattle drive along the 1.5-mile stretch of Houston Mesa Road, where a string of day-use sites collectively known as “Water Wheel” attracts hordes of heat-weary city folks. Four dirt lots – First Crossing, Water Wheel, Second Crossing and Third Crossing – all offer park-and-swim access to the water, but a little wading and hiking will get you to the really good stuff.
Just follow the flow and within a quarter-mile, you’ll find a chain of 20-to-40-foot-high cascades, slick rock fountains and relaxing whirlpools. The main attraction is the arching torrent and plunge pool at Ellison Creek Falls, where brisk water slips over polished cliffs before charging south toward the Verde River.
FACILITIES: Picnic tables, toilets
FEE: $6 daily fee per vehicle. Bring exact change for self-serve pay stations.
DOGS: Allowed on leash
GETTING THERE: From the State Route 87/260 junction in Payson, go 2 miles north on SR87 to Houston Mesa Road. Turn right and continue 7 miles for First Crossing, 7.5 miles for Water Wheel, 8 miles for Second Crossing and 8.5 miles for Third Crossing.
INFO: Tonto National Forest, http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/tonto/null/recarea/?recid=35587&actid=70
POST-SWIM: Extend your water-themed getaway at Verde River Rock House, an upscale bed and breakfast resort on the Verde River. 602 W. Eleanor Dr., Payson, 928-472-4304 or 602-696-0213, verderiverrockhouse.com
West Clear Creek
There are many swimming holes and other aquatic treasures throughout West Clear Creek, which, at 30 miles, is the longest drainage on the Mogollon Rim. You can make a day of it and hike the 11-mile round trip in about six hours, wading through four thigh-deep creek crossings, or you can beeline for the creek’s most superlative swimming hole: Bull Pen, located on the creek’s north side. An easy, 10-minute hike from the trailhead transports you to the desert swimming hole of your dreams: hulking red sandstone cliffs and verdant sycamores and cottonwoods frame a large, refreshing pool with depths ranging from 3-10 feet. Cliff-diving from the rock formations (8-20 feet) surrounding the pool is popular, and the Bull Pen’s deeper water makes this activity safer than it is at other swimming holes. Swimming, floating and picnicking along the banks are great options for families. You may not be able to swing from a vine into the water like the Riverdale gang in Archie Comics, but a freewheeling jump from a russet monolith makes a pretty nifty Arizona equivalent to the swimming holes of yore.
DOGS: Controlled/leashed allowed
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, drive north on Interstate 17, take exit 285 for General Crook Trail and turn right. Head east for a mile and a half and turn right onto AZ State Route 260, then drive 6.5 miles to Forest Road 618. Turn left immediately after the “Leaning Cowboy” landmark on the right side of the road, then drive two miles and turn right onto Forest Road 215. Follow this road for three miles to the parking area. Park, look for the gated entrance, then follow the signs marked “West Clear Creek Trail” until you see the zip line, after which you’ll take a right at the “Y” in the trail. This will take you down to the swimming hole. The dirt roads are rutted and, while passable by sedan, are better tackled with a high-clearance vehicle.
INFO: Mogollon Rim Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, 928-477-2255, http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/coconino/recreation/?cid=stelprdb5298713
POST-SWIM: After diving into the water at West Clear Creek, dive into a bowl of guacamole or a carne asada combo plate at Gabriela’s Taco Shop, a tiny taqueria just off the I-17 in Camp Verde. 1620 Arizona 60, Camp Verde, 928-567-2120, gabrielastacoshop.com
Wet Beaver Creek
Wet Beaver Creek is a 3.5-mile outdoor water park flanked by cacti-ensconced crags and sheer sandstone bluffs. For a casual outing, the Beaver Creek day-use picnic area (fee) is the quickest and easiest path to the water. But those willing to hoof it along Bell Trail #13 and its numerous spur paths will discover a mix of swift-flowing channels, neck-high pools, leaf-addled eddies and cowboy-soak tubs suitable for luxuriating under a refreshing canopy of sycamores. At the 2.5-mile point, the Weir Trail #85 spirals down to a forested cove where a partial concrete dam holds back enough flow for a serious splash-around. Although the attractions up to this point are satisfying enough, those in search of an epic cowabunga moment will want to trek or wade another mile to Bell Crossing and The Crack, a flood-whittled slot canyon with deep, chilly pools and a sandstone dive pad known as The Tongue of the Beaver.
FACILITIES: Restroom, picnic tables
FEE: Bell trailhead has free parking. There’s a $14 daily fee ($10 after 1 p.m.) per vehicle at Beaver Creek Picnic Area.
DOGS: Controlled/leashed allowed
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix go north on Interstate 17 to the Sedona exit 298. Turn right onto Forest Road 618 and continue 2 miles and park at either the Bell trailhead or Beaver Creek Picnic Area. Roads are sedan-friendly.
INFO: Red Rock Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, 928-203-2900, http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coconino/recreation/fishing/recarea/?recid=74377&actid=43
POST-SWIM: Vintages Grille offers an impressive wine and beer list including several Arizona classics to complement their eclectic menu of burgers, pizza, seafood and vegetarian dishes. 5155 N. Dave Wingfield Rd., Rimrock, 928-592-9220, vintagesgrille.com
Sycamore Canyon Wilderness begins with a crack on the Ponderosa pine-cluttered edge of the Colorado Plateau near Williams and ends with a splash at one of Arizona’s most classic swimming holes north of Clarkdale. Access to this extremely popular water play destination is via a 3.5-mile section of the Parsons Trail #144 that follows Sycamore Creek, a tributary of the Verde River. Swimming holes are spread along the entire length and getting to them begins on a high-desert mesa with a 200-foot decent into a lush riparian forest buttressed by sandstone escarpments and bizarre vertical walls of columnar basalt like those at Devil’s Postpile in California. After a 1.5-mile hike, a willow-caressed lagoon rolls out from a ledgy beach. If you like lots of company, dive in here, or continue hiking to find less crowded pools. The Big Kahuna shows up at the 3.5-mile point where the softly percolating issue of Parsons Spring refreshes a tiny lake besieged by a beveled ring of limestone shelves and a graceful tangle of alders and vines.
DOGS: Controlled/leashed allowed
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, travel north on Interstate 17 to exit 287 for State Route 260. Go left (west) on SR 260 and continue 14 miles to the town of Cottonwood. Once in Cottonwood, go straight through town on Main Street and Broadway (US 89A), following the signs to Tuzigoot National Monument toward Clarkdale. Turn right onto the signed road to Tuzigoot, cross the Verde River Bridge (at the half-mile point) and take the first left onto Sycamore Canyon Road (CR 139). The road turns into maintained dirt and then merges into Forest Road 131. Continue for 10.5 miles following the FR 131 and the Sycamore Canyon road signs to the trailhead. The dirt roads are passable by sedan but a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
INFO: Red Rock Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, 928-203-2900, http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coconino/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=55372&actid=50
POST-SWIM: Old Town Cottonwood’s Pizzeria Bocce is a hip restaurant and bar on the banks of the Verde River. 1060 N. Main St., Cottonwood, 928-202-3597, boccecottonwood.com
For years, Grasshopper Point took a backseat to Sedona’s star watering hole, Slide Rock. That’s just the way locals and in-the-know visitors liked it: While Slide Rock was always bustling with slipping and sliding visitors, Grasshopper Point remained an under-the-radar haunt for picnicking, fishing and swimming, with room to spread out and enjoy the quiet. Judging by the throngs of weekend visitors, the secret is out, but the vibe within Grasshopper’s sandstone stair-step cliffs is still more tranquil and tucked-away than the cacophony of Slide Rock, and on weekdays you could easily be the only soul in the hole (save for smatterings of tiny white trout). Boulders are bountiful on the easy downward path to the water and on the picnic-ready “beach.” The waters of Oak Creek crash and froth against the slick boulders, creating a respectable yet harmless current gliding over the stone-lined creek bottom. Hike or wade upstream for more intense cascades, and use caution when happily leaping off the terraced rocks.
FACILITIES: Picnic tables, toilets
FEE: $8 daily fee per vehicle (up to five people); $2 per person for walk-ins, bicycles and extra people. Bring exact change for self-serve pay stations.
DOGS: Not allowed
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, drive north on Interstate 17 and take exit 298 for AZ-179 North/State Highway 179 North. Follow AZ-179 North and take the first exit onto North State Route 89A. Drive for 2.5 miles and take a right. Grasshopper Point is 2 miles south of the Encinoso Picnic Area and is on the east side of the SR 89A. All roads are paved and parking is available beyond the pay station.
INFO: Red Rock Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, 928-203-2900, http://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/coconino/recreation/?cid=stelprdb5299994&width=full
POST-SWIM: Explore Tlaquepaque arts and crafts village and refuel with beer-battered fish and chips and a Horseshoe Hefeweizen at Oak Creek Brewery and Grill. 336 SR 179, Sedona, 928-282-4838, tlaq.com
Braving the steep, rocky and winding three-quarter-mile path that descends 500 feet from Kinder Crossing Trailhead #19, you’re rewarded with a pine- and alder-flanked clearing and a mossy, sandy beach abutting the soft trickle of East Clear Creek. The cool water at this entry point is shallow and better suited for wading or rafting than swimming, but wander up or downstream and you’ll stumble upon deeper pockets of water among the limestone canyon walls and twisty sandstone cliffs suitable for swimming. Jumping from rock to rock is also fun – just make sure to bring water socks or shoes with adequate grip (also necessary for the thrillingly vertical hike down to the water). The official trail continues across the water and up the other side of the canyon, but we say stay and play – or at least lean against a beached boulder and revel in the peaceful seclusion. You’ll need a rest before making the slog back up to the trailhead – that steep climb can feel downright Sisyphean for novice hikers (leave the little ones at home for this one), especially after a day swimming in the sun.
DOGS: Controlled/leashed allowed
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, drive north on I-17 and take exit 285 for General Crook Trail and turn right. Turn right onto AZ-260 East and drive for 32.4 miles. Turn left onto AZ-87 North, then turn right onto Forest Service Road 95. Continue 4.5 miles to Forest Road 95T and take a left onto that turn off. Follow the signs for a little more than half a mile to the trailhead, where you can park for free. The forest road is rutted, rocky and unpaved; a high-clearance vehicle is recommended, and the road should be avoided when it rains.
INFO: Mogollon Rim Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, 928-477-2255, http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coconino/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=54998&actid=50
POST-SWIM: Stock up on raw Arizona honey, locally made salsas and specialty jams and fruit butters at The Honey Stand (3961 N. AZ Hwy 87, Pine, 928-978-5571, thehoneystand.com). For a post-trek treat, indulge in soft pretzels with beer cheese and a Strawberry Blonde ale at THAT Brewery (3270 N. AZ Hwy 87, Pine, 928-476-3349, thatbrewery.com).
It takes some determination to get to the tinajas (rock pockets carved by running water) tucked high in Romero Canyon. These moisture-retaining granite basins worn smooth by eons of running water quench the thirst of local bighorn sheep and cool the bodies of hikers who make the 3-mile, uphill trek to reach them. Surrounded by the contorted terrain of Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains, Romero Canyon Trail #8 switchbacks uphill through ocotillo, creosote and Palo Verde-studded hillsides that harbor a collection of tiered potholes, tubs and beachy pools scoured out of Precambrian rock. Here, the perennial waters of the Romero Pools foster a green zone of moisture-loving plants including cattails, cottonwood and velvet ash that decorate and protect this cool and shady respite from the surrounding desert heat.
ELEVATION: 2,700′ – 3,600′
FACILITIES: Camping, restrooms, picnic areas at Catalina SP
FEE: $7 day use fee per vehicle
DOGS: Not allowed
GETTING THERE: 11570 N. Oracle Rd., Tucson.
From Phoenix, travel south on Interstate10 to the Tangerine Road exit 240. Follow Tangerine Road 13.5 miles to the stoplight at Oracle Road (Highway 77), go right (south) and follow the signs to the park entrance near milepost 81. Once inside the park, follow the main road 1.5 miles to the Romero Canyon trailhead.
INFO: Catalina State Park, 520-628-5798, azstateparks.com
POST-SWIM: Build your own guilt-free (or very guilty) frozen yogurt, custard, sorbet or gelato treat at Blue Banana Frozen Yogurt. You’ll go ape over the dozens of seasonal flavors and toppings available to create your personal bowl of deliciousness. 12125 N. Oracle Rd, Oro Valley, 520-989-3998, bluebananafrozenyogurt.com
Looking for more large, cool, shady things to jump into? Arizona is FULL of them.
[Difficult] Havasupai: To the natives who inhabit this valley, Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters.” And in a desert state, the sight of blue-green water spilling over red sandstone cliffs into turquoise pools is always a welcome sight. The area near Supai village in Havasu Canyon boasts five spectacular falling water formations: Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls, New Navajo Falls and Rock Falls. Camping spots fill up quickly during peak months (April-July), but if tent-living isn’t your thing anyway, book a reservation at the Supai Lodge, just a half hour’s walk from the campgrounds. Entrance fee: $35/person, environmental fee $5/group, camping fee $17/night, Havasupai Lodge $145 for up to four people. havasupaifalls.net
[Easy] Slide Rock: When Oak Creek washes over slickrock, it forms nature’s answer to Big Surf: a rollicking water slide and whirlpools perfect for submerged lounging. Crowds pack the place in summer, but you can escape by bird-watching, picnicking, fishing, hiking and wandering through the nearby apple orchard. 928-282-3034, azstateparks.com/Parks/SLRO/index.html
[Easy] Big Dipper – Hells Hole: Originally a pack-mule trail that led down into a deep canyon, Hells Hole is now a pool where Horse Thief Creek and Poland Creek converge. Buckthorn berries proliferate along the shores, while wildlife (including red-tailed hawks) look on. The Big Dipper, a waterfall oasis, is located on the eastern slopes of the Bradshaw Mountains. bradshawmountains.com
[Moderate] Bear Canyon: This moderate, 2.2-mile hike takes a little over an hour and rewards with a stop at Seven Falls, an area within Bear Canyon boasting abundant azure waterfalls and pools. To get there, park at the Sabino Canyon Visitor’s Center and take the Bear Canyon Tram route to the end of the line and look for the signed trail head (Bear Canyon Trail, FS No. 29). The trail crosses the stream seven times, and after some switchbacks ascending the canyon wall, you’ll find yourself directly opposite the falls. Sabino Canyon Recreation Area Visitor’s Center, 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Rd., 520-749-8700, sabinocanyon.com
3 CREEKS NEAR PAYSON
[Easy] Salome Creek – The Jug: The western part of the Sierra Ancha Wilderness near Roosevelt Lake, known as “The Jug,” is a hikeable, green-water-filled granite slot canyon carved by Salome Creek that demands wading. A classic canyoneering spot. 928-467-3200, www.fs.usda.gov/main/tonto/home
[Easy] Horton Creek: Minutes from downtown Payson, you can find Gordon Creek Falls rushing over rocky terrain and into a swimming hole where you can escape the Arizona heat in solitude. Nearby, a trail winds through fields of wildflowers, wild berries and ponderosa pine forests as it follows the Horton Creek up to its mouth, the Horton Spring. The water cascades over rocks along the trail and crashes down upon boulders at the spring, creating a classic waterfall. Peak season: May through October. Tonto National Forest, 602-225-5200, www.fs.usda.gov/tonto
[Moderate] Tonto Creek: Located in the valley between Pine and Payson, Tonto Natural Bridge is said to be the longest travertine arch in the world, spanning around 400 feet in length and standing 183 feet high. There are three walking paths in the park, including one (Waterfall Trail) that leads to its namesake cascade. View the bridge from four parking lot overlooks, or hike down into the canyon for a close-up and a refreshing dip. 10 miles north of Payson on Highway 87, 928-476-4202, azstateparks.com/Parks/TONA/index.html