Hikes in Tonto National Forest

Region in Arizona, United States

There are so many gorgeous trails in the Tonto National Forest, choosing which ones to explore first is no easy task. Thankfully, choosing the best hikes in this amazing part of the Grand Canyon State is easier than ever with our wide-ranging collection of route guides. From relaxed beginner-friendly strolls to epic mountain-scaling climbs, there’s something for every level in the Tonto National Forest. With scenery that oscillates from cacti-studded desert to lush pine forest, you’ll just want to keep hiking, and hiking, and hiking.

The trails in the Tonto National Forest can be used by hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, families, those with dogs, and backpackers. With proximity to Phoenix in some parts of the forest, it’s a top destination for hikers in the city, but the more far-flung trails will speak to the lovers of the remote wilderness, too.

15 Must-Do Hikes in the Tonto National Forest

As you plan your adventures in the Tonto National Forest, start with these 15 hikes. Of course, we’ve got over 100 routes in this region that you can follow, so this is only the start! These hikes are some of our favorite in the forest and show off the unique desert beauty of this area, from saguaro-lined trails to hidden swimming holes.

Since the Tonto National Forest is so big, we recommend taking a good look to track down all the trails in whatever part you’ll be visiting. Some corners are lushly forested, some are dry and cholla-filled, but all of them capture the unique, changing landscape of Arizona. Let’s get started!

  • Water Wheel Falls - Water Wheel Falls is a hike near Payson that has become increasingly popular because of its excellent swimming opportunities. The trail was named for an old water wheel you can see from the trailhead, and the route follows the East Verde River to a gorge used by cliff jumpers and a short waterfall into a wonderful swimming hole.
  • Wave Cave Trail - You probably didn’t think you could surf in Arizona, did you? The Wave Cave is a unique cave where a “wave” of rock protrudes out into the cave opening. It’s one of the many fascinating rock formations and caves that make Arizona’s landscape so fun to explore. The hike to the cave is moderate, with a few short, steep sections.
  • Box Canyon Trail - When the temperatures start to soar, you need a chilled-out afternoon in a refreshing swimming hole. The Box Canyon Trail is a quick 0.8 mi hike that leads you down into a box canyon with a swimming hole in it. The red granite walls are gorgeous and the water feels perfect when the sun is shining.
  • Verde Hot Springs - The Verde Hot Springs hike takes you along an easy trail to a hot spring at an abandoned resort. Perched along the Verde River, the pools were constructed in the 1920s when this area was a tourist attraction. A fire in the 1960s destroyed the resort, but the foundation and pools survived. Abandoned ever since, the pools are open for public use and offer a unique spot to get a soak in.
  • Treasure Trail and Siphon Draw Loop - The Treasure Trail and Siphon Draw Loop is a 3.0 mi hike with amazing desert scenery. This route takes you through a dramatic basin lined by low granite mountains, and you can also use the trail to climb The Flatiron. Even if you want to stay on the easier paths, this is a hike with incredible scenery. It offers a lot without being too difficult or demanding.
  • Horton Creek Trail - Horton Creek Trail is a 13.8 km popular hike enjoyed by everyone from families to solo hikers to those with dogs. The trail follows along Horton Creek, taking you past waterfalls, small pools, and through trees. This is a very relaxing hike, and despite the elevation gain and distance, it feels fairly gradual until a bigger climb at the end of the trail, which can be skipped in favor of an easier trip.
  • Butcher Jones Trail - Butcher Jones Trail leads you through the Sonoran Desert to the shores of Saguaro Lake and the Salt River. This is an absolute oasis in the middle of the desert and an excellent place to spot wildlife like bighorn sheep, javelinas, and bald eagles. If you’re exceptionally lucky, you could even spot the wild horses of the Lower Salt River while travelling through the area.
  • Bob Bear Trail - Bob Bear Trail (formerly known as Fossil Springs Trail) is one of the most popular day hikes in the Tonto National Forest. This trail leads you along a canyonside route with amazing views of the Verde Valley, down through a treed-in trek, and to Fossil Springs. These springs flow over a short waterfall into a swimming hole. It’s a beautiful site that’s ideal on hot, sunny days.
  • Picketpost Mountain Trail - Picketpost Mountain Trail is a 4.2 mi hike that leads you up a dramatic, isolated butte. Previously used as a battleground in efforts by Geroge Stoneman to seize this land from the Yavapai, the butte is now an area for campers and hikers to appreciate Arizona’s rugged scenery. At the top, make sure you bring a little note or treat to place in the mailbox. You can also read the notes from previous hikers.
  • Bulldog Saddle and Pass Mountain - The Bulldog Saddle and Pass Mountain Trail Loop is a fun hike that starts right from the city limits of Apache Junction. The hike takes you all the way around Peak 3004 and beside Pass Mountain. The views are awesome and the hike will get your legs working without being overly strenuous. This is a good pick if you want to feel like you’re in the mountains without having to actually climb one.
  • Hawes Trail System Loop - The Hawes Trail System is a well-developed mountain biking and hiking route collection near the Salt River. This loop makes use of several trails in the system to put together a hike with awesome desert and river scenery. You can even check out an old mine shaft from the region’s past mining days.
  • Blue Wash Trail - Blue Wash Trail is a scenic 2.8 mi just north of Phoenix. This route leads you through a wash to Camp Creek Falls. With rugged canyon scenery, a few viewpoints, and the flowing water to follow as you near the falls (depending on the time of year), this is an enjoyable hike for all skill levels. This trail is also popular with horseback riders.
  • Lone Mountain - Lone Mountain, also known as EJ Peak by locals, is a 2,800-foot mountain in the Usery Range just outside of Phoenix. The trail up the mountain and back is only 2.3 mi roundtrip, making this one of the easier summits you can bag. From the top, enjoy a fantastic view of Pass Mountain, Brown’s Peaks, McDowell Peak, and the rest of the Goldfield and Usery Mountains in the distance.
  • Praying Hands to Slot Rock - Want to check out two of the coolest rock formations in the Tonto National Forest in one hike? The Praying Hands to Slot Rock hike is an awesome trek that shows off just how otherworldly the scenery of the Arizona desert can be. You’ll start at Praying Hands, a rock formation that--you guessed it--looks just like praying hands. You’ll then hike to Slot Rock, another neat formation with natural windows and narrow slots.
  • Massacre Falls - As the legends of the Superstition Wilderness say, a rich Mexican family came to this area to mine gold in the 1840s. Cornered and killed by the Apache, Massacre Falls and Massacre Falls Trail got their names from this bloody past. Don’t let the moniker deter you, though. This is a great waterfall hike with lots of pleasant scenery and not as much violence these days.

Scroll down to see even more hiking trails in the Tonto National Forest.

When is the Best Time to Hike in the Tonto National Forest

The best time to hike in the Tonto National Forest depends on the part of the forest you’re in. If you’re closer to Phoenix or exploring lower elevation desert trails, you’ll want to avoid the scorching summer months. Visiting between mid-October and late May will keep you out of the brutal heat. Note that this region experiences a monsoon season in the summertime that can make hiking dangerous due to flash flooding. As a rule of thumb, raincheck your hike if a monsoon is on the way.

If you’re in higher elevation areas, you’ll often be able to hike year-round. Some mountaintops get snow in the winter that can make hiking difficult, but for the most part, a light jacket should suffice to make your winter explorations in the forest viable. No matter where you are in the forest, the summer will likely still get very hot, so if you’re not used to the Arizona heat, we recommend avoiding July and August at least.

Other Outdoor Activities in the Tonto National Forest

While the trails are excellent, hiking is certainly not the only way to explore the Tonto National Forest! There’s lots that can be done outside out here.

Adventurers on two wheels can take advantage of the many mountain bike and dirt bike paths. Those with four-legged friends can explore horse and dog-friendly trails. Campers can set up their tents in sites both backcountry and front-country. Photographers can capture the rugged beauty of the desert and the unique wildlife that calls it home, and those who love off-roading will find exciting trails to cruise.

How to Plan a Trip to the Tonto National Forest

The Tonto National Forest is an easy enough region to plan a trip to, with only a bit of advance planning necessary to make sure your trip goes off without a hitch.

Since the forest is so large, you’ll want to pick a home base or two. The Phoenix area enjoys easy access to a large part of the forest, particularly the northern and northeastern suburbs. If you want to stay out of the city, there are lots of routes accessible from Payson, Goldfield, Roosevelt, and other small towns northeast of Phoenix. State parks and towns within the Tonto National Forest often offer camping opportunities. If you’ll be booking campsites in the busy season (generally April-May and October-November), book as soon as you know your plans to ensure you get the spots you need.

Most of the trails in the Tonto National Forest require a pass. Check with the USDA to see what kind of pass best suits your travel plans. Day passes can be purchased at many gas stations throughout the forest.

Arizona Adventure Tours

From deserts to epic canyons and from red rock mountains to creek-lined forests, Arizona’s got some of the most impressive and diverse scenery in the United States. Want to see it with the help of an expert guide or take a self-guided tour? Check out our adventure tours in Arizona.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Tonto National Forest

Is the Tonto National Forest worth visiting?

The Tonto National Forest is definitely worth it, especially for those who want to hike, bike, or otherwise explore somewhere that feels rugged and off the beaten path. With a diverse range of scenery to see, you can appreciate the desert beauty near Phoenix or head up into the mountains to check out grand forests.

What is the best month to visit the Tonto National Forest?

We like to visit the forest in the spring (April and May) when the wildflowers are starting to bloom and the weather isn’t too hot yet.

Why is it called the Tonto National Forest?

The forest contains the Tonto Basin, which is where the name came from.

Can you have a fire in the Tonto National Forest?

This area is extremely prone to wildfires, so many campsites restrict fire activity. Check with your specific destinations and don’t start any fires unless you can confirm they’re permitted.

Can you camp anywhere in the Tonto National Forest?

While you can’t quite camp anywhere, there are lots of camping areas in the forest you can take advantage of.

Explore other great hiking regions in the United States

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Best Hikes in Tonto National Forest

Open details for Water Wheel Falls Hike

Water Wheel Falls Hike

Easy
2.6 km
46 m
0.5-1h

Water Wheel Falls is a hike in the Tonto National Forest near Payson that has become increasingly popular because of its excellent swimming opportunities. The trail was named for an old water wheel you can see from the trailhead, and the route follows the East Verde River to a gorge used by cliff jumpers and a short waterfall into a swimming hole.

There are lots of points along this route where you can take a swim, but the swimming hole at the confluence of the two creeks is the best spot. This easy hike might not be well-marked, but it’s an exceptionally fun adventure for families or for any hiker on a hot Arizona day. Small children might need a hand on some of the rockier parts of the trail

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Open details for Wave Cave Trail

Wave Cave Trail

Moderate
4.8 km
265 m
1.5-2h

You probably didn’t think you could surf in Arizona, did you? The Wave Cave is a unique cave where a “wave” of rock protrudes out into the cave opening. It’s one of the many fascinating rock formations and caves that make Arizona’s landscape so fun to explore. The hike to the cave is moderate, with a few short, steep sections. Most hikers will be able to complete this trail.

If you want the perfect photo op in the cave, try hiking early in the morning before the route gets busy. You’ll also want to bring plenty of water and prepare for the heat of the desert, perhaps avoiding hiking from June through September altogether if you’re not used to the temperatures in this part of the world.

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Open details for Box Canyon Trail

Box Canyon Trail

Moderate
1.3 km
46 m
0.5h

When the temperatures start to soar, you need a chilled-out afternoon in a refreshing swimming hole. The Box Canyon Trail is a quick 0.8 mi hike that leads you down into a box canyon with a swimming hole in it. The red granite walls are gorgeous and the water feels perfect when the sun is shining.

This route is good for families, with only a bit of steep climbing needed to get down into the canyon. Additionally, it’s still a bit of a hidden gem that doesn’t see much traffic. You might just get the place to yourself, which is always a plus.

Note that the parking area and trailhead for this hike can both be tough to find. Bring a GPS track or a map with you to help you find your way.

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Open details for Verde Hot Springs Hike

Verde Hot Springs Hike

Easy
4.0 km
58 m
1h

The Verde Hot Springs hike takes you along an easy trail to a hot spring at an abandoned resort. Perched along the Verde River, the pools were constructed in the 1920s when this area was a tourist attraction. A fire in the 1960s destroyed the resort, but the foundation and pools survived. Abandoned ever since, the pools are open for public use and offer a unique spot to get a soak in.

The hike to the hot spring is quite easy. It’s about two and a half miles long with only about 200 ft of elevation gain. There are concrete steps that lead down to the springs in the final few feet of the route. Hikers of all skill levels will be able to complete it. You will need a high-clearance vehicle to reach the trailhead, though.

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Open details for Treasure Trail and Siphon Draw Loop

Treasure Trail and Siphon Draw Loop

Moderate
4.8 km
172 m
1.5-2h

The Treasure Trail and Siphon Draw Loop is a 3.0 mi hike in Tonto National Forest with amazing desert scenery. This route takes you through a dramatic basin lined by low granite mountains, and you can also use this route to climb The Flatiron. Even if you want to stay on the easier paths, this is a hike with incredible scenery. It offers a lot without being too difficult or demanding.

There are lots of trails in this area aside from this loop, so we recommend consulting a map if you’re unfamiliar with the network of routes to avoid getting lost. The good thing is that hikers who want to extend their adventures can make use of these trails to keep hiking.

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Open details for Horton Creek Trail

Horton Creek Trail

Hard
13.8 km
743 m
4.5-6.5h

Horton Creek Trail is a 13.8 km route in the Tonto National Forest that sees heavy traffic. This is a popular hike with everyone from families to solo hikers to those with dogs. The trail follows along Horton Creek, taking you past waterfalls, small pools, and through trees.

This is a very relaxing hike, and despite the elevation gain and distance, it feels fairly gradual until a bigger climb at the end of the trail, which can be skipped in favor of an easier trip. The atmosphere is so serene and the natural beauty so apparent that you won’t notice how far you’re hiking or how you’re climbing.

We like this route on warm days when you can dip your feet in the creek to cool off. This is also a fun hike for those with dogs who love water.

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Open details for Butcher Jones Trail

Butcher Jones Trail

Moderate
9.3 km
194 m
2-3h

Butcher Jones Trail leads you through the Sonoran Desert to the shores of Saguaro Lake and the Salt River. This is an absolute oasis in the middle of the desert and an excellent place to spot wildlife like bighorn sheep, javelinas, and bald eagles. If you’re exceptionally lucky, you could even spot the wild horses of the Lower Salt River while travelling through the area. The hike is moderately difficult, with some narrow, rocky sections of trail and occasional overgrowth. It’s mostly downhill for the first half of the hike, and then you’ll be gaining moderate elevation on the way back.

There is a beach and picnic area near the trailhead, so consider bringing along your picnic blankets and some bathing suits to cool off after your hike. Speaking of cooling off, this area can get incredibly hot in the summer months. We don’t recommend this hike between June and August, and you should be sure to bring lots of sunscreen, water, and protective clothing if you’re hiking between March and November.

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Open details for Bob Bear Trail

Bob Bear Trail

Moderate
13.4 km
459 m
3.5-5h

Bob Bear Trail (formerly known as Fossil Springs Trail, not to be confused with Fossil Creek) is one of the most popular day hikes in the Tonto National Forest. This trail leads you along a canyonside route with amazing views of the Verde Valley, down through a treed-in trek, and to Fossil Springs. These springs flow over a short waterfall into a swimming hole. It’s a beautiful site that’s ideal on hot, sunny days.

While this is a must-do hike, we don’t recommend bringing dogs or children. This route is very exposed to the hot sun and it is somewhat strenuous. Dehydration and heat stroke are risks on this hike. Bring plenty of water! Additionally, this is a permit-only site. You’ll need to purchase your permit ahead of time; there are no permits given at the site.

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Open details for Picketpost Mountain Trail

Picketpost Mountain Trail

Hard
6.8 km
631 m
3-4h

Picketpost Mountain Trail is a 4.2 mi out and back hike that leads you up a dramatic, isolated butte in the Tonto National Forest. Previously used as a battleground in efforts by Geroge Stoneman to seize this land from the Yavapai, the butte is now an area for campers and hikers to appreciate Arizona’s rugged scenery. At the top, make sure you bring a little note to place in the mailbox. You can also read the notes from previous hikers.

This trail is rated as hard and isn’t the best choice for families or beginners. There’s lots of elevation to be gained for a relatively short hike, and you’ll be out in the sun for the entire route. Bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat, and avoid hiking this trail between June and August when the temperatures soar.

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Open details for Ellison Creek Cascades Hike

Ellison Creek Cascades Hike

Easy
2.4 km
52 m
0.5-1h

The Ellison Creek Cascades are waterfalls in the Tonto National Forest near Payson that have become increasingly popular because of their great natural swimming opportunities. While the waterfalls are commonly called the Ellison Creek Cascades, you’ll be taking Water Wheel Trail to them. The trail was named for an old water wheel you can see from the trailhead, and the route follows the East Verde River to a gorge used by cliff jumpers and a short waterfall into a swimming hole.

There are lots of points along this route where you can take a swim, but the swimming hole at the confluence of the two creeks is the prime place to get in the water. This easy hike might not be well-marked, but it’s an exceptionally fun adventure for families or for any hiker on a hot Arizona day. Small children might need a hand on some of the rockier parts of the trail.

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