Ellison Creek Cascades Hike

Difficulty
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Easy
Duration
This reflects the estimated time the majority of users will take on this trail. If you are slower, add time to the top-end figure. If you are fast, then you may complete this route faster than this time range.
0.5-1h
Distance
This reflects the return distance of this route as measured by the GPS file.
2.4 km
Elevation
This reflects the total elevation gained throughout this route as measured by the GPS file. This includes all ascents and descents, and is higher than what is quoted in most route guides, which simply measure the distance between the starting-point and high-point of the route.
52 m
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Directions to Trailhead

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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Route Description for Ellison Creek Cascades Hike

The appeal of a natural swimming hole at the end of a hike is an obvious one. Nothing feels better than a refreshing dip in cool water after trekking through the desert! The Ellison Creek Cascades hike is one of the top swimming hikes in the state, and it’s our top pick on hot days.

This route leads you along the East Verde River to the confluence with Ellison Creek. It’s well-equipped with tons of spots to cool off, cliff jumping areas, and a big natural swimming hole near the waterfall.

This trail isn’t very well marked, but as long as you keep following the water, you shouldn’t have any issues finding your way. You’ll be hiking over rocky terrain and crossing creeks on logs, so wear grippy footwear that you won’t mind getting wet.

When it comes to cliff jumping, you’ll likely see people doing so. While the water in the usual cliff jumping spots tends to be deep enough, we strongly encourage caution. Check out the water beforehand and note any hazards under the surface. The canyon where cliff jumping happens is narrow and you’ll have to climb your way back up on the rocks.

Please note that this hike is in an area that is very prone to flash flooding in the monsoon season. Check the forecast before visiting and do not attempt this hike if there is rain coming. A family was tragically killed here in a flood several years ago. Additionally, keep your shoes on as you hike. Some parts of the trail are prone to having broken glass on them (pack out what you pack in!).

From the trailhead, take a look at the old water wheel before setting off on the dirt path on your left. You’ll begin on a flat, sandy trail with the river to your right. The terrain soon gets rockier, and the marked trail fades away. Keep following the river.

Watch for a small, dramatic gorge in the granite. This is where most of the cliff jumping takes place. Continue along the gorge and over a hill. This is where most of the elevation gain happens, and although it’s mild, small kids might need a breather on the way.

When you reach the confluence of the river and creek, go right along the creek. You’ll cross in a few places, aided by rocks and logs.

You’ll reach the Ellison Creek Cascades and the swimming hole at the end of the hike. This is our favorite spot to swim on the trail, with an emerald green pool waiting underneath imposing walls of red granite. There’s a log with steps carved into it to help you get out of the water.

Splash around, set up your picnic, get some sun, and enjoy this unique spot before packing up and retracing your steps to the trailhead.

Hiking Route Highlights

Ellison Creek Cascades

The Ellison Creek Cascades, also called Water Wheel Falls, flow into a natural swimming hole in a scenic red granite gorge. The falls and the creek are frequented by hikers and swimmers. Tadpoles and crawfish can be found in the creek, which tends to stay quite chilly and refreshing year-round.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the Ellison Creek Cascades free?

There is a $10 fee to park at the trailhead from March through November. Fees are subject to change.

When is the best time to visit the Ellison Creek Cascades?

Most visitors come between May and October when the weather is at its hottest. Be careful if you choose to hike between June and August when the temperatures can be overwhelmingly high.

Are Water Wheel Falls and the Ellison Creek Cascades the same thing?

Yes, these are two names for the same location.

Insider Hints for Ellison Creek Cascades Hike

  • Bring blankets and towels to spread out on the rocky banks of the swimming hole if you want to sit and relax.
  • There is some camping available at Water Wheel if you want to stay for a night or two.

Getting to the Ellison Creek Cascades Hike Trailhead

The trailhead for the Ellison Creek Cascades Hike is on Houston Mesa Road.

Route Information

  • Backcountry Campground

    Water Wheel

  • When to do

    April-October

  • Pets allowed

    Yes - On Leash

  • Family friendly

    Yes

  • Route Signage

    Poor

  • Crowd Levels

    Extreme

  • Route Type

    Out and back

Ellison Creek Cascades Hike Elevation Graph

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