Water Wheel Falls 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.
2.6 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.
46 m
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Directions to Trailhead

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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Route Description for Water Wheel Falls Hike

Oh, that Arizona sun. If you’re feeling particularly scorched, nothing feels better than a cool, natural swimming hole. At least we think so! The Water Wheel Falls hike is one of the top swimming hikes in the state, and it’s absolutely perfect on a hot day.

This trail meanders along the East Verde River to the confluence with Ellison Creek. It’s decked out with tons of spots to cool off, cliff jumping areas, and a big natural swimming hole near the small waterfall. It’s a top-notch adventure if you’re looking to get your feet wet.

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’s okay to get wet.

When it comes to cliff jumping, you’ll see lots of people partaking. 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.

Please note that this hike is in an area that is extremely prone to flash flooding. 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 peek at the old water wheel before setting off on the dirt path on your left. You’ll hike on a flat, sandy trail with the river to your right. The terrain 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 Water Wheel Falls and the swimming hole at the end of the hike. This is our favorite spot to swim on the trail, with a refreshing 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

Water Wheel Falls

The Water Wheel Falls, also called the Ellison Creek Cascades, flows into a natural emerald swimming hole amidst a dramatic 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

Is Water Wheel Falls 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 Water Wheel Falls?

Most visitors come between May and October when the weather is at its hottest.

Is the hike to Water Wheel Falls hard?

This is a short, fairly easy hike.

Insider Hints for Water Wheel Falls 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 Water Wheel Falls Hike Trailhead

The trailhead for the Water Wheel Falls 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

Water Wheel Falls Hike Elevation Graph

Weather Forecast

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Water Wheel Falls Hike Reviews

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