The scenic areas along Highway 260 east of Payson offer a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities in the fall and winter.
On its way to the top of the Rim, the highway meanders past Tonto Village, Kohl's Ranch and Christopher Creek.
Local western artist and outdoors enthusiast Jim Hagen has owned a cabin in the lushly wooded Christopher Creek area since 1956, and he has spent a good amount of time over the years exploring the area. Here, he reveals some of the places and activities he enjoys the most:
The great 260 Outdoors
"Before the snows come, the 260 trailhead is a good hike," Hagen said. "You go up past Christopher Creek, past the highway maintenance yard, and on the left is a sign pointing to the trailhead. It's the Highline Trail and it goes about six miles to Christopher Creek.
"It's not real tough as far as climbing goes. There's some up and down, but it's fairly level. It follows the Rim, and in the fall there's usually lots of color. There are corrals at the trailhead, and people also ride bikes on it."
Speaking of fall color, Hagen says that an abundance of maple trees helps make the Christopher Creek/Kohl's Ranch area the closest fall color to Payson. Mid-October is usually the best time to get out and enjoy it.
Once the fall color season is over and the snow makes the Highline less accessible, sledding on local hills becomes an attractive option.
"You have to look for (hills to sled on)," Hagen said. "One of our favorites is to go up on top of the Rim where the snow stays around longer, take the Young Road a mile or two and there's a canyon on the north side that's great for sledding."
One of Hagen's favorite fall (and spring) hikes is into Box Canyon.
"Just west of the R Bar C ranch road on the first curve up the hill there's a place for cars to pull off and park," Hagen said.
"It's pretty steep, but it's one of the most beautiful spots in the area."
Confluence of Tonto and Hagler Creeks
"There's a little known spot where Tonto and Hagler Creeks come together where the bridge goes across," Hagen said. "There's a trail that goes west about a half mile to a little spring and stream that runs into Tonto Creek."
"Go up on top of the Rim and take the Young Road about five miles," Hagen said. "Go past the campground three or four miles to Canyon Creek. There's a fish hatchery at Upper Canyon Creek, and fly fishing at Lower Canyon Creek. There's just some beautiful meadows up there."
Christopher Creek Headwaters
"Just past Tall Pines Market is a Forest Service road," Hagen said. "At the end of the road there's a trail that goes to the headwaters of Christopher Creek. It's about a two-mile hike through some real pretty woods."
Horton Creek Headwaters
"My favorite hike of all is to go to the headwaters of Horton Creek, Hagen said. "Take the road that goes north just past Kohl's Ranch up to where the road crosses the bridge where Horton and Tonto creeks come together. Park in the parking lot and go up Horton Creek for about a half mile."
Horton is dry at the point, Hagen said.
"Years and years ago, it ran year-round, but after a major storm it took a nosedive and went underground and it still does. After a half mile you hit the creek again and it's a beautiful hike. After about 3.5 miles you come to the headwaters where the water comes out from under the Rim. It's a real pretty waterfall."
Halfway to civilization
If you prefer more civilized and organized pursuits without losing that rustic atmosphere, Kohl's Ranch offers a myriad of them. Just 18 miles east of Payson on Highway 260, the resort was once just a tiny post office, bar and dance hall with a floor of wood planks. Always a favorite with locals, it remains one of the most popular places in all the Rim country.
You can go horseback riding year-round at Kohl's Ranch Stables, enjoy a swim in the resort's heated pool, relax in the jacuzzi or sauna, sharpen your skills on the putting green, cavort on the sports court, or work out in the mini-fitness center.
There's a nearby hill that's perfect for sledding when there's snow on the ground, and nearby Forest Lakes offers cross country skiing as well.
Saturdays, a full range of supervised activities is available for children at Kohl's Ranch, says Susan Sampsell, the resort's marketing executive since 1996.
Other recreational options include paddle tennis, pool, badminton, boccie ball, and, if you're really looking for something special to do, there's even a wedding chapel.
Kohl's also works closely with Payson Adventures, so guests at the property get special rates on 4x4 junkets to Doll Baby Ranch, Promontory Point on the Rim, and other historic and scenic destinations.
The resort has also added kennels for smaller pets and horse stalls for larger ones. And once Fido, Fluffy and Trigger are secured for the evening, it's the perfect time to join your fellow guest for s'mores, served nightly by the pool.
Besides a wonderful restaurant offering enticing breakfast, lunch and dinner choices, Kohl's Ranch also provides live entertainment Saturday nights featuring the amazing voice of Lynda Harwood.
Although the property is a time-share, rooms are available to the public. Winter rates range from $95 for a lodge room, up to $270 for the most exclusive cabin.
But one of the true highlights of the holiday season takes place right in the beautifully decorated Kohl's Ranch lobby.
"Right below the stairs is a mini-village that makes the most glorious Christmas scene," Sampsell said. "People are just enthralled.
Just hangin' out
If all this still seems too strenuous, another option is to simply rent a cabin and hang out, and Christopher Creek has lots of options offering a range of choices from rugged to just the amount of creature comforts you're looking for. Roundup Christopher Creek correspondent Mikey Marazza and her husband recently went into the cabin rental business, opening a little place they call Wooden Nickel.
"We're finding a lot of people who are mostly here to get away from the Valley," Marazza said. "They love to sit out on their front decks and just look at the scenery. They love to cook out and just relax away from the hectic city. You really don't have to have anything for them to do."
Other rustic lodging options in Christopher Creek include the Grey Hackle Lodge with 11 cabins sleeping two to eight people ranging in price from $60 to $200 a night.
According to Grey Hackle owner Eric Olson, other lodging options in Christopher Creek include the Creekside Cabins over the Creekside Steakhouse, Christopher Creek Lodge with 20 cabins, and The Village at Christopher Creek. Elk Haven and Mountain Meadows Cabins are both on Colcord Road a few miles north of Christopher Creek.
Wherever you stay, there's nothing quite like Christopher Creek in the fall and winter.
"Right now all the leaves are changing to the golds and the reds," Olson said. "The elk have been bugling in the woods. The birds and squirrels are all stockpiling for the winter."
More and more people are also spending the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in Christopher Creek. In fact, Olson says he is already three quarters full for Christmas.
"I'm not completely full," he said, "but people need to make their plans and give us a call. Everybody comes up for the holidays."