Tonto Forest A Place Of Endless Surprises


Residents and visitors to the Rim country enjoy one of America's truly magnificent natural settings. In fact the Mogollon Rim ranks with the Grand Canyon as the state's two most spectacular landforms.

The words of popular Western novelist Zane Grey, who had a cabin in Rim country, come closest to capturing the rim's magnificence:


Nature puts on quite a show in the Rim country, where mountain trails can lead you to a babbling brook, a peaceful meadow, or to a sparkling waterfall.

"Westward along the rim, vast capes jutted out, differing in shape and length, all ragged sharp, fringed, reaching darkly for the gold and purple glory of the sunset. Shafts and rays of light streamed from the rifts in the clouds, blazing upon the rock faces of the wall. Eastward the rim zigzagged endlessly into pale cold purple. Southward a vast green hollow ran like a river to the sea, to empty, it seemed, into space. Beyond that rose dim spectral shapes of mountains, remote and detached. To the north the great wall shut out what might lie beyond...."

Because the Rim has been largely preserved as national forest, it remains much as Zane Grey described it. In addition to 239 species of birds, including eagles, hawks and ravens, it is home to Rocky Mountain elk, both mule and whitetail deer, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, fox, javelina and coyote.

Despite the wondrous diversity of the creatures with whom we share the Rim country, it is a land big enough to accommodate visitors of all persuasions. From picnickers to hikers, bird-watchers to campers, fly fishermen to stump-sitters, back-road four-wheelers to mountain bikers, backpackers to nature photographers -- the Rim country has what you're looking for.

And chances are, you'll also find some things you weren't looking for. Because the Rim country is, after all, a place of endless surprises.

To help you maximize your time in the forests of the Rim country, Walt Thole, a member of the Payson Ranger District recreation staff, provides the latest information on things to do and how to do them safely and without leaving a trace.


For people who want to camp overnight, the Payson Ranger District has five campgrounds -- Houston Mesa and Houston Mesa Horse Camp, Ponderosa, Sharp Creek, Christopher Creek and Upper Tonto Creek.

"Christopher Creek is our most popular campsite," Thole said, "primarily because we have a creek that runs right through it that is stocked by Arizona Game and Fish at least once a week."

Campsites have fire rings, grills, picnic tables, rest rooms and water hydrants for washing and drinking. Rates vary from $10 to $15 per night, and campers are allowed to stay up to 14 days at national forest campsites.

"They do have to leave the Tonto National Forest for the balance of a month, but they can move on to the next forest, like the Coconino or the Apache-Sitgreaves," Thole said. "That's a rule we have in place to keep people from homesteading. The forest is for recreation, not for a home."

Most campgrounds are operated on a first-come, first-served basis, but reservations can be made for Houston Mesa and for groups by calling 1-877-444-6777 or at

Wildlife Viewing

The Rim country is a great place to see wildlife. Elk and deer can often be seen along the Control Road, the 300 Road, and at Canyon Creek and Lower Canyon Creek.

Canyon Creek also is a good place to spot bald eagles, and most any riparian area is a good place to view neo-tropical migratory birds like sparrows, finches and warblers. Most of the soaring birds in the Rim country are turkey vultures or ravens.

Early morning and dusk are generally the best times to see wildlife.


Hunting seasons open at least part of the summer include coyote, mountain lion and rabbit. While coyotes and rabbits only require a license, mountain lions, because they are designated "big game," require both a license and a tag.

Biking, Hiking & Horseback Riding

The Highline Trail is probably the most popular place to hike, according to Thole. Featuring 51 miles of spectacular views, it begins at Pine Trailhead on Highway 87 and ends at Two-Sixty Trailhead on Highway 260.

Horton Creek Trail also is popular, and it can be accessed off the Tonto Fish Hatchery Road just past Kohl's Ranch. Go left onto the 289 Road, park in the Horton Creek picnic area, and walk across the bridge.


The Tonto National Forest is in the process of re-evaluating its current ATV policy, but for now all roads or trails can be used by ATVers unless posted closed. Maps are available at the Payson Ranger District office.

Rim Lakes Recreation Area

The Rim Lakes area, atop the Rim in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, is frequented by locals and tourists alike. The lakes include:

  • Woods Canyon Lake -- Dammed in 1956, Woods Canyon is one of the most popular recreation areas in all of Arizona. It is stocked with catchable-sized trout and features such amenities as boat rentals, a picnic area, five campgrounds and a nature trail.
  • Willow Springs Lake -- Rainbows and brown trout abound in this lake which offers outstanding access and a paved ramp.
  • Bear Canyon Lake -- A favorite of fishermen, this 60-acre lake holds rainbows, brookies, cutthroat and arctic grayling.

Behaving in Bear Country

Conflicts occasionally arise when black bears and people share the same habitats. While most bears will detect you in the area and leave without being seen, bears should always be treated as potentially dangerous.

The greatest attractant to bears is food. You can minimize conflicts by eliminating the availability of food.

Black bears, by the way, come in a variety of colors -- including black, brown and cinnamon.

Fire Safety

Be safe with fire and obey any restrictions. The best way to keep forest fire damage low is to keep them from getting started.

"We are looking at campfire restrictions, maybe starting as soon as Memorial Day," Thole said.

Forest Closures

Parts of the Tonto National Forest also may be closed by Memorial Day, especially around Pine and Strawberry where the bark beetle has killed large numbers of trees.

"If we get rain, which isn't very likely, things could be kept open," Thole said.

Land Ethics

Chances are you're visiting the forest for solitude and a wilderness experience, but enjoying wildlands also requires a commitment to preserve them.

Keeping forests in their wild state is something we all can do by practicing "No Trace" ethics.

The Payson Ranger District office has a free pamphlet detailing ways you can be a responsible forest visitor.

For more information, the Payson Ranger District office (on Highway 260 across from Gila Community College) and the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce (at Main Street and Highway 87) have a wealth of informational brochures and maps that will help make your stay in the Rim country more pleasurable. The chamber's phone number is (928) 474-4515 and the ranger district office's number is (928) 474-7900.

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