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 Kohl's Ranch, Tonto Village and Christopher Creek.
Located on the banks of Tonto Creek just 16 miles east of Payson on Highway 260, Kohl's Ranch has been a gathering place for people for more than 100 years.
The original patent on the property was granted to Mr. Lewis Kohl. He and his family lived in a large "dwelling house" built by a previous settler.
Mrs. Kohl decided to start renting rooms to the hunters, fishermen and miners who traveled the wagon trail to the Rim. She served three meals a day and rang a big dinner bell when the food was ready.
Over the years, the home-cooked meals and warm hospitality of the Kohls won them many friends. The ranch became the favorite gathering place for Saturday night dances, weddings, potluck dinners and goat roping contests.
Today that tradition continues. While the old dance hall is gone, Kohl's Ranch remains one of the most popular places in the Rim country.
You can go horseback riding year-round at Kohl's Ranch Stables, fish for 200 pounds of stocked trout, go mountain biking, enjoy a swim in the resort's heated pool, relax in the hot tub or sauna, sharpen your skills on the putting green, cavort on the sports court, or work out in the mini-fitness center. For those quiet moments, borrow a book from the Zane Grey Library and curl up by the fireplace.
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. On Saturdays, a variety of supervised activities are available for children, including snowman contests, fishing lessons, treasure hunts, nature walks, crafts, movies, children's bingo, and bug hunts. Kohl's Ranch also has a full playground.
Other recreational options include paddle tennis, pool, horseshoes, basketball, volleyball, bocce ball, shuffleboard and, if you're really looking for something special to do, there's even an outdoor wedding chapel.
Kohl's also works closely with Payson Adventures, so guests at the property get special rates on four-by-four junkets to Doll Baby Ranch, Promontory Point on the Rim, and other historic and scenic destinations.
Pets are welcome everywhere but in the guest rooms. The resort has kennels for smaller pets and horse stalls for larger ones. And once Fido, Fluffy and Man-of-War are secured for the evening, it's the perfect time to join your fellow guest for S'mores, served nightly by the pool, or hot cocoa and cookies around the fireplace.
A new addition this year is an outdoor candle and craft store called Spirit of the Wood and Glen at Kohl's Ranch.
Besides a wonderful restaurant offering enticing breakfast, lunch and dinner choices, Kohl's Ranch also provides live entertainment on Saturday nights. Special fall and winter dining events include a Thanksgiving buffet, Christmas buffet, New Year's Eve extravaganza, Valentine's sweetheart dinner, and Easter buffet.
Although the property is a time-share, rooms are available to the public. Winter rates range from $95 a night for a lodge room, up to $1,000 a night for the most exclusive cabin.
One of the true highlights of the holiday season takes place right in the beautifully decorated Kohl's Ranch lobby -- a mini-village that makes a glorious Christmas scene.
At 7 a.m., Tuesday, Oct. 14, Christopher Creek was changed forever.
At that time, the Arizona Department of Transportation opened the brand new bypass that takes Highway 260 around that scenic community instead of through it.
Christopher Creek celebrated by blocking off the street and holding a massive festival that featured horse and buggy rides, hayrides, live music, and arts and crafts.
While the community realizes it will no longer have the captive traffic from Highway 260, it looks forward to developing new opportunities.
"ADOT's research shows we can expect a 6.5 percent drop in business with the bypass, but it will give us a chance as a community to pull together and become a destination resort and have some of these events and street parties that we couldn't have before when a major highway ran through here," Susan Keown of ERA Realty said.
The business community is working on a whole host of new festivals and events that they hope will become Christopher Creek traditions, Debbie Aschbrenner, owner of Tall Pines Market, said.
"With camping and cabins, we really are a destination anyway, and we're going to create the festivals and other attractions that will make us even more so," Aschbrenner said.
Fall colors peak on Oct. 18, Keown said, and usually last about four weeks thereafter.
All the local businesses have maps available showing the best places to hike and drive to enjoy the color season.
In the winter, people stay in Christopher Creek to enjoy cross country skiing at Forest Lakes, or nearby sledding at any of a number of hilly locations. Many hunters also stay in Christopher Creek, Aschbrenner said.
"It's fun to bring kids up who have never seen snow just to play in it, even if it's just parking off the side of Colcord Road to build a snowman," Keown said.
Ice fishing is growing in popularity, too.
"The easiest spot to get to go ice fishing is Willow Springs Lake," she said.
Christopher Creek is also one of the best places to enjoy outdoor holiday lighting as merchants and residents go all out to create a memorable display.
Enjoying the Rim country
Local Western artist and outdoor 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 are some of the places and activities he enjoys the most:
"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."
"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."
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.