Little Forest Communities Offer Big Fun

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The scenic areas and rustic communities to the east and south of Payson offer a panoramic variety of recreational opportunities and activities.

On its way to the top of the Rim, Highway 260 meanders past some of the most spectacular vistas anywhere, as well as the communities of Kohl's Ranch and Christopher Creek.

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Horton Creek, "the prettiest of them all" according to Christopher Creek artist and poet Jim Hagen, proves no challenge for a trio of determined Labradors.

Kohl's Ranch

Located on the banks of Tonto Creek just 18 miles east of Payson on Highway 260, Kohl's Ranch has been a popular gathering place for more than 100 years.

The original patent on the property was granted to Lewis Kohl in 1924. He and his family lived in a large "dwelling house" built by a previous settler.

Kohl and his wife, Neecie, decided to start renting rooms to the hunters, fishermen and miners who traveled the wagon trail to the Rim. Mrs. Kohl 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 of hospitality continues. While the old dance hall is gone, Kohl's Ranch remains one of the most popular places in all the Rim country.

You can go horseback riding year-round at Kohl's Ranch Stables, catch a mess of trout without ever leaving the ranch, 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. On Saturdays, a full range of supervised activities is available for children.

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The lodge at Kohl's Ranch is a popular place for summer visitors to dine and enjoy live entertainment Friday and Saturday nights. Kohl's Ranch has been a popular Rim country gathering place for more than 100 years.

Other recreational options include hiking, mountain bike rentals, organized nature walks, paddle tennis, pool, badminton and boccie ball. For the romantic in you, Kohl's also features 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 also 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 guests 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 on Saturday nights.

Although the property is a time-share, rooms are available to the public. Summer rates range from $85 for a lodge room, up to $1,200 for the most exclusive cabin.

Christopher Creek

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It's the rustic, backwoods experience that lures visitors to Christopher Creek, and lodging accommodations like these are a big part of that ambience.

Another five miles east on Highway 260 is the community of Christopher Creek -- at 6,500 feet, a breath of pure, pine-scented air against the spectacular backdrop of the Mogollon Rim.

The big news out of this laid-back hiking and fishing mecca is the impact of the new bypass that takes Highway 260 around instead of through the community.

So far the results are somewhat mixed, but the bypass has already produced some benefits that promise to make Christopher Creek even more visitor friendly.

"The community used to feel divided by the highway," Susan Keown of ERA Realty said. "People would stay on this side of the road and wouldn't want to cross the street to the restaurants because of the traffic. It felt so divided. But now we see a lot of customers walking up and down the street going from business to business, and they can easily cross the street. It just feels much better; it feels like a community again."

The bypass also has provided greater access to Christopher Creek's greatest asset -- the natural beauty of its surroundings.

"We have hiking trails across from (Tall Pines Market)," Keown said. "The 284 Road that's there goes up to the Highline Trail, and many more people are able to walk across the street and walk up that road without dodging all that traffic."

Other hikes you won't want to miss, according to longtime Christopher Creek resident and avid hiker, Jim Hagen, include:

  • 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," he said. "There's a trail that goes west about a half mile to a little spring and stream that runs into Tonto Creek."
  • Canyon 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 that point.

"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."

Now that tourists have to go out of their way to visit Christopher Creek, the business community is staging festivals and other events on a regular basis to give them even more reasons to come.

"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," Keown said.

For Debbie Aschbrenner, owner of Tall Pines Market and Post Office, the concept of a destination resort isn't that much of a stretch.

"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," she said.

The bypass was created when ADOT completed a new 5.3-mile stretch of Highway 260 around Christopher Creek between mileposts 272 and 277. It's part of a project to widen 21 miles of Highway 260 to a four-lane divided highway between Star Valley and Colcord Road.

For information on cabin rentals and recreational opportunities in the Christopher Creek area, go to www.christophercreekchamber.com.

Atop the Rim

Continuing east on Highway 260 will take you up to the Mogollon Rim to lofty elevations in excess of 7,000 feet. Once on top the Rim, the sheer drop of 2,000 feet presents a spectacular view of canyons and distant mountain ranges.

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Roosevelt Lake is the big attraction in the Tonto Basin area. The lake was created in 1911 with the completion of Theodore Roosevelt Dam. The dam is 357 feet tall and 723 feet long.

A drive down Forest Road 300, also known as Rim Road, provides access to many spectacular scenic vantage points, while Willow Springs and Woods Canyon lakes are popular for fishing, canoeing, or just communing with nature.

Down south

Heading south from Payson, summer visitors will experience an entirely different aspect of the Rim country's scenic wealth, not to mention rustic communities like Rye and Tonto Basin.

Rye

The former is 12 miles south of Payson on Highway 87. The community's social center is the Rye Bar and Steakhouse, which bills itself as the "Liveliest Place in the Rim Country." Stop by on a weekend evening and enjoy dancing and live country music, plus the opportunity to mingle with the colorful locals.

Tonto Basin

Head east at the Highway 188 junction 17 miles south of Payson, and the scenery changes to open range with the Sierra Ancha and other mountains serving as stately backdrops.

Tonto Basin is nestled on the extreme northern shore of Roosevelt Lake at Tonto Creek. Its social center and the place to find out where the fish are biting is a complex of stores and services known as the Butcher Hook.

Another good place to stop for information is the new Tonto Basin Chamber of Commerce building at Rattlesnake Lane and Highway 188, about 1.5 miles south of Punkin Center. The chamber is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the office phone number is (928) 479-2839.

Websites on the area are currently being developed, but are not yet completed.

Outdoor recreation is what the Tonto Basin area is all about, according to Jerry Miles, chamber president. Besides activities like fishing, hiking, birding, picking wildflowers and four-wheeling, it's the outstanding camping that attracts many visitors.

"There are literally hundreds and hundreds of established campsites where you can still build a fire in the fire pit and be close to the lake," Miles said.

For the less adventuresome, a par-3 golf course beckons. And "indoor camping" is available at the Tonto Basin Inn and Punkin Center Lodge at the north end of town and the Roosevelt Resort at the south end.

Despite a combination of drought and flooding, things are looking up in Tonto Basin these days, according to Miles.

"It's been a good year for everybody," he said. "The real estate people say they've sold more houses this year than they ever have before. The lake is rising, and hopefully that will continue."

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