If you want to see views that will knock your socks off, I know just the place. For this highly suggested excursion, however, you'll need to set aside about six hours if you want the entire experience. (Otherwise, if you only have an hour, just drive in on FS 300 about 15 minutes, take pictures and turn around and come back out the way you came in.)
However, if you have the time, take a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, set out from Payson, heading up highway 87 past Strawberry, to the top of the Mogollon Rim. After you reach the top, stay on Highway 87 until you get to Forest Service Road 300, which is a few miles past the Highway 260 turnoff heading to Camp Verde. At the sign showing FS 300, turn right. This is a two-lane, dirt road, which unfortunately is washboard nearly the entire 40 miles. For that reason, you'll want a vehicle with 4-wheel drive, and plan to use it the entire trip. Sounds challenging? It's really not. Just be prepared for a bumpy, but visually stimulating ride.
Along this trip, you'll see at least four areas where fires have wiped out sections of the forest. At the beginning of your trek, toward Milk Ranch Point, you'll see where the Webber fire of 2004 took off. Farther along the trip, you'll see signs of the Pack Rat Fire from 2002, the Dude Fire from 1990 and the Bray Creek Fire from 1990.
From the Highway 87 turnoff to the Knoll Lake turnoff, the distance is about 14 miles. There are several places to stop and take pictures before getting to the lake. In fact, if you pull off at the Knoll Lake turnoff, and have a snack or lunch along the Rim, you'll be able to look out and possibly catch a view of the Tonto Fish Hatchery below you. I can't think of a nicer place to sit down and share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than almost any other place along this drive. There's some history around here, too. Along this stretch are areas where U.S. troops and Apache Indians fought during the 1880s.
For a quick side trip (about 8 miles round trip), follow the signs to Knoll Lake. Park in a lot near the lake and walk a bit along this out-of-the-way lake. It's a neat place, that isn't jam-packed with people any time of the year. It's a small mountain lake, surrounded by huge ponderosa pines, offering good fishing and camping.
After about another 10 miles, you'll see the turnoff to Bear Canyon Lake. This is a wonderful little gem of a lake. It's tucked back in the trees about four miles, and again, is not very crowded any time of the year. The bumpy, dirt road leading to it turns off a lot of "Sunday drivers" or potential campers.
This lake has a wonderful trail all around it and a gorgeous collection of aspen trees in many spots.
Incidentally, the first of October, the aspen leaves were just starting to change to bright yellow, so by the first of November, they should be bright orange.
The lake is small, but boasts terrific photo opportunities, fishing and hiking. There are plenty of camping spots nearby, many of which are wonderfully remote, quiet and are right in the middle of elk, deer and other wildlife.
Back on Forest Service Road 300, you'll drive about 10 miles until you get to the turnoff for Woods Canyon Lake. If you have another half hour to spend, take it. Woods Canyon Lake is beautiful. It is much more developed than the other two lakes mentioned.
At Woods Canyon, there are many paved hiking paths crisscrossing the area around the lake, and nearby camping is plentiful.
This is probably the most popular of the Rim-area lakes and has many modern conveniences in the area. There is a little store in the parking area of the lake, bathrooms, boats to rent and lots of picnic spots.
Whether you have a half hour or all afternoon, Woods Canyon is a sure bet.
By now, you can congratulate yourself on driving much of the Mogollon Rim above the Payson area. Despite the bumpy road, you'll be amazed that you traveled to a place that is loaded with so much beauty and history.
From the great views of faraway mountain ranges, ranches and towns along with the unique ice-cold mountain lakes, you'll really feel what the Mogollon Rim is all about. You'll truly feel you've been on top of the world.
AT A GLANCE
What: Rim Road Afternoon Drive
Where: Top of the Mogollon Rim -- above Strawberry on Highway 87 goes along the Rim to Woods Canyon Lake to the East.
Distance: about 20 miles north of Payson. The entire Rim Road is about 35 miles long, but is loaded with twists and turns, and 25 to 30 miles per hour stretches. Much is washboard. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
What you'll see: Unforgettable stretches of the Mogollon Rim. Visibility is probably 50-plus miles on a clear day. You'll travel through gorgeous stands of ponderosa pines.