Houston Mesa Road

Photo: Houston Mesa Road meanders through the Tonto National Forest near Payson and past Shoofly Ruins. | Larry Lindahl
Payson Ranger District, Tonto National Forest
By Roger Naylor

Arizona does not lack for geological drama. Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona and the monoliths of Monument Valley draw tourists by the millions. Residents, on the other hand, often just head for the Rim.

The Mogollon Rim, a fierce escarpment soaring 2,000 feet in places, stretches across the state like a great humped spine. Characterized by high cliffs and a tangle of forested ridges, the Rim defines the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. It serves as an abrupt boundary between the parched desert and the lush green of the high country, yet connecting them in a way rarely seen elsewhere. Houston Mesa Road, just outside of Payson, provides access to that compelling Rim country.

Paved for the first 10 miles, the road weaves through woodsy hillsides, passes the ruins of an ancient civilization, and splashes across a feisty river. Vistas of rising cliffs interrupt the horizon as the road gently swoops and curves away from the town of Payson. Almost immediately, you’ll pass Houston Mesa Campground. This 75-site destination with showers, flush toilets and picnic tables makes an excellent base camp for Rim exploration.

The Shoofly Ruins at 2.8 miles are the remnants of a village occupied from A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1250 by as many as 250 people. A self-guided walking tour loops through the 4-acre site, past low rock walls and crumbling courtyards. Interpretive signs offer visitors a glimpse into the prehistoric community.

Houston Mesa Road crosses the East Verde River a total of four times. At each crossing, there’s a small parking area. The parking fee is $10. After paying at the self-serve kiosk, keep the envelope stub on your dashboard to allow parking at all of the other crossings in case you decide to stop for a little exploration or a shady picnic spot.

Scars of a 2009 fire are visible on the slopes above the river for one section of the road. Scorched tree trunks stubble the hillsides, but, fortunately, the riparian corridor canopying the stream, including several elegant sycamores, was spared. A trail from the second crossing leads back to an area known as the Water Wheel, a series of small waterfalls and pools slicing through a narrow granite gorge. During summer months, this is one of Arizona’s most beloved swimming holes.

The pavement ends just past 10 miles in the little hamlet of Whispering Pines. To continue, turn left onto Forest Road 64 and drive 0.7 miles. At the sign for Washington Park, turn right onto Forest Road 32. This maintained gravel road pushes deeper into the timber. The road dead-ends at 14.7 miles, just past the Washington Park Trailhead, which offers access to the 51-mile Highline National Recreation Trail. The Highline is a historic route established in the late 1800s to link homesteads and ranches together along the Mogollon Rim.

Near the pastoral community of Washington Park, bigtooth maples cluster among the pines and add a splash of vivid autumn color to the Mogollon Rim landscape.

Tour Guide

Note: Mileages are approximate.

Length: 14.7 miles one way
Directions: From Payson, go north on State Route 87 for 2 miles and turn right onto Houston Mesa Road.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Travel Advisory: There is a $10 parking fee at river crossings; self-pay kiosks are found in the parking lots.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Payson Ranger District, 928-474-7900 or www.fs.usda.gov/tonto