Before my husband and I were married, we hiked a lot, for most of our dates actually. It was one of our favorite ways to spend time together – we both love the outdoors, I liked having a way to be with someone I loved without the stress of normal small talk (since the activity determined the body language and visual focus), and it’s really just a lot nicer to do anything when you’re using your body and surrounded by beauty. (We even rented a remote cabin and just hiked around for a week for our honeymoon).
So, ever since we started having babies I’ve been waiting for them to be old enough to hike with us! And honestly, I’ve been waiting even more for them to be old enough to hike with just me – for them all to be able to hike well enough that I only have to carry one of them at any given time, and can even have some time without carrying any of them.
Now, at last, we’re finally there.
After giving them a taste of wildlife and the natural environment at Saguaro Lake, and realizing that they loved it, I began searching for easy or short hikes up in Payson that we could explore together while the weather is still too hot in the valley. Payson is less than two hours from our house, but the environment is very different: mountains, pine forests, narrow creek beds and rocky waterfalls, berry brambles and grapevines, etc. When it’s over 100F here, it’s in the 80s up there, with the shade from the trees, the breeze down the canyons, and the cool water to make it even nicer.
The first real hike I attempted was at Ellison Creek, at the Water Wheel crossing just north of Payson. The day use area is easy to find, with a fee of $9 (check the National Forest Service for up-to-date information, especially with regards to closures during fire season before the monsoons) and a vault toilet that it ridiculously clean.
When we arrived, I had trouble locating the trailhead, so we played in the creek for a while first, swimming in a little pool and climbing the rocks in the area (all three kids love climbing).
When we came up from the creek to have a snack, I found the trailhead. It is actually well-marked, with flash-flood warning signs and a memorial to people who have died in this creek from flash floods. This is not the most comforting way to begin a hike in monsoon season with a forecast of rain in the early afternoon, and because of the history of the location I would recommend hiking this creek at a different time of year or on a day without expected rain; if that isn’t possible, just be very aware of the weather at the moment and turn around to leave the creek area if you feel a cold breeze and see the thick clouds of a storm head rising over the mountains.
The trail begins relatively flat and smooth, and even Aubade was able to walk along here for a long time. We took some time to “stop and smell the roses” – Rondel was especially fascinated by the small insects living inside the huge white flowers of the sacred datura, and examined every blossom carefully. Just so you know, these plants are toxic and hallucinogenic, so make sure no one ingests them if you are hiking with small children. They are certainly stunning, however!
After a short while, the trail became harder to follow as it went through more rocky areas – over boulders and up ledges. I mostly decided upon our direction by guessing which path over the rocks would be easiest for small legs, and was rewarded whenever we happened upon a sandy area with footprints letting us know we were still on the trail.
We eventually stopped at a high point of the creek, where a rippling waterfall cascaded over the stones across from us and a little pool collected in a cup of the rock where we could play. The trail continues from here up to a larger waterfall that I believe has a staircase and a large swimming hole underneath, but at this point I saw rain clouds coming in and needed to turn around and get out of the ravine quickly.
Up there on the high rocks, surrounded by pine forest, with only the sound of wind, water, and birds, is fairly close to perfection in my opinion, and the kids thought so too: only showing them the rain clouds and explaining the potential risk to them convinced them to leave.
Obviously we made it out safely; the rain hit us at the parking lot while we were eating lunch, and we got to enjoy it for a few minutes before heading out for naps. All in all? A perfect introductory hike for my three adventurers, and an incredibly refreshing day for me out of the city and away from the noise and people and pressure of everyday life.
To reach the Water Wheel day area from the East Valley: Take the 87 through Payson; turn right on Houston Mesa road and continue for 7.5 miles. Water Wheel Crossing parking area will be on your right.