A zippy, 90-minute drive up the Beeline Highway from Greater Phoenix, Payson is the forested yin to Arizona's desert yang.
At 5,000 feet in elevation, this historic ranching and lumber community sits in the midst of both the Mogollon Rim—a 200-mile-long escarpment that marks the edge of the Colorado Plateau—and the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the world.
In short, the town—the hub of what's known as Arizona's Rim Country—is a primo place for a day trip or a vacay, offering plenty of creature comforts like lodging and dining choices, and serving as a base for scenic outdoor adventures such as hiking, camping, biking and fishing, not to mention golf. The flavor? Think small town, Western.
Payson's backdrop, the Mogollon Rim, is dotted with small, cooling lakes, perfect for fishing and picnicking. Among them, Woods Canyon Lake is the most accessible from town, sitting at about 7,500 feet in elevation, with 55 surface acres and a trail encircling the water's edge. This popular lake next to Payson is a favorite among boaters (rentals available) and anglers hoping to hook rainbow trout. Created in 1966 by Arizona's Game and Fish Department as a trout-fishing spot, Willow Springs Lake is surrounded by pines and has a surface area of 150 acres. It's a BYOB (bring your own boat) scenario, with motors up to 10hp permitted. For something in town, Payson's Green Valley Park has three small lakes populated with trout, bass and sunfish, and is surrounded by walking paths and a playground.
The literary life
Author Zane Grey popularized Western adventure novels, with classics like Riders of the Purple Sage. Some of his books—Call of the Canyon and Under the Tonto Rim—were set in Arizona, influenced by time spent in a hunting cabin Grey built near Payson in 1921. Grey died in 1939, but his cabin was restored and open to the public for tours until it was lost in 1990 to a devastating wildfire. In 2005, the cabin was rebuilt—lock, stock and typewriter—at Payson's Green Valley Park as part of the Rim Country Museum. Wander through this Payson attraction to appreciate one of the West's most iconic authors, then browse Zane Grey-centric items in the gift shop.
Saddles and spurs
Given the town's ranching past, the Old West lives on in Payson. The Payson Rodeo—better known today as the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo—dates to 1884 and is the largest of several rodeo events in Payson. Over the course of three days in August, spectators fill the stands to watch pro bronc and bareback riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, team roping and more. Each February, the Hashknife Pony Express recreates the 19th-century express mail service, delivering mail by hoof some 200 miles through Arizona to Payson and other post offices. Check the schedule to see when the riders, dressed in 19th-century garb, arrive with sacks of first-class mail. Want to sit tall in your own saddle? Kohl's Ranch Stables and other stables around town offer trail rides through pines and creeks.