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Exploring the Mazatzal Wilderness

The Mazatzal Wilderness contains over 252,500 acres of the Tonto and Coconino national forests.

Established in 1940 and expanded to its present size in 1984, its name is from an old Indian culture in Mexico, and is correctly pronounced "Mah-zaht-zahl," meaning "land of the deer."

*photo by Alan Levine

The eastern side of this wilderness predominantly consists of brush or pine-covered mountains, sometimes broken by narrow, vertical-walled canyons.

On its west side below the steep brush-covered foothills, the Verde River flows through the Sonoran Desert. This river was designated by the U.S Congress as Arizona's only Wild River Area in 1984.

Elevations range from 2,060 feet along the Verde River to 7,903 feet on Mazatzal Peak. There is an extensive system of trails: their condition varies from very good to very poor. Several are unsuited for horses.

Access Points

Welcome to the Mazatzal Wilderness. One of Gila County's truly unique and WILD attractions. There are so many access points to the wilderness that we suggest that you contact the forest service that administers it. The Payson Ranger District is located on all four side of the town of Payson , and continues north to the Mogollon Rim. It consists of approximately 450,000 acres (approximately 182,000 hectares) of Chaparral, Pinyon-Juniper, and Ponderosa Pine types of vegetation. The Verde River and several trout streams pass through this district. The Payson Ranger Station is located on Highway 260 on the eastern fringe of the town of Payson . Books maps, and other sources of information are available at this location. Address: 1009 E. Highway 260, Payson, Arizona 85541 Phone: (928) 474-7900 Fax: (928) 474-7966 Hours: Mon.-Fri. (8:00-4:30) closed 12:30-1:30 p.m. daily Passes and Permits are not sold after 4:00 pm.

History of the Mazatzal Wilderness

In the language of the Aztecs mazatzal means "an area inhabited by deer," but just how the word reached Arizona, or what significance it holds, remains somewhat of a mystery. Yes, deer inhabit the area. Yes, evidence shows that humans, among them the Yavapai and Tonto Apache, have exerted their influence here for at least 5,000 years. But there is no indication that the Aztecs themselves ever journeyed to this rough mountainous region. Established as a Primitive Area in 1938, Mazatzal became pre-Wilderness Act "wilderness" in 1940 and one of the original Wilderness Areas in 1964. Narrow, vertical, difficult-to-access canyons fill the central and eastern portions, while the Verde River rolls through the western portion. The rolling riparian terrain along both sides of the Verde constitutes Arizona's only Wild River Area. Given how close Mazatzal is to Mesa, a major population center, this is a remarkably remote and beautiful area. As the uses of National Forests grew and intensified, there was again concern that selected small areas should be preserved in a somewhat natural condition, before no such areas remained. The Forest Service and concerned citizens, under the leadership of Aldo Leopold, established such a classification system in the early 1920s. This area was established as the Mazatzal Primitive Area by the Chief of the Forest Service on May 27, 1938. It was upgraded to a wilderness classification on June 13, 1940. Later, the United States Congress became aware of and interested in the concepts of wilderness preservation and on September 3, 1964, the President signed a law, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Mazatzal Wilderness was one of the areas identified as a part of this original system. On August 28, 1984, the Arizona Wilderness Act added some 35,000 acres to that originally designated area, giving the Mazatzal Wilderness its present size and shape. Hundreds of years before this happened; Native Americans were making their homes adjacent to this area. It has been more or less continuously occupied for at least 5,000 years. By 1400 A.D., overpopulation and destruction of key elements of the natural resource base apparently resulted in economic and political stresses which ultimately caused the downfall of prehistoric civilizations throughout most of Arizona. From about the early 1500s, the Mazatzals have provided resources for the Yavapai Indians who roamed over large areas in this part of the State. After about 1700, they were joined by a few Tonto Apache who lived primarily to the east of the Mazatzals. This situation was maintained until the late 1800s, when American army units from Fort McDowell subjugated both the Apache and Yavapai and confined them to reservations. Mazatzal (locally mispronounced "madda-zell," but properly pronounced Mah'zat zall) is itself apparently an Indian word. In Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), Mazatzal means an area inhabited by deer. Since Aztecs were never in this area, how the mountain range was named remains a mystery. Trappers were likely the first Anglo-Americans to enter the Mazatzal region. A party including Kit Carson is reported to have trapped fur-bearing animals down the Salt, then up the Verde River in 1829. Indian hostility curtailed more permanent use of this area until General Crook's campaign in 1873. The early-day mining camps known as Mazatzal City and Marysville and the Mormon community called the East Verde Settlement were established just east of the present wilderness boundary in the late 1870s and early 1880s. During this same period, large numbers of cattle and sheep were being brought into the area and homesteads were established. By the turn of the century, the entire area was heavily stocked.

Mazatzal Wilderness Trails

The trail conditions vary from well-maintained to life-threatening but there's about 240 miles of them. Among the busiest is the Mazatzal Divide Trail, a 29-mile route that crosses the wilderness north-south along the ridge that summits the mountain. Another busy route (especially for equestrian types) is the Verde River Trail, a 28-mile route along the Verde River. One of the most dramatic trails with a waterfall at the summit of the trail is the popular Barnhardt Trail #28. Some trails are okay for hikers but not recommended for horses. Off-trail hiking is impossible in most areas due to its remote rugged and jagged canyons.

Several of these trails (Mazatzal Divide Trail #23 and the Saddle Mountain Trail #91) tie in to the beautiful Arizona Trail that spans the entire State of Arizona from the Mexican boarder to the south all the way to the Arizona-Utah boarder to the north. For more informaiton about the Arizona Trail - Click Here. Find Hiking Trails in the Hells Gate Wilderness:

​For more information visit the Hiking Section of this site - Click Here Link to Forest Service Trail Head Disctriptions

Mazatzal Wilderness Fish Species

The East Verde River flows through the Mazatzal Wilderness and is meets up with Fossil Creek which is on of the few Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona. The East Verde River is a great place to try some stream fishing for trout that is at its closest, less than ten minutes from Payson. Since the trout are stocked weekly from April to September, they are generally very cooperative for bait fishermen, spin casters, and fly fishermen alike. If you check the summer stocking schedule on the webite and click on the East Verde River, a map with the various locations will appear. I generally fish the East Verde at spots all within 30 minutes of Payson. They include: 87 Bridge Crossing, just north of town; and east up Houston Mesa Road at 1st Crossing, Waterwheel, 2nd Crossing, and 3rd Crossing.

Fish Species:

  • Rainbow Trout

  • Brown Trout

  • Yellow Bass

  • Smallmouth Bass

  • Sunfish

GPS Coordinates:

  • Latitude: 34.301279°

  • Longitude: -111.358130°

Mazatzal Wilderness Fishing Strategy

Small stream tactics are in order for this creek. Stealthy approach and making the first cast into each pool count. General attractor dries with small nymph or midge droppers will get it done on most days. The best place to fish this creek is hidden pools at higher elevations where the water is cooler and the trout are larger. The access to these areas requires hiking so someone physically fit is recommended to find the daring spots. Flies and salmon eggs are recommended fishing baits.

Mazatzal Boating Options

Forming near SH 99 in Gila County due east of the Verde River is the East Verde River, which flows to the confluence about 7 miles below the Childs Power Road Access on the Verde River in the middle of nowhere. In fact, there is very limited access on the East Verde along roads best suited for high cleaance, 4-wheel drive vehicles, so a trip will require 26 more miles of paddling down the Verde River to the Sheeps Bridge access. This run of about 61.5 miles includes numerous Class IV to V+ rapids and drops on the East Verde portion (first 35.5 miles) that test the skills of expert whitewater kayakers before mellowing to Class I to III rapids on the Verde below the confluence. Some waterfalls on the East Verde are considered to be unrunnable with mandatory portages that eat time and energy. The river flows through Tonto National Forest a few miles north of, and perpendicular to, Tonto Creek, another great whitewater run in Arizona. Water in the river sources mainly from snowmelt runoff in the area of the forest northeast of Phoenix, though the river frequently is not navigable due to insufficient flow, and when it does flow at navigable levels it can be swift and dangerous. Small gorges and waterfall drops characterize the East Verde River making it much more difficult than the mainstream into which it flows. This run begins at a primitive access off SH 260 / SH 87 and East Verde Estates Road north of Payson and spans the lower 35.5 miles of the East Verde River plus about 26 miles of the Verde River down to the Sheeps Bridge Access on river right. Finding the takeout may be harder than running the river, and it may well be harder on your vehicle than the river will be to your boat. The take-out roads require high clearance vehicles, and if the roads are wet or eroded, then a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance is mandatory. The roads are often unmaintained and have blind curves that are potential dangers, though traffic will almost always be non-existent. Getting wrecker assistance would cost a fortune! These are just some of the reasons why the East Verde is not wildly popular, but the main reasons are the technical difficulty and the distance you have to paddle to reach the take-out, though there are some possible access points along the route that could be used, but you had better have a GPS, sat phone and a good, CURRENT road map showing the backcountry trails and unimproved roads. The put-in is a snap to find, but the take-out requires some serious mountain road navigation on narrow, winding roads that would be difficult, if not impossible, with trailers or long wheel base vehicles. A couple of miles into the trip all traces of civilization vanish and you enter a mountain canyon where the river descends at a rate of over 57 feet per mile for the first 35.5 miles, then at about 40.1 feet per mile on the Verde down to the take-out 26 miles below the confluence. There are a couple of low water bridges near the launch in Payson at about 0.1 and 1.9 miles to be negotiated. At normal (low) water levels they may be runnable if there is adequate water to float a boat, but at higher levels they could become hazards to be avoided. A portage around one or both may be necessary at any water level - use your best judgment! The surrounding area is very remote, and few people will be seen (most of them will be driving by on the SH 87 crossing.) This run is definitely off the beaten path, though paddlers who enjoy creek boating will love this stream when it flows. The streambed is narrow and tight in most places, and it would be a difficult hike in low water conditions. It could be a killer in high water conditions. Its very limited season is usually in April through June if there was sufficient snowpack over the preceding winter, which means the water will be cold, so dress accordingly. Always check flows on the USGS gauge near Childs and the Verde River confluence before departing for this hairboat run. Be prepared to cover a lot of kayak miles between access points. There are no easy roads separating short runs on the East Verde River. Above all else, be sure to let others know exactly where you are going and when you plan to launch and take out so in the event you do not show up the authorities know where to start looking for you. Info courtesy of

Mazatzal Wilderness Camping Options

Mazatzal Wilderness isn’t far from the Greater Phoenix area, which makes it a great day trip. But if you want to experience everything Mazatzal Wilderness has to offer, you’ll want to bring your camping supplies and spend a few nights here. Camping in this area is very primitive. There are no facilities and this type of camping is what many adventure seekers call "Roughin it".

Here is a link to some of the available camping spots in the area, but if you are hiking, backpacking, kayaking etc your best bet is to find a nice place along the trail and make it your camping spot. Find camping options.

Due to the beauty of this wilderness we ask that you make sure whatever you pack in you pack out. This will ensure that this amazingly WILD adventure is here for generations to come.

Hells Gate Wilderness Swimming Holes

The Mazatzal site on Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic River is a fun, family adventure site with a great swimming hole with striking canyon views. The short (0.2 miles) trail to the creek is smooth and well traveled, offering an easy kid-friendly "hike" into the Mazatzal Wilderness. The trail ends at a solid rock ramp down to the shallow end of a deep swimming hole. The gravel creek bottom here gives small children a place to splash, and everyone easy access to the water. The rock ramp offers room for sunbathing and relaxing, and the bank above the creek is a great spot to spread out a picnic blanket. Adventurers can find more nearby pools by exploring up the creek from access point at the end of the trail. The Mazatzal site offers something to delight every member of the family. You must purchase a permit for this area. Book a permit for Mazatzal.

For more information about the Mazatzal Wilderness click here.

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