SWIMMING HOLES IN GILA COUNTY, ARIZONA

There isn't a more welcoming oasis in the desert than a swimming hole in Arizona. In this state famous for giant cacti and triple-digit temperatures, there are actually many hidden canyons that flow with cold, clear water. If you know where to look, you can find relief on even the hottest of days in Arizona.  Gila County is home to several of the State's favorite swimming holes where you work on your tan, get wet and get in an adventurous hike to-boot.  

Note that all riparian zones are sensitive ecosystems, and this is especially true of water in the desert and the high deserts. Keep these places clean and enjoyable for others by leaving no trace. Stay on trails, pick up trash, don't disturb plants or wildlife, and respect other users and private property.

Additionally, many of these swimming holes are within narrow canyons that are at risk for dangerous flash floods. For safety, be sure to always check the weather forecast and be aware that isolated storms can cause heavy rainfall and high water in a very short amount of time. 
 

Grab your favorite pair of cut-offs, pack a sandwich lunch and dive in – we’re taking you on a tour of Arizona’s best shady spots to get wet and some of them are incredibly beautiful.

The East Verde River is a tributary of the Verde River in the U.S. state of Arizona. Beginning on the Mogollon Rim near Washington Park, it flows generally southwest through Gila County and the Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix. Near the middle of its course, it passes to within about 5 miles (8 km) of Payson, which is southeast of the river. The East Verde River flows through parts of the Mazatzal Wilderness west of Payson.

Getting There

From Payson head north on highway 87 towards Pine/Strawberry.  Right across from Home Depot you will see Houston Mesa Road.  Turn right and follow the directions below.  There is more information on Water Wheel and Flowing Springs below.
 

First Crossing: Travel on Houston Mesa Road (FR 199) for 7 miles.

Water Wheel: Travel on Houston Mesa Road (FR 199) for 7 ½ miles.

Second Crossing: Travel on Houston Mesa Road (FR 199) for 8 miles.

Third Crossing: Travel on Houston Mesa Road (FR 199) for 8 ½ miles.

East Verde River

This area offers many pastoral scenes and interesting rock formations. Situated along the banks of the East Verde River. Trout fishing is a favorite pastime.  Things are a little more laid back here and you can enjoy sunbathing on the rocks and then when you get hot jump in for a quick cool down.  Perfect for small families with little ones.

Getting There
 

This site is 3 ½ miles north of Payson. From Payson, go north on State Hwy. 87. Near mile marker 257 just south of the East Verde River, turn right (east) on Forest Road (FR) 272. Continue traveling on FR 272 for ½ mile to the site.

East Verde River: Flowing Springs

Ellison Creek is a wonderful swimming hole tucked back between Payson and the Mogollon Rim. It is the crown jewel of the Water Wheel area. It takes a short drive, a mile hike down a dirt road or if you want to take the scenic route, an incredible hike through a prehistoric looking landscape of slate and dense foliage, a jump over the creek and several ponds that you have to navigate over and around to reach this inviting, cold clear swimming hole that is most definitely worth the trip.

 

At first jump, the water is so cold it takes your breath away for a few seconds.   Really, it is that cold at first.  Why is it that the kids just never seem to mind the cold and just go for it. They don't get cold until they get out and the breeze makes the goose bumps erupt over every exposed body part.  Apply towel, problem solved.

 

This is a very popular swimming hole on the weekends.  If you want a more private oasis then head up during the weekdays. Make sure you have Tevas or some other slip proof water shoes as any of the rock that gets wet is very slippery.  It is a scenic paradise to say the least.  Butterflies flitter among the trees and the cool water.

 

There is a lot to explore in the area and if you park just past second crossing. Literally a few feet past the creek on the left and cross the road (the top of the green line on the map) you can head up a trail that will lead down to a nice pool where you can do a bit of cliff jumping. The trail is pretty steep as you head down to the creek. There is a nice small waterfall that you can swim up to.

 

Getting There

From Payson, head north about 1 mile from the intersection of the SR260 and SR87 (the corner with the McDonalds on it). and turn right on Houston Mesa Road. Stay on Houston Mesa road for 8.2 miles just after you cross the creek for the second time, head up the road a couple hundred yards to the next turnoff to the right and head back near the closed gate and park (The top most (P) on the map).  Hike up the dirt road up and to the left until you reach a low point in the road approximately 0.5 miles.  Head down the path to the river that you will hear off to your right.  Once at the river, go upstream a few hundred yards until you see the pool. Zoom into the map and take a good look at the way in to help not get lost along the way. 

 

Alternate Route: (a bit more difficult)
 

Start at the large parking area at Water Wheel. Hike upstream (follow the dark blue line on the map) and boulder hop up to the confluence of Ellison Creek and the East Verde River. Ellison Creek will be coming from the right (south-east). Follow the creek upstream (Green Line) until you reach the pool. Altogether it will take about 30 minutes to reach the pool.

 

Additional Alternate Route: (even a bit more difficult)
 

Park at Second Crossing parking area immediately after you cross the creek on the left and cross the road. There will be a trail leading down to the East Verde River. Follow the trail and scramble down the rocks to the river (Green Line on the Map) and follow the river downstream to the confluence of the East Verde River and Ellison Creek. There you will need to jump across the river (no easy feat for small kids) and follow Ellison Creek to the waterfall. Zoom into the map to get your bearings before you head in to help you not get lost.

 

Portions of this info was provided by : azswimmingholes.com  and the Coconino National Forest

Ellison Creek

Permits (Please Read)
 

BOOK YOUR PERMIT AT www.recreation.gov
 

Are you planning on heading to Fossil Creek between April 1st and May 1st? Heads up, you're going to need to buy a $6 permit. This is a new action from the Tonto and Coconino National Forest to battle overcrowding, search and rescue operations and trash issues among other things.

 

The new permits will allow for 148 parking spaces along the river in several different locations including the Waterfall Trailhead, Irving Parking Area, Tonto Bench, Fossil Creek Bridge, Homestead Parking Area, Sally May, Purple Mountain and Mazatzal Parking Areas. One parking space will be included for each permit issued. That should allow for up to 740 visitors per day to the area.

 

Roadside parking near Fossil Creek Bridge will be designated.

No overnight camping will be allowed in the permit season. Outside of the reservation season (Oct 2 to March 31), overnight camping will be allowed at specific locations including Homestead, Purple Mountain, Sally May and Mazatzal.

 

Camping from Stehr Lake to Childs (via FR 508) and outside the permit boundary on FR 708, will continue to be available year-round and access to campsites via motor vehicle will continue to be displayed on the Coconino National Forest Motorized Vehicle Use Map

Six reservations per person per year will be allowed.

 

When buying a permit, you will need to select a parking area. Make sure your permit is near the area you want to explore. The parking areas can be miles apart and you won't want to be lugging gear, chairs, coolers etc a few miles.

 

Fossil Creek is a place that many people visit to sunbathe, hike, birdwatch or swim in the crystal clear waters of the creek. Fossil Creek has been designated a "Wild and Scenic River".

 

Getting There

 

  • From Camp Verde/I-17: Exit 287, 34 mi east on Hwy 260 toward Payson to intersection with Hwy 87. Right on Hwy 87 and drive 8 mi; OR

  • From Payson: 18 mi north on Hwy 87 to Strawberry. THEN

  • West on Fossil Creek Road/FR 708, 5 mi to right turn to Fossil Springs Trailhead

 

Fossil Creek Trailhead Access
 

This strenuous trail descends four miles into a 1600' deep canyon before you'll see a drop of water. Loose rock and the steep ascent makes the return climb out challenging. In summertime, the hike out can be brutally hot. The trail ends at the historic old dam.  For more information about how to get to Fossil Creek we strongly suggest that you review all the information on the Forest Service website - Click here.
 

Portions of this info was provided by : azswimmingholes.com  and the Coconino National Forest

Fossil Creek

The Salome Wilderness area is situated in the Sierra Ancha Mountains, just above Arizona’s Roosevelt Lake. Over 18,000 acres in the Tonto National Forest belong to Salome—The Jug is classified as the thin portion of Salome Creek, and is a scenic hike full of swimming and rappelling. “The Jug,” is a hikeable, green-water-filled granite slot canyon carved by Salome Creek that demands wading. A classic canyoneering spot and it is recommended that you are in above average shape to engage in this adventure.  Educate yourself well, and be sure you have the appropriate skills, before taking off in to this WILD area.

 

Getting There


From the intersection of State Highways 87 and 188 about 60mi northeast of Phoenix, Arizona, drive southeast on SR 188 for 19.4mi through the hamlet of Punkin Center to mile post 255. Turn left following the sign for the A+ Cross Road and note the odometer reading. The dirt road drops down into the wide river valley and, after about a mile, crosses the stream at a broad ford where the water is usually only about six inches deep. On the other side continue on the good dirt road following the posted sign for Salome Creek. At a fork where dirt roads go left continue straight as the road becomes asphalt. This asphalt road ends at a boatramp and campground but, about 1.8mi before that (and 2.3mi from SR188), you must turn left onto a dirt road signposted A+ Cross Road. This turn is easily missed but if you arrive at the boatramp just backtrack 1.8mi. The dirt road winds in and out of various drainages as it climbs episodically along the southern slopes of Victoria Peak. Soon the imposing mass of Dutchwoman Butte comes into view ahead to the east. As you come to the last ridge between you and the Butte, you will easily find the A+ Cross Trailhead, 10.1mi from SR188 at 33o46.24'N 111o8.17'W. The parking area is on the left side of the road. Except in winter, the ford and the dirt road are passable in a 2WD vehicle but a high ground clearance, 4WD vehicle is preferable.

 

Best Time of Year:
 

Plan your trip late spring to early summer—it’s not too hot at this time, nor is it monsoon season. The Jug Trail used to be a Jeep run, but now it guides canyoneering enthusiasts on foot down rocky slopes to the Salome Creek. An enormous slab of granite rock marks a 20-foot cliff which leads to the water. Be prepared, the pools can be quite chilly.

 

Prepare to Get Wet


You’ll find yourself wading through waist, to chest deep water channels that weave through the colorful pink walls. Many natural water slides pop up along the route—use caution, but consider giving nature’s Slip n’ Slide a try. At times, adventurists will have to swim through deeper, crystal blue pools, so be sure everyone in the group is a strong swimmer.

 

The Grande Finale


Toward the end, there is a 50-foot waterfall where there are only two options—rappel down or jump. Jumping can be risky, because monsoons and other conditions can push debris into the pool. Rappelling can prove difficult as well, as one has to fight the rushing waterfall as they descend. Going on a guided tour is a good idea for the less experienced—instructors can guide you down the falls. The pool below is known as the heart of the Jug, and it’s Insta-worthy.


The End


After splashing through the pools, the walls being to disappear, and the water leads to an open area. Here, you’ll hop on the cacti surrounded trail to your right, which will ultimately lead you back to the beginning.

 

Information provided in part by:  Karyn Wofford

Salome Jug

Permits Required (click here)

Sometime in the 1970s, the San Carlos Apache tribe dammed up Seneca River to create a lake and spent more than half a million dollars building up a small resort area. The dream didn’t last long, and today the area is largely abandoned.

Though the river is now a shadow of its former self, Seneca Falls still flows, especially after rain. Water from the riverbed falls a few hundred feet down to a small pool below, and if you’re in the area, it’s the perfect place to stop and enjoy the remote scenery.

There’s not much of a hike to get to the falls, so we wouldn’t consider it a premier hiking destination, but if you time your trip after the right storm, Seneca Falls offers a stunning viewing experience that’s worth a visit.

Getting There


Take Hwy60 east from the valley through Globe and turn north towards Show Low, go 35mi to the 287.6 milepost. Turn left into campground and bear right on paved road past lake on your left to its end and continue on dirt for another 100yds (@1/2mi total) to parking area and overlook.

Senneca Falls

A rugged and wet non-technical canyon hike down miles of Tonto Creek pink granite in the heart of Rim country, will lead you to one of Arizona's swimming gems. Definitely NOT a place to be during heavy Spring run-off or active monsoon conditions.  Make sure you check the weather patterns before you attempt this adventure.

 

The water in Tonto Creek is often cloudy with silt, which makes wading slow and difficult. You'll definitely want a hiking stick, as you'll be wading and swimming more or less blind if the water isn't clear. The water temperature is usuall cool, a 2mm shorty wetsuit is a nice feature on this adventure and makes things very comfortable. The silt can also wreak havoc on filters, so you may want to carry enough water for the full trip. 


Getting There
 

You'll need to drop a shuttle vehicle at the Hell's Gate #37 trailhead on FR405A, where you'll end your adventure. You then continue east 5.5 miles on FR405A and FR405, where the road ends at the Bear Flat trailhead. Tonto Creek is right there, just head downstream. With a little scrambling you can stay dry for the first mile or so, but you may as well just get wet, because soon you'll have no choice. For a total of 7 miles down to Hell's Gate you'll be wading and swimming, rock-hopping and occasionally bushwhacking through this fine stretch of canyon. I lost count of the number of pools to wade and swim. There are a couple short sections of Class 4 down-climbing as you work your way around some falls, and one 3-foot drop off a ledge into a pool, but no rappels or big drops. The final long swim takes you through the soaring walls of Hell's Gate, where you say goodbye to Tonto Creek and begin the somewhat hellish 7 mile slog up the Hell's Gate #37 trail and back to your shuttle vehicle.  If you want WILD...this is the place.

Tonto Creek:  Bear Flat

A stay at Upper Tonto Creek means awesome fishing, endless trails, shallow swimming holes and a fun day trip to the Tonto Fish Hatchery. This is a great place for families wanting to get out of the Arizona heat and head to the high country.  There is a lot to do in the area in addition to the cool rushing water of Tonto Creek.

Getting There

From Payson head 21 miles east off of Highway 260. Turn north off SR 260 at the signed road near Kohl’s Ranch Resort and travel four miles to end of road. The road is paved all the way to the facility. The last five miles are along a narrow double-lane road with a minimum 7-percent grade.  There is a parking lot that you can leave your car and then head to the river.  To find our own secluded place on the river simply walk along the river banks till you fine a suitable place.

Tonto Creek: Hatchery Road

At the confluence of the East Verde River and Ellison Creek north of Payson, rampaging natural water features drench the heart of Zane Grey country.  Steeped in frontier history, the craggy canyons that steer the waterways onto a collision course of flowing channels and unbridled spouts have provided homesteads for pioneers and fodder for Western novels. This is where John Wayne would take a bath.
 

These days it’s more party vibe than cattle drive along the 1.5-mile stretch of Houston Mesa Road, where a string of day-use sites collectively known as “Water Wheel” attracts hordes of heat-weary city folks. Four dirt lots – First Crossing, Water Wheel, Second Crossing and Third Crossing – all offer park-and-swim access to the water, but a little wading and hiking will get you to the really good stuff.  
 

Just follow the flow and within a quarter-mile, you’ll find a chain of 20-to-40-foot-high cascades, slick rock fountains and relaxing whirlpools. The main attraction is the arching torrent and plunge pool at Ellison Creek Falls, where brisk water slips over polished cliffs before charging south toward the Verde River.

 

Getting There

 

From the 260 / 87 intersection in Payson go north on 87 a couple miles to the Houston Mesa turnoff on the right. Follow 7.8 miles to unmarked Water Wheel Camp Grounds. If you start going up hill and pass mile marker 8 you missed the pull out to the right at 7.8 miles.

More Info:

ELEVATION: 4,800'
FACILITIES: Picnic tables, toilets
FEE: $6 daily fee per vehicle. Bring exact change for self-serve pay stations.
DOGS: Allowed on leash
GETTING THERE: From the State Route 87/260 junction in Payson, go 2 miles north on SR87 to Houston Mesa Road. Turn right and continue 7 miles for First Crossing, 7.5 miles for Water Wheel, 8 miles for Second Crossing and 8.5 miles for Third Crossing.
INFO: Tonto National Forest - Click Here.

 

Info provided by:  Mare Czinar & Leah Lemoine

Water Wheel - East Verde River

Workman Creek Falls is a nice 200 foot waterfall that you can visit right from your car, located in the Tonto National Forest, in central Arizona, USA.

 

Getting There

 

From the junction of U.S. Highway 60 & State Hwy. 188 (between Globe and Miami) drive northwest on Hwy. 88 for approximately 15 miles to the junction of State Hwy. 288. Bear right and follow Hwy. 288 for approximately 25 ½ miles to the Workman Creek Bridge. If desired, you may also drive along the creek on FR 487 that turns right (east) just past the bridge. It is approximately 3 miles to Workman Creek Falls (a high-clearance vehicle is needed).
 

More Info:

 

 

ELEVATION: This hike reaches the highest point in the Sierra Ancha range at almost 7800 ft of elevation via trails bounded by beautiful ponderosa pine, and aspen forest.
FACILITIES: No facilities
FEE: No fees
DOGS: Allowed on trail

Workman Creek Falls