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Founded as a rodeo town in the 1880s, Payson sits smack-dab in the heart of Arizona, in a region known by many as Rim Country, or simply, The Rim, thanks to its proximity to the Mogollon Rim. The rugged landscape along the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau comprises a majestic sprawl of grasslands and pine forests. The Rim rises 7,000 feet above sea level, and communities like Payson are nestled in the valleys below. Back in the day, the valleys were a natural draw for cowboys and ranchers looking to live off the land and stave off modern trappings. And for a long time, they succeeded. Because of its remote location in the Tonto Basin, Payson remained isolated for much of the early 20th century. Perhaps that’s how this unique town has managed to preserve its colorful Western heritage. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that a modern highway connected Payson to civilization, but the frontier traditions remained. Payson is still a rodeo town: Every year since 1884 it has hosted a rodeo, now known as the oldest continuous rodeo in the world.
The closest major international airport to Payson is Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX), just over 80 miles from town. Payson also has its own airport (PJB) but it doesn’t traditionally serve commercial airlines. Once you are in town, having a car is a must for navigating the area, though Payson does have a public bus system. The Beeline Bus, named after the nearby Beeline Highway, serves two routes around town, which terminate in the town of Star Valley to the east and in Mesa Del Caballo to the north.
Payson’s location in the American Southwest means it’s vulnerable to climate extremes year-round. Early-summer drought and late-summer rainfall are both common, and even monsoons can gather in the summer months, dumping heavy rainfall. Summer temperatures can reach as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit, though nightfall brings relief, with temperatures dropping down into the 50s. Winter is fairly mild, with daytime temperatures reaching the 50s, but winter nights are cold, often dipping into the 20s or teens. Snow is uncommon and melts quickly under the Arizona sun. Spring and fall are beautiful seasons, bringing fresh growth to the vast landscape. Temperatures during spring and fall can vary drastically, so visitors should plan to dress in layers to stay comfortable.
Payson is surrounded by the Tonto National Forest, which offers scores of trails to choose from, but few sights rival the Tonto Natural Bridge. Known as the world’s largest natural travertine bridge, it spans 150 feet, and its apex rises 183 feet above Pine Creek.
Translating to “the place with many deer” in the dialect of the Native Americans who settled here so long ago, Mazatzal encompasses more than 252,000 acres of the Tonto and Coconino National Forests, just 20 miles southwest of Payson. Wildlife abounds — and not just deer. Bears, mountain lions, and hundreds of species of birds are all protected here.
Though railroads never did reach Payson in the railway boom of the late 19th century, you can hike to their ruins. About one hour and 20 minutes north of Payson is Railroad Tunnel Trail (#390), which leads to a large excavation hole in the Mogollon Rim where track was meant to be laid.