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The Mogollon Rim, A Unique Place to Visit in Arizona

mogollon rim forest, arizona, US

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While known by many Arizonans, the enormity of the Mogollon Rim ensures visitors a peaceful and secluded experience. 

During the record-breaking, triple-digit summertime temperatures of 2023, a trip to the Mogollon Rim would provide a welcome respite from Phoenix’s unrelenting and blazing heat.

Usually, when I want a quick escape from the heat, I take a trip to Sedona or the mountains surrounding Flagstaff. 

This year, I went somewhere different: The Mogollon Rim.

I’d seen references to it in travel brochures, and friends described it, but I wanted to experience the majesty of the area in person.

It was during that trip I learned that Sedona is not the only magical place in Arizona.

What is the Mogollon Rim?

The Mogollon Rim is an escarpment – a steep and prominent land mass – that forms the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau in central Arizona.

As an area that extends in an east-west direction, the Rim’s central portion is characterized by spectacularly high cliffs of limestone and sandstone.

Much of the land south of the Mogollon Rim lies 4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, but the escarpment itself rises to almost 8,000 feet.

One of the country’s largest collections of Ponderosa Pine forests is found on the slopes of the Rim and on the plateau north of it.

The Rim’s limestones and sandstones were formed from sediments deposited as far back as sixty million years ago.

The uppermost sandstone of the Mogollon Rim forms white cliffs – some are several hundred feet high. This formation is one of the thickest sandstones derived from sand dunes on Earth.

mogollon rim forest, arizona, US
Mogollon Rim Forest Lakes – Photo by Beau Horyza on Unsplash

Where Does the Mogollon Rim Start?

The Mogollon Rim begins on its western side in Yavapai County, near the town of Prescott.

Stretching approximately 200 miles east of northern Yavapai County, the Mogollon Rim ends eastward near the border with New Mexico. 

Most of the Rim’s recognizable cliffs are further east above the town of Payson. This is where the Rim becomes more pronounced and elevated. 

How to Get to the Mogollon Rim?

While the Mogollon Rim doesn’t begin at any one town, as it intersects with a large portion of the state, Payson is normally associated with it.

In fact, the 50-mile radius around Payson is called the “Rim Country.”

Most people use Payson as their starting point to the Rim.

Driving out of Phoenix, take SR-202 Loop East until Exit 13, SR-87 toward Payson. In about 75 miles, you’ll arrive at the town of Payson. 

Highway 87 is also called the Beeline Highway. Once known as one of the most dangerous roads in the state due to its twists and turns, the Beeline Highway is now widened and improved – and much safer.

Stop at the Visitors Center in Payson to stock up on maps and brochures.

If you’re fortunate, Marge will be working and gladly tell you about things to look out for and visit on your way up to the Rim.

Tonto Natural Bridge

Tonto Bridge Sign - Mogollon Rim
Photo by Lisa Zuba

Leaving Payson, I continued on the Beeline Highway (87). My first stop was in 25 minutes at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

It is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. It is something to see – and not too far off the highway.

The bridge is 183 feet high over a 400-foot-long tunnel. It’s tucked away in a forest of ponderosa pine trees.

After paying an entrance fee of $7 and parking, I set off to the Pine Creek Trail (about a half-mile) that leads to the Pine Creek natural area and the bridge. It took about an hour total and was well worth it. 

Even though it’s a short trail, make sure to bring water. It was in the 90s when I visited — hot for that part of the state.

Tonto Bridge View from Below
Tonto Bridge – Photo by Lisa Zuba

Pine and Strawberry 

Continuing back on the Beeline Highway, I headed out for the small town of Strawberry, less than 20 miles from Payson, where I’d spend the night before setting out on The Rim.

I stopped in Pine to visit the Pine Creek Lavender Farm Store and Cooking School, which you’ll reach just before Strawberry. I can close my eyes right now and smell their heavenly lavender fields.

The couple who run the farm grows three varieties of lavender, and it’s all harvested by hand.

They have a small store where you can buy lavender-laced products, from lavender sugar to lavender T-shirts. It’s definitely worth a stop.

Both the tiny villages of Pine and Strawberry offer lodging and restaurant options, although if you’re traveling Monday through Thursday, options for a meal may be diminished. 

Strawberry got its name from all the wild strawberry plants that dotted the ground back when settlers came.

What’s the Best Campsite at Mogollon Rim?

Mogollon Rim Campsite
Photo by Lisa Zuba

The best campsite at Mogollon Rim is Spillway Campground.

Developed Campsite vs Dispersed Camping

There are two types of campgrounds at the Mogollon Rim: a developed campsite operated under a permit by the U.S. Forest Service and dispersed camping.

Developed Campgrounds at the Mogollon Rim

Woods Canyon Lake has four developed campgrounds in the area – Spillway, Aspen, Crook Campground, and Mogollon Campground. 

Each has campsites for tents, trailers, and small motorhomes. They even have an option for large groups of up to 100 people.

The Woods Canyon Lake area is located in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The Forest holds 2 million acres of fabulous mountain country in central Arizona and western New Mexico.

My favorite developed campsite is Spillway Campground at Woods Canyon Lake, which is located in a thick forest of pine, fir, and aspen trees.

Spillway Campground is situated right on the shores overlooking the 52-acre lake.

As in most of the designated campgrounds on the Mogollon Rim, there are camp hosts to provide campers with help, answer questions, and generally keep the area clean.

Facilities at Spillway

  • 26 individual campsites and one group site for up to 25 people.
  • Tents, trailers, and small motorhomes are allowed.
  • Each shaded campsite offers a leveled spur, picnic table, fire ring, and charcoal grill.
  • All campsites, loop roads, vault restrooms, and water hydrants are compliant with the Architectural Barriers Act for accessibility.
  • Some sites are directly on the shore with a view of the water.
  • Restrooms are provided (no showers).
  • Boat rentals and basic camping supplies are available at the Woods Canyon Store.
  • Showers are available at Canyon Point Campground, 10 miles away.
  • Drinking water is available — but I never count on that and always bring my own. I recommend you do the same.

The Woods Canyon Lake area is remote but has just enough amenities to enjoy a comfortable camping experience.

While there are three other campgrounds within the Woods Canyon Lake area, I prefer Spillway for its size – small – and location – on the lake.

Also, only electric boat motors are allowed so there’s no noise pollution.

Recreation at Woods Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake - Mogollon Rim
Photo by Lisa Zuba

This is just one of the seven lakes in the Rim Lakes Recreation Area. You can fish – both in the lake and stream.

You can rent boats, kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes at the Woods Canyon Lake Store & Marina.

Take a hike at Rim Lakes Vista Trail. It’s less than a mile from Spillway campground. The Vista trail leads to fantastic views of the Mogollon Rim. There’s also an easy hiking trail that meanders around the lake. 

Bring your bike and ride around on the paved roads in the area.

On the weekends during the summer, Forest Service rangers give interesting educational presentations about the area.

Booking and Fees

You can book your campsite online here; the nightly charge for an individual campsite is $34.

Individual sites operate on a 6-month rolling basis

Reserve your campsite during the Peak Season, which runs from mid-May through October.

A first-come, first-served season runs from April 26, 2024 through May 14, 2024.

Weekends: Minimum two-day stay
Holiday Weekends: Minimum three-day stay
Maximum Stay: Fourteen nights
Cancellations: Anytime before the date of scheduled arrival, less a $10 cancellation fee

Directions to Spillway Campground

Coming from Payson, take Highway 260 northeast toward Heber. Turn left onto Forest Road 300.

It’s directly across from the Rim Visitor Information Station (stop in here for additional information and maps) and follow the road for 5 miles. Turn right at Woods Canyon Lake Road, go .74 mile, and Spillway is on the right.

Downsides of Developed Campgrounds

If you’re a tent camper, having a motorhome running a generator next to you can be annoying.

Unfortunately, the campground doesn’t have separate areas for tents and motorhomes or trailers.

Well-behaved dogs are allowed but must remain on the leash at all times.

Don’t expect your cell phone to work. This is a remote area at 7,000+ elevation.

It gets cool at night – even in the summertime – bring something warm to wear. Dress in layers so you’re prepared for quick weather changes.

Follow the fire danger notices. You’ll see signs alerting you to the danger levels: low, moderate, high, very high, and extreme. 

Campfires are allowed in the fire pit – unless restrictions say otherwise. Make sure you put the fire out cold – it takes about 5 gallons of water.

Dispersed Camping at the Mogollon Rim

The majority of campsites at the Mogollon Rim are primitive. Dispersed camping is the name used for camping anywhere in the National Forest outside of a designated campground. 

However, in the Rim Lakes Recreation Area, dispersed camping is only allowed at numbered sites within this boundary.

Otherwise, you can enjoy dispersed camping in any place outside of a designated campground.

Dispersed camping also means no services: no trash removal, tables, or fire pits. Some popular dispersed camping areas might have toilets.

You cannot make reservations for dispersed camping, and there are no fees to camp.

Dispersed camping can offer solitude and a simple camping experience away from developed campgrounds and other campers — and noisy generators.

Best Dispersed Campsite at the Mogollon Rim

The best dispersed campsite is known as Forest Road 9350. It’s an incredible place to camp because it’s located right along the top and edge of the Mogollon Rim.

The views from the campsite are absolutely breathtaking!

While FR-9350 is a dispersed campsite, there are a few designated and numbered campsites, picnic tables, and fire pits. Also, there’s a vault toilet right by the entrance at the Carr Lake Trailhead.

If you plan to camp at a dispersed campsite, it’s imperative that you bring more than enough water and pack out everything (including all your waste) that you brought in. 

When you’re at home packing for your trip, it’s best to plan that you won’t have access to any services. 

Due to FR-9350’s location right on the Rim, it’s definitely not a place to bring young children.

Directions to FR-9350 Campsite

From Payson, travel east on Highway 260, turn left on Rim Road – FR 300. Continue on FR-300 for approximately 5 miles, and turn left on FR-9350 at the Carr Lake Trailhead.

Other Dispersed Campsites

Because of its location and fabulous views, FR-9350 gets filled up on popular weekends. If that’s the case, you can camp anywhere in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest at no charge. No permits are required to camp in the wilderness.

As a fallback plan, forest road campsites around the Rim Lakes Recreation Area are a great alternative. You’ll enjoy an incredible experience of solitude and nature up close.

How to Spend a Day at the Mogollon Rim

One of the best ways to discover the Mogollon Rim is to drive The Rim road, make stops to experience the views, and take a couple of short hikes.

Let’s say you spent the night in Pine or Strawberry. 

Start your drive after breakfast at The Early Bird Cafe in Pine.

The Drive

Get on Highway 87 and head north. 

About 16 miles past Strawberry, take the third exit on the roundabout onto E Tyler Parkway. Look out for a road on the right side, the FR-300, and turn right onto Mogollon Rim Road.

You’re now on Forest Road-300, also known as the Rim Road.

Forest Road 300 is about 43.2 miles long. It’s gravel and then dirt and gravel again, along with some potholes and ridges. 

While I drove an SUV with All-Wheel-Drive, a standard car could also navigate the road — although it might not be as comfortable. It’s not a place you want to have car trouble.

Between stopping off to see the vistas with lots of “wows,” my average speed was less than 20 miles per hour. It took me four hours with stops to drive the entire 43 miles.

When you first turn onto FR-300, you don’t realize you’re near the Rim. It’s an uphill climb, and you find yourself in the midst of a thick Ponderosa pine forest.

The General Crook Trail

After just over a mile, FR-300 intersects with what was the General Crook Trail. The trail was once a wagon route used in the late 1800s to provide support for General George Crook in the U.S. Army’s war against the Apaches.

Shortly after the General Crook Trail, the gravel road winds downhill to an area of grassy meadows and evergreens. As the forests give way to the grand views, you feel like you’re on top of the world.

As you continue down the road, you’ll pass some side trips: Potato Lake, Lee Johnson Spring, and Kehl Springs Campground. 

Tunnel Trail Hike

At mile 14 of FR-300, you’ll come to a historical marker for the Battle of Big Dry Wash on the left (north) side of the road. Park here, at the General Springs trailhead.

Toward the south, towards the Rim, you’ll see a sign marking the Arizona Trail. Start south down the trail, descending off the Mogollon Rim. 

In about half-mile, there’s a turnoff to the left for the Tunnel Trail. This trail goes uphill just a short way to the uncompleted railroad tunnel and the ruins of a building.

  • 0.0 Start at General Springs trailhead
  • 0.4 Turn left onto the Tunnel Trail
  • 0.8 Reach the railroad tunnel. Retrace your steps
  • 1.5 Arrive back at the Trailhead

Back in the late 1800s developers wanted to build a railroad to connect Flagstaff with Mogollon Rim and beyond to the copper-rich area of Morenci. Only thirty-five miles of track were built, and this tunnel was started, but never finished since the project went bankrupt.

More Views Along the Spectacular Drive on The Rim

After your short hike, continue on FR-300, and stop off at various viewpoints to enjoy the most incredible vistas. 

Take a detour at Bear Canyon Lake on the north side of The Rim Road. Or, stop at one of the many trailheads on the Rim side to experience the outstanding vistas.

After you pass FR-195 on the left, and about 15 miles from the end of the Rim Road, you’ll see FR-9350 on the right.

If you’ve reserved a campsite at Spillway, it’s just beyond FR-9350, and the entrance to Woods Canyon Lake is on the left. 

Once you get your camp set up, take a walk around Woods Canyon Lake.

After a day exploring the Mogollon Rim, you’ll be ready for an early dinner around the campsite, look up at the stars, and finally, snuggle up in your sleeping bag for a peaceful night’s sleep. 

What’s the Best Month to Visit the Mogollon Rim?

While you can visit the Rim in the wintertime, the peak season is July and August. Of course, that’s when you’ll find it the most crowded.

I believe the best month to visit the Mogollon Rim is May. The mountains are emerald green, and if there have been some good rains in the winter, you’ll be treated to a tapestry of color from the wildflowers.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about the monsoon storms that pick up steam in July and August.

The second best time to visit the Mogollon Rim is early October. It’s after the monsoon season has passed, so you don’t have to worry about storms or lightning.

And it’s Fall, so leaves are changing on the Aspens. It’s a different kind of beauty than in May.

Make sure you dress in layers, even in the summertime, and bring warm clothes for the nighttime. It gets chilly and can get downright cold. Not like in Seward, AK in the winter, but it can get cold.

The Mogollon Rim Interpretive Trail (A Trail for Beginners)

An easy trail for beginners is the Mogollon Rim Interpretive Trail. While the route is no longer on Federal Forest Service land, the private owners allow an out-and-back access on public easement.

When you pass through private property easements and right-of-ways, stay on the path. Private property owners partner with local officials to provide public access.

It’s a great place to be at sunset. The Mogollon Rim Interpretive Trail is popular for hiking, running, and walking.

Why is It Called “Mogollon Rim”?

Around the year 1600, the Rim Country and mountains to the east in New Mexico became known as the Mogollon’s.

They were named for Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, a Spanish governor and captain-general of New Mexico, which was then a part of New Spain.   

Mogollon is pronounced locally as Mug-ee-own. 

Other Things to Know About the Mogollon Rim

The People of the Mogollon Rim

The Rim was home to the Apache and Yavapai people before they were forcibly moved to reservations in the 1870s so that European-American settlers could start cattle ranches and mining operations.

In the 1890s, military control was relaxed. The Apache people began to move back to their birthplaces.

Most of their land was occupied by Whites, so they camped wherever they could and began to establish a working relationship with the new landowners.

After the turn of the century, roads were improved to carry automobiles – not just horse-drawn wagons.

It wasn’t until 1958 that a paved road entered the Rim Country – the Beeline Highway. That was when the Mogollon Rim and surrounding area became a summer destination for visitors from the Phoenix region.

As you hike and travel around the Rim area, remember that this is and has been home to indigenous people for hundreds of years and holds their cultural and ecological history.

Animals of The Mogollon Rim

Elk are commonly seen around The Rim. It’s also home to black bear, mountain lions, and coyotes.

There’s a variety of birds to watch, including bald eagles, Mexican-spotted owls, and flycatchers.

The Mogollon Monster

An urban legend, believed by some people, is about the Mogollon Monster hiding in the region. 

You’ve heard of Bigfoot. The Mogollon Monster is supposed to have a similar look: large, hairy, and ape-like. 

“Those who say they’ve crossed paths with the beast regularly describe an eerie silence prior to their encounter,” said Wesley Treat, author of the book “Weird Arizona.”

There is no scientific evidence that The Mogollon Monster exists, but I’d keep a lookout.

Featured Image by Beau Horyza on Unsplash

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