IMAGE VIA CARA FULLER | UNSPLASH
When you think of Phoenix, Arizona, raw desert landscape void of water may come to mind. But while there is some accuracy to that, there are actually some stunning waterfalls and aquatic escapes in and around the Valley of the Sun.
Whether you’re looking to escape the summer heat or on the search for a scenic and secluded gem, the incredibly diverse landscape of central Arizona more than delivers, making Phoenix the perfect hub for all of your outdoor adventures.
If you’re an outdoor-loving Phoenician, you’ll likely find a fellow hiker asking you, “Have you been to Fossil Creek?” Despite its remoteness, it is a well-known destination among the adventure-minded folks in the Valley—and for good reason. The creek’s crystal blue waters run from the Mogollon Rim and end in an other-worldly waterfall. This one-mile-long waterfall hike makes for a day trip that you’ll definitely want to put on your list, but don’t expect to be the only one there if you go on the weekend. As one of only two streams in Arizona included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, many flock to the site to take in its beauty. Fitt Tip: While this place is well known, a trip out here involves some planning. You’ll need to purchase a permit in advance (like one month or more prior).
No waterfall list would be complete without mentioning Havasu Falls. Yes, this iconic site is a bit of a drive from Phoenix (about four hours), but it is absolutely worth it. The falls are tucked away just outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park near a little Native American village called Supai, home to the Havasupai tribe. Here, Havasu Creek’s blue-green waters flow over a sandstone cliff to create one of the most stunning views you could ever see, whether in person or on Instagram. Important note: You can’t make the 10-mile hike to the falls without getting a permit, which is extremely challenging given its popularity.
Just up Havasu Creek from Havasu Falls is another must-see, Mooney Falls. This incredible 200-foot waterfall also pours blue-green over the reddish-brown rock, but is roughly twice as tall as Havasu Falls, making for an impressive photo op. If you’re lucky enough to get a permit to hike into Havasu Campground, make sure to check out Mooney Falls. Fitt tip: While the hike to Mooney is only a short ways from Havasu Campground, it can be pretty adventurous. You’ll have to climb down ladders and chains and go through tunnels that miners cut into the cliff face more than 100 years ago. #WorthIt
This fun hike with a view is a couple of hours north of Phoenix, but like some of the others on the list, the drive is easy and goes by quickly with the fantastic scenery along the way. Between the towns of Payson and Pine, head for Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and follow the well-marked Gowan Trail for a half mile to the park’s namesake landmark. The massive arch—the bridge—is an incredible sight in itself, but the creek flowing over the rock formation surrounded by pine trees in a tiny valley makes you feel world’s away from the low desert landscape you came from.
An easy and breathtaking drive outside Phoenix will take you to a trail less traveled and a waterfall seldom seen. The hike to the unofficially named “Big Kahuna” waterfall begins at the Barnhardt Trailhead, located about 90 minutes northeast of Phoenix along Highway 87, south of Payson. Known to many as the gateway to the Mazatzal Mountains, the Barnhardt Trail climbs 1,600 feet through ponderosa and piñon pines, as well as some beautiful manzanita groves. Along the three-mile hike to the falls, you’ll enjoy amazing views of the Mogollon Rim to the north and east. For us, it’s the perfect way to get “lost” in the wilderness in the morning and still make it home for an early dinner in Phoenix.
In the outskirts of the West Valley stands the rugged, yet well-maintained White Tank Mountains. While it is the most popular hike among these peaks, Waterfall Trail is well worth it for, well, the name says it all: the waterfall. The moderate two-mile out-and-back trail is well-marked and mainly follows a shallow creek to the falls (you’ll have to do a little boulder-hopping). One important thing to note: these falls can slow to a trickle in the dryer months (spring and early summer), but you should find a steady flow during rainy winters or the day after a heavy monsoonal rain in the late summer time. If your quest for the falls leaves you high and dry, you’ll still see plenty of petroglyphs (basically cave art) on the rocks along the trail!
This one is a little further north than the others mentioned on our list. About 3.5 hours north of Phoenix in the Navajo Nation, Grand Falls is one of the gems of the Painted Desert. It’s not terribly hard to find, but you will have to do some driving on unpaved roads to get to the lookout (aka “go with your gut”). A half-mile-long hike will take you to the lookout, where you’ll hopefully see the falls in all their glory. When they’re flowing at their strongest, the water looks like chocolate—basically like Willy Wonka’s factory. Despite the longer drive, you don’t need a golden ticket to witness this wonder.
If you’re looking for a more rugged hike that’s almost guaranteed to be free of crowds, look no further than Queen Creek Falls, accessed via the Bellamy Trail in Queen Creek Canyon. Right off of Highway 60 between the towns of Superior and Globe, this hike features several waterfalls after heavy rainfall and provides impressive views as you dip below the canyon walls southeast of metro Phoenix. The highway turnout at mile marker 229 provides the easiest access to one of the seasonal waterfalls. Once you reach the bottom of the narrow canyon, follow the creek upstream where you’ll find an approximately 30-foot-tall waterfall. Important note: this hike is full of thick desert vegetation, so hiking pants and boots are strongly recommended for the bushwhacking you may have to do.
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