By Wayne Cottrell — Payson Perimeter to Pines is a 35.0-mile road bike ride in and around Payson, Arizona (not Payson, Utah). Payson is considered to be the “Heart of Arizona,” located right in the geographic center of the State. Yet, getting to Payson required even more effort than a hard bicycle ride, until 1958, when the Beeline Highway (Arizona State Highway 87, or AZ 87) was finally completed. The Beeline was upgraded to a high-speed, four-lane expressway in the 2010s – now, the 90-mile trip from Phoenix (which is to the south-southwest) can be completed in 90 minutes or less. Before the highway, it was an eight- to twelve-hour trek. Payson’s elevation is 5,000 feet, and it is located about 20 miles to the south of Mogollon Rim, which is the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. The Rim has a striking appearance, particularly when traveling to the east of town on AZ 260, jutting upwards to an elevation of 8,000 feet.
Payson had an estimated residential population of 15,800 in 2019, but its location at the “heart” gives the town significant through and visitor populations. Payson is effectively surrounded by Tonto National Forest, which features the largest grouping of Ponderosa pines in the world. In designing a road bike route, I considered a ride to the Mogollon Rim via AZ 260, but decided to mostly steer clear of the main highways. Payson Perimeter to Pines, therefore, is a counterclockwise perimeter ride of Payson, mostly on residential roads, plus an out-and-back on Houston Mesa Road north of town. The counterclockwise loop is broken, after 7.7 miles, by the out-and-back, which is 21 miles. The final phase of the ride closes the loop. The elevation differential is just 449 feet, but the cumulative climbing totals over 1,800 feet. Start the ride at Green Valley Park (34.230844oN 111.343789oW) – one of Payson’s two main parks – and head east on Country Club Drive, beginning a gradual climb. The starting elevation is 4,850 feet. The Green Valley Lakes are on either side of the road (Payson’s original name was Green Valley, dating from 1882, but was renamed in honor of Illinois representative Levi Joseph Payson, in 1884, after he advocated for a local post office). Country Club becomes Main Street east of Green Valley Parkway (mile 0.05). Main is the historical center of town, and is worth a closer look, after the ride. Turn right on McLane Road (mile 0.45) and head south, followed by a left on Phoenix Street (mile 0.8) to head east. Phoenix and McLane had the roughest pavement of the route, when I did this in May 2021. Cross the four-lane AZ 87 at mile 1.05 – there is no signal here, so the best strategy is to be patient and wait for a gap. Phoenix crosses AZ 87 at a skewed angle, making sight distance awkward, so use caution. East of Sycamore Street (mile 1.45), Phoenix climbs the steepest hill of the route (9.0% grade) – the hill lasts for just 0.3 miles. After cresting at 5,111 feet, Phoenix descends (7.5% grade) to Mud Springs Road (mile 2.4). Turn left on Mud Springs and head north, continuing the passage through residential areas, climbing gradually. Turn left on Granite Dells Road (traffic circle; use caution) at mile 3.25, to head northwest. At AZ 260 (traffic signal), turn sharply to the right, to head east. AZ 260 has four lanes and a wide shoulder along this stretch – the speed limit is 45 mi/h, increasing to 55 as you move through town, climbing and descending gradually. Now on the eastern edge of town, turn left onto Tyler Parkway (traffic signal; use caution) at mile 5.1 (elevation: 4,970 feet), and head north into the residential area. Tyler climbs gradually, to 5,000 feet. At mile 6.45, Tyler curves left to head west, climbing (4.5% grade) to 5,116 feet. From there, Tyler descends, gradually, ending at AZ 87.
Turn right onto AZ 87 (traffic circle), which is concurrent with AZ 260, at mile 7.7, followed by an immediate right onto Houston Mesa Road (mile 7.9). The next segment of the ride is on Houston Mesa, to the end of pavement at Control Road, and back. The total out-and-back distance is 20.6 miles. The road climbs gradually to Houston Mesa (peak elevation 5,256 feet). The speed limit on the two-lane road is 30 mi/h, dropping to 25 mi/h upon leaving the Mesa. The Shoofly Ruins, on the National Register of Historic Places, are on the right at mile 10.6, and are worth a visit. After traversing Houston Mesa, the road descends and climbs to pass Diamond Rim and the Brody Hills, with elevations ranging between 4,860 and 5,215 feet. There are intermittent cattle guards, and periodic views of Mogollon Rim in the distance. The Mesa de Caballo community is located just south of Shoofly, and there are several Tonto National Forest trailheads along the road (with parking areas and lavatories). Houston Mesa Road’s pavement comes to end after passing through the Whispering Pines community. The road narrows noticeably through Whispering Pines. Turn around at Control Road (mile 18.5), at the edge of the community. The elevation here, the highest of the ride, is 5,264 feet, which is nearly the same as that on Houston Mesa. Mogollon Rim is just five miles to the north, as the crow flies, although the view is obscured by trees. Return to AZ 87/ AZ 260 via Houston Mesa; use caution on blind curves. Turn left to head south on the highway (use caution; mile 29.1). Use caution through the traffic circle at Tyler Parkway (mile 29.3). At the next traffic circle, at Airport Road (mile 29.9), turn right.
After crossing McLane Road, Airport climbs (7.4% grade) to a mesa, with Payson Municipal Airport on the right (no commercial flights). The road then descends gradually. At Lema Drive (mile 32.9), turn left, followed immediately by a left onto Bulla Drive. Bulla then curves right to become Vista Road. Vista descends (5.66% grade), with the downhill ending at the route’s lowest point (4,815 feet), as the road curves through Payson Golf Course. At the end of Vista, turn left onto Country Club Drive (mile 34.35) and head east. The ride ends at the Green Valley Lakes.
Be sure to check out some of Payson’s history, nearby, including the Haught Cabin, which has no windows, historical ranger properties, and Zane Grey Cabin, all just to the north of the park, on Green Valley Parkway. The latter is a replica of a cabin near Mogollon Rim that the famous author and filmmaker owned during the 1920s. Also, immediately east of the park, on Main Street, are the Ox Bow Inn, Pieper Mansion, and Sidles Mud House, the latter being made primarily of poured mud(!).
Wayne Cottrell is a former Bay Area and Utah resident, and current southern California resident, who continues to conduct extensive research in these places, and elsewhere, to develop the content for bike books. His books include: Best Bike Rides San Francisco, Best Bike Rides books on Los Angeles and Orange County, Best Easy Bike Rides books on Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Francisco, and Road Biking Utah.