Photographers tell us that Doll Baby Ranch Road, which winds into the mountains west of Payson, is best experienced at day’s end, when the light of sunset brings a beautiful glow to the hills. But this 11-mile drive is nice for other reasons, too: It’s mostly paved and little traveled, and you’ll get mountain views and even a little history along the way.
The drive begins on State Route 87. From there, you’ll head west on Main Street, which is packed with reminders of Payson’s history. Many of the buildings here date to the city’s founding in the 1880s. In particular, stop at the Oxbow Saloon, built as a hotel in 1933, and grab a cold non-alcoholic beverage before the drive.
A mile in, the road becomes Country Club Drive and winds, appropriately, past the Payson Country Club and the ponds of neighboring Green Valley Park. After another 1.2 miles, the pavement ends and the road, now Doll Baby Ranch Road, dips into and out of two washes where water sometimes collects on the road. Unless the water is deep, you should have no trouble navigating it in a sedan, but every vehicle is different; use your best judgment. Past the washes, the pavement returns as the road winds into the foothills of the Mazatzal Mountains.
Here, piñon pines and junipers line both sides of the road, which descends, climbs and descends again while offering expansive views of the Mazatzals — in particular North Peak, which reaches an elevation of 7,458 feet, nearly half a mile higher than Payson itself. Soon, numerous prickly pears join the roadside vegetation before a pullout at Mile 6.5, on the right, provides one of the drive’s best views of the mountains. The Mazatzal Wilderness, formed in 1964 as one of the country’s first wilderness areas, protects more than 250,000 acres in and around the range.
The road rolls along for a couple more miles before passing a large ravine on the left at Mile 8.5. At the bottom, you’ll see a few cottonwoods enjoying the precious runoff this landform provides. A quarter-mile later, you’ll enter a section of private property, and at Mile 9, the pavement ends again. This area once was planned as the site of a major housing development, but the Great Recession of 2008 put those plans on hold; as of late 2021, a new project for the site was in the works.
Continuing past this point requires a high-clearance vehicle, but it’s worth it. Beyond the private property, the rough, rutted road passes stands of yuccas before, at Mile 10, you come to an old windmill — and the ranch for which the road is named. As a sign explains, Western Rivers Conservancy bought the 149-acre Doll Baby Ranch in 2017 to preserve it as a gateway to the Mazatzal Wilderness and the Tonto National Forest. The group conveyed the ranch, which includes a mile of the East Verde River, to the forest in 2019. You can see some of what’s left of the ranch’s buildings from the road.
From here, it’s another mile or so to the drive’s endpoint at the Doll Baby Trailhead, where cottonwoods and sycamores line a section of the East Verde on the right. Some visitors use this trailhead to reach the 800-mile Arizona Trail, while others simply stay put and enjoy the solitude — and, if the timing is right, the lovely light of sunset.
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 11 miles one way (from State Route 87)
Directions: From the intersection of State Route 87 and Main Street in Payson, go west on Main Street, which turns into Country Club Drive and then Doll Baby Ranch Road, for 11 miles to the Doll Baby Trailhead.
Vehicle requirements: None in good weather for the first 9 miles. A high-clearance vehicle, such as an SUV or truck, is required for the last 2 miles. Do not attempt any portion of the drive after heavy rain or if rain is in the forecast.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Payson Ranger District, 928-474-7900 or fs.usda.gov/tonto; Arizona Trail Association, 602-252-4794 or aztrail.org