The Mazatzal Wilderness contains over 252,500 acres of the Tonto and Coconino national forests. Established in 1940 and expanded to its present size in 1984, its name is from an old Indian culture in Mexico, and is correctly pronounced "Mah-zaht-zahl," meaning "land of the deer."


The eastern side of this wilderness predominantly consists of brush or pine-covered mountains, sometimes broken by narrow, vertical-walled canyons. On its west side below the steep brush-covered foothills, the Verde River flows through the Sonoran Desert. This river was designated by the U.S Congress as Arizona's only Wild River Area in 1984.


History of the Mazatzal Wilderness

As the uses of National Forests grew and intensified, there was again concern that selected small areas should be preserved in a somewhat natural condition, before no such areas remained. The Forest Service and concerned citizens, under the leadership of Aldo Leopold, established such a classification system in the early 1920s. This area was established as the Mazatzal Primitive Area by the Chief of the Forest Service on May 27, 1938. It was upgraded to a wilderness classification on June 13, 1940.


Later, the United States Congress became aware of and interested in the concepts of wilderness preservation and on September 3, 1964, the President signed a law, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Mazatzal Wilderness was one of the areas identified as a part of this original system. On August 28, 1984, the Arizona Wilderness Act added some 35,000 acres to that originally designated area, giving the Mazatzal Wilderness its present size and shape.


Hundreds of years before this happened; Native Americans were making their homes adjacent to this area. It has been more or less continuously occupied for at least 5,000 years. By 1400 A.D., overpopulation and destruction of key elements of the natural resource base apparently resulted in economic and political stresses which ultimately caused the downfall of prehistoric civilizations throughout most of Arizona.


From about the early 1500s, the Mazatzals have provided resources for the Yavapai Indians who roamed over large areas in this part of the State. After about 1700, they were joined by a few Tonto Apache who lived primarily to the east of the Mazatzals. This situation was maintained until the late 1800s, when American army units from Fort McDowell subjugated both the Apache and Yavapai and confined them to reservations. Mazatzal (locally mispronounced "madda-zell," but properly pronounced Mah'zat zall) is itself apparently an Indian word. In Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), Mazatzal means an area inhabited by deer. Since Aztecs were never in this area, how the mountain range was named remains a mystery.


Trappers were likely the first Anglo-Americans to enter the Mazatzal region. A party including Kit Carson is reported to have trapped fur-bearing animals down the Salt, then up the Verde River in 1829. Indian hostility curtailed more permanent use of this area until General Crook's campaign in 1873. The early-day mining camps known as Mazatzal City and Marysville and the Mormon community called the East Verde Settlement were established just east of the present wilderness boundary in the late 1870s and early 1880s.


During this same period, large numbers of cattle and sheep were being brought into the area and homesteads were established. By the turn of the century, the entire area was heavily stocked.


For those interested in the history of the area known as the Mazatzal Wilderness, there are a few reference books, but much remains unrecorded and forgotten. Our only clues are the remaining sites and artifacts (both historic and prehistoric) which are strictly protected by Federal law.

© 2020 - Town of Payson 
Parks, Recreation & Tourism Department
1000 W. Country Club Dr.

Payson, AZ 85541  |  928-472-5110

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