A rugged and wet non-technical canyon hike down miles of Tonto Creek pink granite in the heart of Rim country, returning via the Hell's Gate #37 trail. Definitely NOT a place to be during heavy Spring run-off or active monsoon conditions.
You'll need to drop a shuttle vehicle at the Hell's Gate #37 trailhead on FR405A, where you'll end your adventure. You then continue east 5.5 miles on FR405A and FR405, where the road ends at the Bear Flat trailhead. Tonto Creek is right there, just head downstream. With a little scrambling you can stay dry for the first mile or so, but you may as well just get wet, because soon you'll have no choice. For a total of 7 miles down to Hell's Gate you'll be wading and swimming, rock-hopping and occasionally bushwhacking through this fine stretch of canyon. I lost count of the number of pools to wade and swim. There are a couple short sections of Class 4 downclimbing as you work your way around some falls, and one 3-foot drop off a ledge into a pool, but no rappels or big drops. The final long swim takes you through the soaring walls of Hell's Gate, where you say goodbye to Tonto Creek and begin the somewhat hellish 7 mile slog up the Hell's Gate #37 trail and back to your shuttle vehicle.
The water in Tonto Creek is often cloudy with silt, which makes wading slow and difficult. You'll definitely want a hiking stick, as you'll be wading and swimming more or less blind if the water isn't clear. The water temperature was cool, a 2mm shorty wetsuit was very comfortable. The silt can also wreak havoc on filters, so you may want to carry enough for the full trip. There was a small creek entering from the west about 2 miles down from the start, but the flow was spread too thin to collect as it trickled down a rock cliff.
This hike can be done in a very long day, although a few camping spots can be found along the way, including many good sites at the confluence with Haigler Creek if you want to do an overnight trip. If you are considering doing the standard Tonto Creek canyoneering trip (Hell's Gate 17 miles downstream to Houston Creek
), this would be an excellent warm up hike. Or if you are doing the standard trip, starting at Bear Flat would add 7 more miles of excellent canyon, at the same time avoiding the overland Trail #37 route into the canyon. - Sep 29 2009 toddak