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Tonto Narrows, AZ

no permit
517 91 7
Guide 91 Triplogs  7 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Payson > Payson S
4.2 of 5 by 30
Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
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Difficulty 4 of 5
Route Finding 1 of 5
Distance Round Trip 4.7 miles
Trailhead Elevation 3,030 feet
Elevation Gain 135 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 4-6 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 5.38
Interest Off Trail Hiking, Perennial Waterfall & Perennial Creek
Backpack Yes & Connecting
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Photos Viewed All Mine Following
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20  2019-05-18 ddgrunning
2  2018-06-01 MountainMatt
9  2016-05-26 MountainMatt
19  2014-06-01 Droog
9  2014-05-31
Tonto Creek
13  2013-05-25 skatchkins
2  2011-02-12 JuanJaimeiii
19  2010-07-05 skatchkins
Page 1,  2,  3,  4
Author joebartels
author avatar Guides 213
Routes 824
Photos 10,834
Trips 4,261 map ( 21,471 miles )
Age 49 Male Gender
Location Phoenix, AZ
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Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Apr, May, Jun, Sep → 10 AM
Seasons   Late Spring to Early Autumn
Sun  6:13am - 6:22pm
Official Route
0 Alternative
Fauna Nearby
Flora Nearby
Named place Nearby
Culture Nearby
Swimmin' UP the Tonto
by joebartels

Likely In-Season!
As of January 2009 the access described below has been permanently closed. This GPS Route will get you in legal, if followed carefully. Here's the accompanying triplog.

More scrambling & swimming then actual hiking on this trip. Travel in the creek is much slower then hiking a maintained trail. Beware of flooding. Tonto Creek reaches water flows in excess of fifty thousand cubic feet per second.

Payson teenagers skip school and flock to the area know as the "Narrows". Other than littering up the place they're a good group of kids. Now that you're all pumped up, let's go! Enter the Hellsgate Wilderness to fun, fun, fun!

The approach, attraction and the possibilities make this escape a true classic. Getting to the trailhead might be an adventure in itself. None of the roads are marked. I spent about twenty minutes looking for the right area. The good news being Gisela is a very tiny town and twenty minutes will cover the whole town. If you go into the town of Gisela you're actually wasting time. Try the directions below. Please feel free to e-mail better directions and I'll get them posted.

From the trailhead (the gate) you will follow the dirt road to Houston Creek. It's about 0.6 miles along the dirt road. This may seem like a hassle going in. On the way out it gives your clothes a chance to dry out before jumping back in the car. The road actually goes to a farm. A sign leads you down into the creek just before the home. I doubt the homeowners are too thrilled living next to this major attraction. Especially with all the teenagers.

Turn down to the creek. First you will encounter a small stream. It's only about three feet wide. There was a board to cross on this trip. Next comes a gate. If you weren't in the spirit yet, surely this gate will put a smile on your face. You just walked a dirt road out in the middle of nowhere to a homestead with a sign pointing to "Swim Hole". There didn't appear to be a drop of water within a hundred miles. Now you're standing under a dense canopy of trees. The gate says "Gate to Swim Hole", I love it. It's even equipped with an automatic closer.

Pass through the gate. Don't worry it'll shut itself! A trail cuts through the thick vegetation paralleling Houston Creek. Soon the trail crosses the creek. The trail continues through dense vegetation. Soon you'll come out onto the rocks and the sandy banks of Tonto Creek. It's a short scramble through the rocks until the gauging station comes into view. Staying on the north bank, continue going up stream (not in the water, on the bank) to the crossing. It's apparent where to cross. The creek is shallow in the area. A huge tree fans out over the south bank on the other side. It may be more challenging after a rain.

To the left of the huge tree is a steep rock wall to scale up to the trail. The trail goes to the narrows and that's it. You can also climb the rocks to the narrow on the south bank, either way works. The narrows is a small low lying slot in the granite. Tonto Creek pushes through the restriction. It's fun to ride the current. As always, be careful in the water. Where the creek is wide it appears the creek isn't flowing at all. In the narrows the current is restricted causing it to gush through. Personally I thought this area was incredible. I was finding it hard to continue. It's about one mile to the narrows from the trailhead. So far the going has been pretty easy. I believe most families with kids could make it here and have a lot of fun. However, I wouldn't recommend the family going any further. Also, be careful on the rocks and in the water. The creek isn't very deep. I'd forget any thoughts of diving altogether. Even if it's deep enough this creek is filled with huge boulders.

Up to the narrows it's only necessary to cross ankle deep water under average conditions. Past the narrows is another story. You can rock scramble the south bank only so far. Mandatory swims are inevitable. Long stretches (up to 1/8 mile!) of wall to wall pools will be encountered. Be careful in the water. Huge boulders under the water are waiting to knock your knees. Go a week after the last rain for best visibility into the water. Clarity in sections is amazing, up to six feet deep. I could see eight inch fish swimming near my feet. On this trip in early May, the water was perfect in the mid sixties. I wore a wetsuit, but it wasn't really necessary. The black neoprene kept me warm on this windy day. Hey, it's not like rippin' a tasty wave in Santa Cruz. Still, I'd take this beautiful canyon all to myself any day.

At 1.6 miles you'll encounter a nice pool butted up to the high canyon walls. A quarter mile further on (1.85 miles) is a larger hole. This one being more suited for swimming with less clutter under the water. The smooth canyon walls have been carved forming sculptures of nature. If you're really up to the challenge, continue on another half mile to the Soldier Camp Creek confluence. Best described as an Oasis. This is the end of the line for a day trip in my opinion. Only experienced canyoneers should proceed further. An end to end trek of twenty plus miles would take days. Most likely you'd prefer a downstream journey too.

A couple notes to wrap it up. Avoid the mossy rocks as fish rely on this culture for nourishment. Bears, mountain lions, bobcats and snakes all call this canyon "home". Also, beware of the water current flow on the return trip. You'd be surprised how easily you can be slung through the chokes onto the rocks. Experience speaks! Which reminds me, a dry bag (several sizes available at REI) is nice for those items you prefer to keep dry.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.

Leave No Trace and +Add a Triplog after your canyon trip to support this local community.

2001-05-02 joebartels
    WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

    Most recent of 20 deeper Triplog Reviews
    Tonto Narrows
    rating optionrating optionrated 3rated 3rated 3
    Fun hike with the Droog. All off trail and boulder hopping. Drive in the Sand Creek wash was a little sketchy, but nothing too serious. Use/game trails led a good part of the way, GPS made things much easier to follow. Great swimming to be had once to the Tonto, lots of big carp and bass in the deeper areas to see.
    Tonto Narrows
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    This was a good trip and closer than some other swim holes in AZ. I was a bit concerned because of all the things I read and we did not have the chance to call the park services. The dirt "road" easily accommodated the family minivan. I was a bit worried about vandalism but nothing and no notes were left on our vehicle. I am assuming all of this occurred at the previous entrance at the gates. There is no trail head to speak of. Once you park and make it over to the first set of hills there are some pretty clear paths heading up and over to the canyon decent. At this point is where I would highly suggest a GPS track from someone who has done this, it helped us tremendously. On the way down it would be easy to cliff out if the path is not chosen wisely. For the most part there are game trails weaving down but choosing the right one is key. Once in Houston Creek which was relatively dry, other than a few pools, it is easy peasy to the Tonto Narrows. I wish it was clearer how to get down and not trespass. There seems to be a fence past where the maps would say private land is. Going any father down just put us higher on the cliffs above where we wanted to be. We found an opening and made our way down. What a great spot. I am kinda glad this spot has been made a little more difficult to access. I wish fossil springs was also much harder to get to but that is for another time. We had a good afternoon of swimming and rock hoping. I need to get a fishing license and a pocket fisherman, there were some HUGE trout just waiting to be in ma belly :STP: .
    Tonto Narrows
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Two-day canyoneering trek through another beautiful and super rugged stretch of Hellsgate Wilderness, starting on Hellsgate 37 and exiting at Gisela. Water level was a bit lower than normal after the dry winter, but still very pleasant and warm enough that I didn't need the shorty wetsuit I brought. Tons of swimming required on this one, including several swims of over 200 yards. Hiked for about 11 hours each day, camped on a nice beach where Derrick Canyon enters from the west. Also used my new Sawyer Mini water filter for the first time, seems like a very cool product.

    Once exiting The Narrows I skirted around the south side of some fenced private property, then wandered downstream in the rocky floodplain for about 3 miles, thrashing through some marshy areas, heading for a GPS point near the south end of Gisela where a public road accesses the creek (Windy Way according to the street sign, W Beach Rd according to Google maps). 15 minutes later my faithful shuttle driver arrived, I cleaned up and we headed for a monster Italian dinner at Gerardo's in Payson. Sweet.
    Tonto Narrows
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    Only 2 out of 14 people thought they were going to die.
    Those are still good odds and the rest of the group was solid so I count it as another success.
    Like my movie watching memories now days, I seem to only remember the good parts and forget to pass on the rough stuff in the descriptions.

    Thanks again Joe for the safe route. Seems like the canyon drop game trails have all but disappeared. I think just going straight up on the way out still wins out as the path of least resistance. The whole hike seems shorter to me each time :)

    I just brought a waterproof gopro to hold on to and left all the fancy camera stuff from last time at home:
    Tonto Narrows
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    Well I played "Who Wants To Try To Make It To Tonto Creek" again this weekend this time with Joe's Gisela reacharound programmed into the GPS.
    I had 7 other takers for the journey to The Narrows with the fungenda including a trailhead camp for early morning freshness.

    We woke before the sun in the morning and finally got everyone roused and ready to go. We basically retraced our steps from last time and the cow trails along the ridges and the small ups and downs until we got to the descent into Houston Creek. Joe's magnificent route kept us off all the private property. The hike down was a little hairy with a game trail here and a water runoff path there to help us stay out of the catclaws too bad. We still got pretty scratched up but everyone trooped through it. The sound of water below was a great motivator.

    We reached creek one and followed it by boulder hopping towards Tonto. There were plenty of frogs and a turtle in the pools along the way. When we reached another fence, we stopped and followed Joe's climb back out on the other side for a short jaunt across the flat pasture area as the sun began kicking it up a notch. A short time after (about 1.5hrs into our adventure) we were blowing up our tubes and getting ready to shove off upstream.

    The first pool is quite a paddle with no hint to how deep it actually is. At best guess 40+ until whatever you dropped hit the bottom. After that, there's a nice little narrow section with plenty of jump off spots from the slick granite walls above. And of course at the head of this is a great rapids section worth shooting over and over. This is the area we actually called it quits at last time because of time constraints. This time we hung out here for quite a while before pushing on.
    About 2/5 of the rest of the trip involves boulder hopping while the rest you're in the creek. Sometimes full tubing it is best, while other shallower sections work better if you use your tube as a floating hiking stick and/or gear raft.

    The fish just kept getting bigger and bigger as we went. While most of the big ones were carp, we saw plenty of trout big enough for meals alone. Steve and I got ahead of the group and ended up climbing up another jump spot that upon first glance from below looked comparable in height to the last area. When we reached the top we realized how wrong we were. We sat up here for a while waiting for the cameras to catch up as we watched the large fish circle below. At some point I heard Steve (who as far as I knew from some of our last adventures, still had a fear of even the smallest of heights) say, "I can't wait anymore," and then promptly tricked his mind and just jumped. After a long time of just gravity, air, and Steve, he hit and then resurfaced. Unfortunately his belief that he could keep his glasses in his hands was wrong as the carwreck-like impact forced them from his hands and Tonto claimed some more valuables (if you're playing along at home, that makes the count: 1 watch, 1 wedding ring, and 1 pair of prescription glasses). I managed to hold off until the rest of the group got there and as Jonathan bean his climb, I tagged out and jumped. I wasn't able to do my girlie screams on this one. The gravity just forced my air out in a long rough grunt as my mind tried to figure out why I hadn't reached the water yet. I actually landed okay, apparently forgoing my usual half flying squirrel move I seem to grace the air with on all the other times. I made it to the shore just in time to catch Jon's jump with the camera and see the long airtime from below.

    We decided to eat our lunch here in the water under the shade of the cliff and then pressed on to see what was further on up. Pools, led to more pools, and on until we reached a nice little beach area and the sound of a large fall. We were getting towards a turn around consensus but we had to see the noise maker for ourselves first. Around the bend we found the large split fall pouring though another narrow section. The force of it was enough you drive you under, but if you stood just right, it became a meaty German massage lady's kneading arms. After some waterfall lovins, we tried to climb up on the right side. Jon and I pulled ourselves up and then ended up jumping back off the wall after looking around a bit. We made the falls our turn around spot and began heading back.

    The going was pretty quick on the way back. Tonto tried to take my GPS but Steve found it under one of the smaller rapids that had squeezed it off of my belt.
    When we finally made it back to the first jump area we hung out some more, shooting the rapids and jumping until we were sure we had squeezed all the fun we could out before leaving. We swam back to where we dropped in and prepared for the hike out away from the blessed water and into the sun and stickers.

    The flat spot was ridiculously warm and the shade of Houston Creek was greatly welcomed. We hopped back to the cairn that marked our downtrail and then rested a little next to our last pool before the loose climb that awaited. It was now that most of us realized that Steve had been hiking pretty blind without his glasses; the uphill would be precariously slow for him. We finally all made it up the almost straight up hill until the sunlight greeted us again. The rest of the way played out the same way the inhike did. Some ups, some downs, and cow trails to keep most of the briars off until arriving at the vehicle a couple hours later.

    All in all, subtracting the GPS signal bounce in the canyon, the round trip on our feet and in the tubes was 6.5 miles. More than worth it to not see another soul or a piece of trash and spend the day in deep clear refreshing waters usually not seen in Arizona.

    Some vids:

    My high jump: ... re=related
    A screamer: ... re=related
    The rapids weren't as fast as last time: ... fSmH3QsP3E
    Tonto Narrows
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    This trip wasn't planned. We failed at Tonto Creek access the day before so this was more of a counter attack just to prove we could hack it (plus it was only 8mi down the pavement once we had hit it). Unfortunately because it was improptu, I did not have Joe's exact route saved on the GPS. I had looked it over for a just in case future run a couple time before though.
    The first part was easy, ridgewalking until the Willow Creek drop in. We weren't sure where to go from there, only that I wasn't going to fail my followers a second time. We followed the slope down looking for ways in and that's where I'll leave off until the part where the creek was reached. My GPS route shows how hard we tried, plus I brought a few pieces of trash out as pennance.
    Wish we had gotten there earlier for time and temp sake but it took a while to get moving again from the previous day.
    Visibility was great until 30+ feet deep.
    We mostly played at the first narrow falls area until we knew we should head back for daylight's sake. If you find a white gold wedding band... I'm sure my brother-in-law (and sister) would be ecstatic. It most likely went missing around the falls.
    Other than that we had a absolutly great time.
    The girls were pretty much done climbing for the weekend, so we did what any horror movie would dictate and split up in a small township of overly private people that hate outsiders other than sprinkled in their meals: We sent the girls down the two miles of flat road as Jonathan and I braved snipers going back the way we came. We actually made great time after being rejuvenated in the creek and it only took us an hour and a half to reach the vehicle. We loaded up and met the girls at the waypoint we had directed them to near the wash exit. They were unscathed and we regrouped and headed back to town.

    Couple vids:
    Fun part - ... 5j_wJsBG6M
    Double whoops - ... TdHsXHFqxA
    Tonto Narrows
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    Forecast was 60% chance of rain all day. After driving up through a lashing wave of downpours and VERY near lightning strikes we headed in under a light rain. Houston Creek was running about a foot deep whereas it was dry a couple weeks ago. Luckily Tonto was still low and crystal clear in spots. The weather cleared up the moment we reached the Tonto! JP Speedboat and I went a bit further up creek to hit up Pancho's three mentions. IMO the nicest area is just after the first waterfall where water cascades down a good 30? feet.

    Fabulous day, JP rocks!

    Having horrible results with Chacos I was told how great they perform in water. Unfortunately I was even more disappointed and left with bloody raw feet from strap burn...ugh Luckily JP lent me her wool socks and I made it out alive. These water hikes drain me seriously. I was exhausted at the end of the day with thoughts of a 17 mile roller coaster hike to Reavis in eight hours :sweat:
    Tonto Narrows
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    With the opportunity to hike with Kelli on short notice we decided on Tonto Narrows. It's been over eight years since I originally visited and recorded this hike. With the recent access closure I was interested in finding a legal way to make this trip work. Dana deserves all the kudos as he tried two routes already. One down the majority of Houston Creek which works but is a long haul. Another attempt on the tail end of Gibson Creek had the right distance variable and is doable too if you enjoy catclaw and some scrambling.

    So I put one and two together and used what I learned from Sid Hayes. In asking Sid the best way to tackle the Ridgeline via Old West Boulder Canyon about five years ago Sid said "when presented with a ridge I'd take that option over a canyon first". Viola getting old is paying off, these tiny little things I've learned along the way are proving useful for once!

    With a loaded GPS Route, we went over the game plan and headed out. I wore shoes & pants in August none-the-less due to being Chris-tened in the past coming home to blood sausage legs. Along with an even larger tube to shake the wiggles of the dollar tubes.

    To our surprise this route proved to be pretty nice for the most part. No major bushwhacking and several use-trails along the way. The key is staying on the ridge. With fast diving mountain lines all around and a slight roller coaster on your own I was glad to have the GPS loaded and used it often. When you get to the point where you're overlooking Houston Creek 400 feet straight down you know somebody's gotta pay the piper... and it's you. It looks more intimidating for the most part. The final hundred feet is ridiculously steep with unsure footing passing a buffet of cacti along the way.

    Once in Houston Creek it's a hop, skip and a jump down to the narrows. To keep this one legal keep an eye out to the east for a reverse slanting exit out of the creek up onto what can only be described as the cow-deck.

    We headed up creek in the water and through the narrows. They sure don't last very long. Then we continued on to the waterfall about 0.75mi up creek floating, paddling and swimming. We pondered going further then made a wise choice to turn around. Wise as I sit here typing and my arms are about to fall off from over a mile of paddling. In addition, regardless of a thick SPF 50 lathering my arms are a glowing red furnace of pain.

    Coming in we got a glimpse of some rock-art on one of the peaked ridge sections. On the return I realized the whole area was Rob-Randalized!

    I highly recommend more than two hours of sleep for this jaunt or perhaps ten to fifteen degrees cooler, it's starting to sting. I believe I've had my Tonto Narrows fix for another eight to ten years. Thanks Kelli for a great little adventure. :)

    Note: The access via FR208 may be considered 4x4 by some. I got in with 2WD and no issues.
    Tonto Narrows
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Started early...left Mesa at 5:40am and there around 7am. Nice was brown/dirty, but not unswimmable...just not clear, which made jumping risky. Hoped to get farther, but think we stopped at what most people consider as the second swimming hole. Never made it to the creek or the waterfall, unfortunately. There was a bend going around to the southeast that seemed kind of difficult to pass; we started to try to hike up the south wall to the very top and come back down, but decided to call it quits at that point and get in the water. There were guys jumping off a 40+ foot ledge and down into the water...crazy! Saw several interesting spiders and insects out there as well, along with a few frogs, lizards, rabbit, etc.

    Difficulty: :sweat: :sweat: :sweat: :sweat: (of 5), due to all the scrambling
    Tonto Narrows
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    I can't believe it's been two years since I've 'hiked' here... Still a great date hike if she doesn't mind getting beat up a bit. :) I left work around noon and headed up to Gisela. This time of year, you don't know whether you're going to be scorched or rained on. :o This time, we had cloud cover with some potential monsoon clouds on the horizon but only got sprinkled on a bit. We did about 2 miles of swimming/hopping/scrambling/kissing and got just a bit short of Soldier Camp Canyon before turning back due to the late hour. The creek is a lot muckier than I remember it being, maybe it needs a good flash flood to clean all that moss out. :lol:

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    FR / Dirt Road / Gravel - Car Okay

    To canyon trip
    From Payson go south on State Route 87 for 11.5 miles to the Gisela turnoff. Follow this paved road up and over Black Mountain. The road goes down the other side of the mountain to Gisela. The pavement goes away. Keep going straight. You'll come to an eye sore of an intersection. This heads down to Gisela. You don't want to go into town. Keep going straight ignoring all the forks. When the road comes to a 'T' intersection take a left away from Gisela Valley Farms. Follow this road (once again, ignore any forks in the road) to the gate. There's a primitive parking area on the left side of the road. No signs tell you you're in the right area and you can't see the creek. The gate has a square on the right side you can crawl through. - (Approximately, just under 2 hours from central Phoenix)
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