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This is likely a great time to hike this trail!  Check out "Prefered" months below, keep in mind this is an estimate.

Tonto Creek Bear Flat to Hellsgate, AZ

no permit
17 7 0
Guide 7 Triplogs  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Payson > Payson E
3.6 of 5 by 5
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 4.5 of 5
Route Finding 3 of 5
Distance One Way 14 miles
Trailhead Elevation 4,956 feet
Elevation Gain 384 feet
Avg Time One Way 12-15 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 15.28
Interest Off Trail Hiking & Perennial Creek
Backpack Yes & Connecting
varies or not certain dogs are allowed
editedit > ops > dogs to adjust
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Photos Viewed All Mine Following
12  2018-04-07
Hellsgate Exploration
6  2016-11-01 MountainMatt
1  2015-09-12 ssk44
2  2010-03-21 bakerag
8  2009-09-29 toddak
Author toddak
author avatar Guides 7
Routes 5
Photos 1,053
Trips 391 map ( 6,151 miles )
Age 54 Male Gender
Location Puhoynix, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   May, Jun, Sep, Oct → 7 AM
Sun  6:13am - 6:20pm
1 Alternative
heavenly trek thru the gates of hell
by toddak

Likely In-Season!
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.

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2009-09-29 toddak
    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 Triplog Reviews
    Tonto Creek Bear Flat to Hellsgate
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Hellsgate Exploration
    I've knocked out more than a few miles in the Hellsgate Wilderness with Joel. Most have involved slow, but spectacularly scenic miles in Haigler Creek, negotiating pools, waterfalls, cascades, bypasses, and most everything an Arizona wilderness area can serve up.

    When he suggested this one recently, I was quickly on board. Having never hiked the actual #37 trail, I was happy to try it out on this day/night schedule. The hike in was pleasant, the temperature warm and the cool spring water refreshing to get into at the bottom. We ventured separate ways at the confluence, where I headed up Haigler to finish off the only mile of the creek I hadn't previously covered. This section provided surprisingly nice scenery, and unanticipated slow going, including 5 deep swimmers that I didn't expect.

    With time a concern, I didn't want to retrace my steps and then fight the upstream current going up Tonto to where I'd expect to find Joel, so I took the cross-country route, climbing ~600 feet to cross the peninsula between the two creeks and then headed down Tonto toward Hellsgate.

    I've been impressed with Haigler since my early introduction in the 90s. Tonto down near Hellsgate is even more impressive. The Hellsgate to Gisela trip remains on my to-do list, and now I'm certain that I'd like to do the whole Tonto from Bear Flat too. It looks like it could have some special places.

    Eventually, I got far enough downstream that I found Joel. I kept going to the confluence and changed into dry clothes. Joel returned a while later and after a short fire to dry out and warm up, we headed out at 8pm for the 7+ miles back to the trailhead. The temperature was cool and there was occasionally a nice breeze that made for a perfect startlit evening for this hike. We hadn't been talking much on the steep climb, so as we passed El Grande Tank, I decided to talk loudly, knowing that this would be a prime spot for a predator to keep watch. As Joel remarked that it was almost certain a cat was keeping an eye on the tank, he panned his headlamp up the slope and caught the eyes of a lion that just sat and observed us as we hiked by. Sometimes it's nice to be hiking with two people!

    A bit later I caught glimpse of what might have been another lion, but seemed smaller so I'm going to say it was a bobcat, and I also got to within a couple of feet of an owl in the trail that waited until the last second to fly away and absolutely scared the poop out of me. My headlamp made it clear that I had scared the poop out of it too. Literally.

    A couple of cats down, and a crazy-close owl experience had us on alert, but the remaining glowing eyes belonged to cows. Still those future burgers managed to grab our attention for a split second too!

    Good times in the wilderness. It was a long day, and I was happy to crawl into bed after 0100.
    Tonto Creek Bear Flat to Hellsgate
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    I've spent a lot of time along lower Tonto Creek near Tonto Basin.  The mystique of the wild and rugged Hellsgate Wilderness has always captivate my thoughts.  Saturday was just a small taste.  I loved the pink granite. I'll likely be returning for more.


    Tonto Creek Bear Flat to Hellsgate
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Car camped near the Hell's Gate trailhead, early next AM left the car there and mtn biked to Bear Flat. Took about 8 hours at a steady pace down the canyon to reach Hell's Gate, then another 4 hours back to the car with the last 2 hours or so by headlamp (trail got a little tricky in a few spots in the dark). Tough, fun day.

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    FR / Dirt Road / Gravel - Car Okay

    To canyon trip
    From the 87/260 junction in Payson drive east on Highway 260 for a little over 11 miles to just past mile marker 263 and turn right on FR405A. After 0.4 miles drop a shuttle vehicle at the Hell's Gate #37 trailhead. Then continue east on FR405A to the junction with FR405 and go right/straight on FR405, driving a total of 5.9 miles on dirt from the Highway 260 turnoff. Park at the Bear Flat trailhead.
    page created by toddak on Sep 29 2009 8:34 pm
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