Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
Excuse Me While I Kiss The Sky
An area of this hike is closed Dec 1st - Jun 30th.
Preparation and warnings This hike starts with an adventure simply to get to the trailhead. The trailhead as the crow flies is directly across from the water users parking area on the Bush Highway four miles northeast of Usery Pass Road. The problem is that the Salt River lies directly between your vehicle and the trailhead. The Salt River flow is controlled by the Stewart Mountain Dam just upstream and this flow can change in a heartbeat. If the water flow is little or none this would be your shortest route but keep in mind that when you return you might not be able to safely cross the river to get back to your car. Make yourself familiar with the Sunrise Arch guide and directions so if that is the case you can exit via that route and keep in mind this would add several miles to your hike.
If you can safely cross the Salt River, I would strongly suggest footwear and hiking stick(s) as the river bottom is full of unstable, slick river rock covered with long flowing grass which can easily trip you up. Generally speaking find an area to cross where you can see rocks sticking above the water close to all the way across.
Three options on where to park your vehicle and start this adventure are as follows. Park at the water users lot, which requires a Tonto pass day pass, coordinates N33 33.305 W111 32.674. Park at the Blue Point bridge and enter via directions explained in the Sunrise Arch description, coordinates N33 33.242 W111 34.680, no fee required. Or split the difference and park on the shoulder of the Bush Highway one half mile south of the water users parking lot near a break in the fence, no fee, at coordinates N33 33.170 W 111 33.081. There is room there for four cars. You will find the vegetation quite an obstacle in the river area on both sides creating a barrier with the exception of few favored, obvious spots to cross. Take your time, check out the conditions, do your homework, and study the options before venturing off. I have rated this hike a 4 both on difficulty and route finding. This is mainly as a warning. Some will find this a 5 on both and turn around.. Some will consider this a challenge, find it not too difficult, and question my rating. Either way have fun but stay within your abilities and be aware after the trailhead the entire trip is off trail or bushwhacking and it will require hands and feet to get to the top. Long legs and arms will be an asset. Those vertically challenged will find it more difficult.
The trailhead is east of the river vegetation along a horse trail. The one and only cairn on this hike as of this writing is at the trailhead in the shade of a mature mesquite tree with a wash on either side of a ridge behind the tree. A fairly discernable trail appears here going up the ridge probably used regularly by animals because it disappears immediately as you mount the ridge. The wash to your left is Gateway wash leading up to Gateway Canyon. Keep this wash on your left as you work your way up the sloping scree taking the path of least resistance. Animal trails zig zag everywhere and you can serpentine using them to work up to the rock face. Glance a quarter turn to your right and up occasionally and see if you can spot Sunrise Arch. It's about forty feet tall and wide but it's hard to spot because of very poor lighting and the backdrop thru the arch is the rock face.
Stay well left of the arch and well below heading straight up towards the narrow slot in the rock face ahead. The wash on your left joins this narrow slot and this is where you enter the canyon. It becomes slick rock at this point with little vegetation. If you have partners this would be a good time to discuss falling rocks and how to warn others and avoid injury. It's about four hundred feet up the canyon to the top from here. The slot canyon goes straight up and has lots of loose scree, rocks and boulders which can easily be dislodged. They would most certainly hit anyone below. The rocks are brittle and smooth but have ample foot and hand holds. Test the holds before depending on them as I had several break away.
The first major obstacle is a large boulder that has wedged itself in the slot. A hole on the left is one option but is filled with loose rock. I chose the cliff on the right which involves some exposure, all the time thinking in the back of my mind how am I going to get down? At this point a song came into my mind sung by Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze, with the lyrics in part Don't know if I'm going up or down am I happy or in misery. The theme song for the day. Well first things first, I have to see if I can get to the top. A couple more climbs give way to more of a trail of loose scree, probably used by animals. There are signs of animal activity all around. Dens, scat, and trails abound. Looking ahead and above, canyon walls and sky is the view, Purple Haze.
Soon you will see a huge dead Saguaro skeleton with arms standing as of 2009. This will become an important feature in assuring you that you are on the right trail for the return. The trail serpentines a little as this point first right then left and back right as you top out. Look back to see the large dead standing Saguaro skeleton. Make certain via GPS or other method to mark the head of Gateway Canyon. As you wander around on top it is easy to get disoriented as to where your entry-exit is at.
Awesome open views lie ahead with another inviting canyon well ahead in the distance. As you look around and wander looking for views you will see Four Peaks, Saguaro Lake, Stewart Mountain Dam, Stewart Mountain, the Bush Highway and deep into the Goldfield Mountains. I felt the same allure for the Goldfields as I feel when I get to an overlook of the Superstitions. They look awfully inviting and from this commanding viewpoint I start imagining future adventures. As you are preparing for the return trip you may discover there are two more canyons on your left as you had topped off that look identical to Gateway. You may start to descend on either of these as both appear to have a similar trail but you will cliff out eventually on both these canyons and have to climb back up and head to west to find Gateway for your descent. The Saguaro skeleton will confirm your selection. Caution is the key word for your descent due to loose scree, tumbling rocks and down climbing. Take your time and enjoy the views towards Red Mountain and the Salt River Valley below. Complete the return route the way you came depending on river conditions.
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.