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Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek, AZ

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Guide 102 Triplogs  9 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Payson > Payson E
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Difficulty 4 of 5
Route Finding 2 of 5
Distance Round Trip 14.1 miles
Trailhead Elevation 5,325 feet
Elevation Gain -1,359 feet
Accumulated Gain 3,200 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 7-9 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 30.1
Interest Seasonal Creek & Perennial Creek
Backpack Yes & Connecting
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Photos Viewed All Mine Following
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22  2019-04-20 caragruey
12  2019-03-06 DixieFlyer
3  2018-04-26 gregstewart1952
12  2018-04-07
Hellsgate Exploration
chumley
5  2018-03-24 The_N
29  2016-10-08
Hellsgate (37) South via Smoky Hallow TH
topohiker
19  2016-06-18 The_Dude
11  2016-06-18 Eartheist
Page 1,  2,  3,  4,  5 ... 7
Author decarlo
author avatar Guides 1
Routes 0
Photos 14
Trips 1 map ( 0 miles )
Age Male Gender
Location Fountain Hills, AZ
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Preferred   Mar, Apr, May, Jun → 8 AM
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Sun  6:12am - 6:23pm
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Subtle Rollercoaster
by decarlo

I've finally gotten around to writing my report on the Hellsgate trip, a one-nighter I did in May, 2002. I trekked out alone with pack, camera and tape recorder. The latter was in lieu of a notepad and pencil by which to document the various happenings on my journey.


I left Fountain Hills on Saturday morning around 7:30 am. and arrived at the trailhead 11.6 miles East of the McDonalds in Payson on route 260. The turnoff FR 405A is a paved road that becomes a dirt road within 50 yards. After you turn off of 260 onto FR 405A, you just go straight onto the dirt road. Follow it for 0.4 miles to the trailhead where you see a large clearing area to the right. You can make this in a sedan if you need to with no problem. The trail is marked Hellsgate.

I began my hike at about 10:30 am. by going uphill to the South. The main point to remember about this 7.1-mile trail into Hell's canyon is that, for the first four miles, it is either a narrow trail or an old dirt road. It can be confusing because the two crisscross along the way, at the same time crossing over an old creek bed (dry at this time) several times. The point to remember is that it really doesn't matter whether you take the narrow walking trail or the old dirt road - both will get you to the edge of the wilderness area, which, by the way, is marked by a sign 4.4 miles into the hike. From the very beginning of the hike, you will have the option to take the trail or the old dirt road, so just remember it doesn't matter which route you take (narrow trail or wider old dirt road). The narrow trail is pretty well marked with cairns along the way.

Overall, the hike is pretty strenuous (up and down), although there are some fairly long sections of relatively flat land.

After you reach the 4.4 mile mark, the trail generally descends from there into the canyon. The last 0.5 mile is really quite steep and strenuous. I caught up to and passed three guys just before this steep descent, two on horse, one on mule, another mule for carrying supplies and two dogs. It is not recommended to take horses down the last 0.5 mile, but they did, and boy was that impressive!

I made it down into the canyon by 2:30 pm., about a four-hour ordeal altogether. The fellas arrived shortly after I did & Joe, Paul and Dana, who were friendly enough to invite me over to their campsite for company if I so desired. Of course, at that point they had not yet set up camp, but they seemed to know where they were going. I found a nice spot on sandy ground about 30 yards from the Haigler creek, East of the creek, which was running well and about 20 feet wide. My new friends crossed the creek to the West & horses, mules and all... and camped there.

Basically, there were several camping areas down where the Haigler Creek feeds into the Tonto Creek, forming a perfect T. Tonto Creek is very wide, at least 100 feet where the two creeks meet. Plenty of water and, hopefully, some Trout for my new friends, who brought their fishing gear in search of fresh dinner.

Paul had a regular fishing pole, while Joe and Dana were fly fishermen & especially Dana, who was clearly expert level. He was a wealth of information about native fish, and about many subtleties of fly fishing. Unfortunately, the bigger fish were not biting too well, but Dana caught several smaller ones. It didn't make for a feast, but I think the guys enjoyed their fresh fish nevertheless. I had MSR dried chili food for dinner, because it is hassle free, and my MSR pocket rocket can boil a cup of water in about two minutes. I didn't have the gear, nor the wherewithal, to wade around for hours trying to catch Trout. But fishermen love that, so let them fish.

There are several side trips one could take while down in the canyon. I hiked up to the top of a cliff that overlooked Haigler Creek, about a 15 minute trek. While the hike wasn't technical by definition, it was difficult and very steep. From there, the views were very nice, as you can see from this picture. A point to remember about disposable cameras: the picture subjects always turn out much smaller and farther away than they appear in your viewfinder!

I could see a small waterfall down below up Haigler Creek from my high perch, and figured one could do a nice canyoneering side trip in the summer when the water isn't so cold. At this time in May, the water was very cold, although not so cold that a real man (or woman) couldn't get in for a dip. From above, I could also see that if one crosses Tonto Creek to the South, one could continue on the Hellsgate trail for a side trip. Up where I was, the view was majestic, with the evening sun making it all look surreal.

Still on my first day, I descended down from my side trip and went over to visit my new friends. They were headed out for more fishing, so I tagged along heading West on the Tonto Creek, hopping rocks most of the way. That was fun, and there were plenty of large boulders to sit on or lie down and take in the sounds of water and wind, and the sights of the wilderness. I laid down on one huge rock and enjoyed its warmth while the cold evening approached.

While fishing, Joe was doling out his camping margaritas, a nice mix of Tequila and, I think, Crystal Light, or some such Kool-aid-type concoction. The margaritas were warm, didn't taste like anything you'd get at Z-Tejas, but they did the job for what and where they were.

So after some partying, evening turned into night and I made my way back in the dark across the creek to my campsite. I wandered around for about 45 minutes but finally found my tent. There was a smell of skunk in the air, and all I could think of was getting sprayed while I wandered around in the thick brush in the dark. Joe told of a time when a dog he knew got sprayed, and I didn't want to suffer that fate. Fortunately, I didn't get sprayed and all was well. The good part was the shooting stars, three of which made themselves known to me while I lay in my mesh tent.

The next morning I got up around 7 am and, after hot oatmeal and raisins, feeling like I could stay down there forever. I did a little more exploring and found another set of campsites above me a little. There was a tent rolled up under a tree with a note by it that read: "Please use this tent if you have need, but leave it behind for the next camper who needs shelter. Please don't take it home. Be as kind as the one who left it. Thanks."

I packed up my gear and, before heading out around 10:00 am., traveled over to my horsemen friends' campsite. They graciously offered to carry out my pack on their mule and, although it was awfully tempting, I declined. For me at least, it is a requirement to pack in and pack out everything you need, by yourself.

I probably should have waited until the afternoon to make my way out, because I forgot my sun block, and my hat! You don't want to do that, or your skin will peel for weeks after, as mine did. 7.1 miles is a long way to walk in the mountains with a pack and, in the hot sun with no protection, it is much worse. Fortunately it was May and not July.

I made it out in about the same time I made it in, four hours. It seemed longer though, on the way back & probably because it was hotter and I had no protection from the sun. All in all, I would recommend this trip for anyone who likes to backpack and who wants a neat place to get away for a night or two.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

Note
This is a moderately difficult hike.

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

2002-05-27 decarlo
    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 21 deeper Triplog Reviews
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    This breathtaking hike was a welcome retreat from the valley. We camped out the night before, just up the road from the trailhead where there were numerous spots to choose from, slept in, and got a 10:00 start on the trail. From start to the last mile before the creek the trail was wide, well-maintained, well-marked, and easy (save for a couple minor slogs). Scenery along the hike was stunning - peaks, cliffs, and canyons in pristine wilderness so close to home. The last mile hiking down into the canyon and back up was a little tough and required some scrambling in a place or two, but was well worth the effort. Tonto was flowing strong with cold, delicious water and the numerous campsites at the bottom of the canyon gave us a great place to stop for lunch and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

    Shockingly we only ran into one group on the whole trip - a trio with as many Australian Shepherds from a local rescue in Payson.

    This hike was an absolute treat and I cannot wait to return.
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rating optionrating optionrating optionrated 2rated 2
    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.
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    This one has been on the list for a long time and I was happy to get it done. We managed to gain an entire mile after a single wrong turn. We also timed it perfectly so that the climb out of Tonto Creek was during the most scorching part of the day. Everything went our way today :y:
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Ah, Father's Day Weekend out in the wild. I had done this trip with the Earthiest and Azwildguide 5 years ago as our first backpack trip, and I have been wanting to make it back ever since now that I know what I am doing a little better. Unfortunate that we got the hottest weekend of the year to do it on, but we have had the planning in the works for about a month and none of us wanted to bail. 5 of us drove up Friday night to car camp at the trailhead only to find out that we could not camp within a 1/4 mile due to there being a spring box at the TH...no worries we just went down the road a bit and found a nice clearing. We got loaded up and on the trail by 7:30 Saturday morning and it was already starting to get warm. There is a decent amount of shade for the first few miles, but it gets progressively more open the farther along you go. We got down to Tonto Creek a bit after noon and had lunch and set up camp. Three of us had hammocks and two had tents so we had to split up camp a bit. We hung our hammocks on the west side of the creek where there were many Sycamores and Willows to do the trick, the tenters set up on the sandy beach just to the east. Tonto was very silty and chocolaty, so we had to head down to Haigler to get better water to filter. After a little break, three of us started out way up Tonto Creek through the gates of Hell. Gorgeous canyon, even if we could not see what was in the water. It must have been about 68-70 degrees in the water, blissful on the sore legs and made the 100+ temps in the canyon much more reasonable. There are long stretches that are too deep to touch so lots of swimming was required. No worries, I just inflated my little 5L dry bag and used it as a floater to take it easy. We made it a good mile + up the creek alternating swimming, bouldering, and scrambling when needed. We must have passed by a good 5 or 6 waterfalls along the way. This is really the highlight of the whole trip and makes the hike out worth it in my opinion. Got back to camp and made some dinner shortly thereafter, once we had gone through our beer we all turned in by 8-9 so we could get an early start in the morning. We all got on the trail between 6-7 the next morning, I had to filter some more water so I was the last man out, but quickly caught up with the group. Don't kid yourself, the first two miles coming out of the canyon are pretty rough, it is like climbing Piestewa one and a half times, with an overnight pack to boot. We all continued our way with many breaks, and made it back to the trucks about 12:30. Quick stop at the Payson McD's (I think this is the only time I ever eat there) to replenish salts and a hobo bath in the sink and we were on back down the hill. Hard fought in the heat, but fantastic trip!

    Wildflowers
    Cholla and Prickly Pear had some nice bloom, but that was about it.
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Back in the early 90's my sister went on a small group hike down this trail. Believe it was an overnight backpack. She asked me to join on a slew of trips but I just wasn't into hiking yet so it's all a blur. Anyhow, something went amiss heading out. I think the group spread out and someone took a wrong turn. SAR may have been involved, just recall it was figured out pretty quick. Needless to say, I've held some preconceived ideas this trail is a mean ol' pumpkin.

    The upper end had a lot more pines and the course was more of a roller coaster than I had envisioned. With a 90% chance of rain predicted at a half inch I brought a rain jacket suitable for a rainforest. I have two sitting in the closet for nearly a decade unused. Problem being it's rarely cool enough to use without sweating up a storm yourself.

    We started out in borderline freezing temps, probably 44 degrees. By the time we reached the creek I thought I was gonna burst into flames. The heat wave lasted a couple minutes tops. After watching Chris consume his standard burrito lunch with four billion packets of hot sauce the storm moved in. The wind picked up and the sky cast a Houdini spell on the sun.

    The bottom half mile is a steep unstable slide. Undesirable, nothing to fret. Gotta agree with the signage at the top stating unsuitable for horses.

    Heading up the rain jacket went off and on a couple times. Along the way I mentally noted the questionable route options. Roughly three or four angled unsigned junctions. Easy corrections peeking at Fenix. Seems to be quite a bit of mid trail signage I doubt was here twenty years ago. Mid trail signage seem rare in general, so kudos to those that made it happen.

    The storm unleashed on our last three miles. About a half a mile involved small hail. Only 1 gate, not 37. Other than numb hands by the finish it was a dandy hike.
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rating optionrating optionrated 3rated 3rated 3
    In a recent forum post, chumley asked if anyone had hiked the full length of this trail (most hikers come from the north trailhead and understandably don't venture beyond the confluence of Tonto and Haigler Creeks). As a big fan of Hellsgate Wilderness, of course I had to go check out the southern end of the trail. Since driving to the south trailhead on FR133 from Young was questionable, I started from the north trailhead. This report covers the trail section south of the confluence.

    The trail continues a short distance up Haigler Creek from the confluence in the first obvious drainage, which is Smoky Hollow canyon. Shortly after entering the drainage the trail climbs out and up and stays on the eastern slope, paralleling the canyon. The trail is overgrown and faint in spots, but not too hard to follow. After climbing for about 0.75 miles, the trail crosses over to the west side of the drainage and continues climbing on a faint, abandoned road with steadily improving views. There aren't a lot of cairns, but the trail route and GPS track shown on MyTopo are pretty close to accurate.

    From the south trailhead at the junction with FR133 I continued road-hiking east and south about 3 miles through beautiful open range country to go check out the "winter camp" shown on the maps. At some point the camp must have been a bustling place, but it appears to be abandoned. FR133 between the trailhead and winter camp is quite steep and rocky in places and would require a pretty serious off-road vehicle, and based on the grass growing on the road and the lack of tire tracks, I doubt it gets much use. I think it's safe to say that taking the southern route into this rugged area isn't going to be easy.
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    First ever triplog! Love HikeAZ and the community of knowledge that has helped me get started. Anyway, needed a break from the job and convinced two novice buddies to shirk their filial duties and find a quiet corner in Hell's Gate. Had some great new equipment to try out and a day and a half to do it. Arrived at the trail-head at 1:00 PM Friday, April 17. No cars in the lot. Perfect 65 degree day.

    First mile was tough for new guys as they weren't used to the weight and one decided to bring eight liters of water! Oh well. Whatever makes you happy. Trail is well make although signs are a bit run down. Almost made one wrong turn following left onto trailhead 1625, but figured it out. :y:

    Reaching the ridge went easily. One buddy, however, lost his sole (had to cut off section of rubber) which made traction really difficult. But we still made good time. There was a little water in the wash leading up to the Apache ridge. Side trails really were nice in helping to avoid climbing the complete ridge. The only wildlife were a number of cows passing El Grande tank along the ridge.

    Our final descent into Hell's Gate was breathtaking and frightening in those final slides. At the bottom, no one was using the two campsites, so we had our choice. We were alone all evening. The old tent and sleeping bag previously left behind were still there. I really wanted to pack it out as it seemed more trash than useful, but I had already picked up enough glass from the fire area to feel as though I had appeased the Karmic gods.

    Water was icy, but all of us made it in before we left. Ran into a real nice dad and his two sons that had hiked in to fish at the confluence. They videotaped our ice cold idiocy. Hopefully no videos go public...

    The trip out was a tough one. Stopped for lunch on the Apache Ridge and was able to get enough of a signal to call home with our progress. Made it back to the truck in 4.5 hours--in time for a victory-dance cold one.

    Great trip and great company. Where to next? :app:
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rating optionrating optionrating optionrated 2rated 2
    This was a great trip, definitely a difficult hike. Me and my lovely wife were the first at the trail head (the forest roads were great I had no problem getting a 98 toyota Camry to the trail head). The hike in was a fun one, it was my wife's first backpacking trip so we stayed at a nice steady pace the whole time. The last bit of the hike when it drops down into tonto creek is VERY steep. It is a difficult set of switch backs going to the bottom. Once down there the creek was cool, not the most lush or beautiful thing i have ever seen but definitely cool. We crossed over the stream and set up camp on top of the hill that splits the creek and have and great night up there, a few other people made there way down but kept their distance. I definitely reccomend taking a swim in the big water hole, it was so cold but felt fantastic after a long days hike. lots of water in the creek and overall a good hard hike.
    Additional note: Great camping spot just up the ridge from where the abandoned gear is at the location estimate is 34.215639, -111.095609 hope you enjoy
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rating optionrating optionrated 3rated 3rated 3
    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.
    Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    We drove up Friday night after work and elected to stay in Payson instead of camping at the trailhead. Got to the trailhead on Saturday at about 9am and started out. The weather was nice - cool morning with light breezes. Warmed up later in the day and we had some gusts up to about 25mph. Arrived around 2pm at Tonto Creek. We searched around for another campsite and came up with a great site downstream on the trail-side of the canyon. This was one of my finest camping experiences - the site and the canyon could not be beat. Sunday we headed up around 9am and finished around 2pm. The climb back out is definitely tough, but it's no death march. I can imagine the trail would be uncomfortable in warmer weather.

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    To hike
    From the McDonalds in Payson it's 11.6 miles east out on SR 260

    HAZ member PUMPKINPATCH adds:
    From Payson drive east on SR260 for about 11 miles to mile marker 263. Slow down as you pass Little Green Valley. The turn-off for FR405 is at the bottom of the down hill. Turn right into FR405, drive about 0.5 mile on a well graded dirt road. Recessed trail parking lot is off to the right. There is a sign next to a fence for the Hellsgate Wilderness.
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