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Tonto Creek, AZ

no permit
300 36 4
Guide 36 Triplogs  4 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Payson > Payson E
4.5 of 5 by 17
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 5 of 5
Route Finding 4 of 5
Distance One Way 17 miles
Trailhead Elevation 4,000 feet
Elevation Gain -1,000 feet
Accumulated Gain 1,000 feet
Avg Time One Way 24
Kokopelli Seeds 20.33
Interest Off Trail Hiking, Perennial Waterfall & Perennial Creek
Backpack Yes
varies or not certain dogs are allowed
editedit > ops > dogs to adjust
feature photo
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
12  2019-03-06
Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
15  2018-06-09
Tonto Creek-Green Valley Creek
12  2018-04-07
Hellsgate Exploration
5  2018-03-24
Hellsgate 37 ( North ) to Tonto Creek
2  2017-09-16 MountainMatt
18  2017-05-26
Tonto Creek-Green Valley Creek
7  2017-05-05 MountainMatt
8  2017-04-09
Lower Gun Creek
Page 1,  2,  3,  4
Author mttgilbert
author avatar Guides 5
Routes 0
Photos 47
Trips 240 map ( 1,752 miles )
Age 38 Male Gender
Location Denver, CO
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   May, Jun → 10 AM
Seasons   Late Spring to Early Summer
Sun  6:09am - 6:29pm
5 Alternative
Fauna Nearby
Flora Nearby
Geology Nearby
Named place Nearby
Culture Nearby
by mttgilbert

Because of the nature of the terrain, only experienced backpackers / canyoneers should consider this trip. We were there on one of the busiest weekends of the year, and did not see any other people, except for at either end. If you have any doubts about this trip or your ability, do not attempt it. This is a very challenging trip. Though we did it in only three days (two nights), it is probably best to plan more time to get through. (We barely made it out on the third day after 11 hours of almost solid walking). There are no good evacuation points aside from the beginning and end of the canyon. If you were to become injured it might be up to you to get yourself out.

This trip requires that cars be left at both ends of the trailhead ( Gisela and Little Green Valley ). This trip report actually begins at the confluence of Tonto Creek and Haigler Creek and follows Tonto Creek 17 miles* to Gisela with an elevation loss of 1000 ft. For instructions to the confluence please see the Hellsgate trip description.

At the beginning of the Hellsgate trail there was a warning sign, which advised that the trip was best done with at least 4 people and that there is a 15-foot drop-off that might deter one from reaching Gisela. Duly warned, we pressed on. Departing about 9:30, we arrived at the confluence at about noon and had lunch. This is where the trip really starts. Almost immediately the canyon begins to constrict and the wading turns into swimming, which was a welcome event after the toasty hike into Hellsgate. The sheer Granite and Ryolite walls of this canyon are beyond description. This is a true wilderness experience. Any small area of this canyon would be worthy of an all day hike just to reach THAT area. We saw miles and miles of awesome canyon beauty, with not a footprint in sight. We hiked, and swam, for several hours (approximately 3 miles) until we found a smooth outcropping of granite, suitable for our nights' camp at about 4:45.

The next day we spent almost 10 hours (approximately 6 miles) walking, swimming, falling, and crawling through more granite-walled pools until we decided on a nice, but sandy, campsite. The canyon through this area vacillates between Granite gorge and a Sycamore lined creek interspersed with cattails and other riparian delights.

The third day brought us more swims, and around one bend the canyon opens up a bit giving us the feeling that the trip was ending. But just when we were resigned that our adventure was coming to a close, (and dreaming of juicy burgers) the canyon dealt us one more awesome set of smooth, white granite narrows. At about the 13-mile mark, (remember that is from the Tonto/Haigler confluence) were two waterfalls, each at least 15-feet high. The first one was easily avoidable by a short climb down on creek left and then a four-foot drop into a pool. To descend the second there were two or three options; a large, steep slide into a narrow, deep pool at creek left. Two, there was a climb down the front of the fall. Third, if someone were to go ahead and "probe" these pools, "hucking your carcass" would be the simplest and most expeditious decent of these falls. After these narrows and falls the canyon still has some nice swimming holes, but basically the canyoneering is finished. This last day we slogged on for nearly 11 hours (approximately 9 miles).

In summary, throughout the trip we averaged about 10 swims per day; some were over one hundred yards long. When we weren't swimming, we were wading or rock-hopping. Many of the pools could be avoided by climbing along the sides, however some of the surfaces were extremely slick and extreme caution was required. This was especially true of the drop-offs mentioned in the ranger's sign. The canyon was very rugged and there are no trails. Fortunately the canyon is easy to follow; all you have to do is keep going downstream.

For instructions on how to get back to the parking lot at Gisela see the Tonto Narrows trip description Special Gear:Backpack: There were several different varieties of packs used on the trip all with there own merits. I used an internal frame pack with waterproof liners. I wore the pack even while swimming and found it works as a sort of raft, by leaning back on it you could just float down stream. The only restrictive part was carrying the extra water, which inevitably found its way into the pack. If I do this again I would have four grommets put in at each corner of the pack to allow water to drain out after leaving the pools.

Jackie had a 3500 ci. Boundary Bag (basically a waterproof, rubber backpack). It stayed watertight for the whole trip, took on zero water and subsequently did not need to be "emptied" after each immersion, which were quite frequent. The underlying cobbles in the creek are extremely slippery, so a lot of the time it was easier and safer to just walk pulling your pack along in the water by a rope "leash". This leash also is another good way to tow your pack behind you while swimming the pools.

Kurt used a drybag inside his internal frame pack and had the same experiences as me, whereby things stayed dry, but he had to empty his pack of water after each immersion, which, as stated above, is very frequent. Additionally, the fabric and padding of the pack, when it becomes wet, adds pounds to the pack. This is a trip to go ultralight. Another option, which seemed to serve Pete well, was to put his inflated Thermarest in-between his pack and a rainfly, this method was outlined in Pete's topic, Pack floating solution. Jims external pack arrangement is also discussed in this forum. As conditions will demand that you to be relatively rough in the treatment of your pack during this trip, Zip-Locs used in your pack WILL LEAK; do not depend on them; especially regarding electronic gear.

Suitable tent spots in this beautiful canyon are very scarce. As you should being doing this trip in warm weather, with light, or no, rain forecast, a ground cloth/tarp will more than suffice in most cases.

Shoes: I wore a combination of sandals and water-shoes over the course of the trip. I would strongly recommend against this. Most of the others in the group wore lightweight boots or tennis shoes and seemed much more comfortable. As a lot of the hiking/scrambling is on cobbles, it makes sense to have your ankles protected. The boots will be a bit more cumbersome in the swims, but your feet will thank you. Try and use boots that have soles with a high carbon content (i.e. - Teva's "Spider Rubber") to improve grip.

(Though I posted this description, I had a lot of help and suggestions from hikeaz and pfredricks)

Check out the Triplogs.

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

2003-06-02 mttgilbert
  • HAZ adds: Not a map of the hike. However, if you can't figure it out from this... you shouldn't go! guide related image

    guide related
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
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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
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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 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!

Cholla and Prickly Pear had some nice bloom, but that was about it.
Tonto Creek
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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 Creek
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My first time out with the turtle in a year, and a few months with the eagle. Destination: hell. Result: lots of heat, some water, and a lot of fun.

On the way to Payson, it was cool to see two of the bald eagles along 87 north of Fountain Hills.

My first trip into the Hellsgate Wilderness, taking this trail to the confluence of Tonto and Haigler creeks.

Highlight was floating on inner tubes through Hell's Gate into a nice 4-5 foot waterfall, a few hundred yards up Tonto from the confluence.

Great times. Thanks to the bird and the amphibian ...
Tonto Creek
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Driving out on the 87, both mom and dad were in the tree tops past Ft McDowell at the Verde, to wish us well on our day.

Arrived at the TH at 6:45 and started the trek to the Creek with a comfortable temp of 72.

We thought it to be unusual when Father Dave agreed to, and wanted to go to Hellsgate with us today. :scared:

From looking quickly at the Elevation Profile, my takeaway was that this was relatively flat for 4.5 miles, then steep down hill for 2 miles, then Real Steep for the last 1/2 mile. That was pretty close, except for the non-existent flat 4.5 mile part.

Real nice views on the way down, taking us 3:05 to reach Tonto Creek.

We played in the water, ate some lunch, went exploring up and downstream in our floaties.
I didn't take my camera on the floatie trip for fear of getting it wet. Hopefully Denny's water proof camera shots turn out at the 5' waterfall up stream. Father Dave borrowed Denny's floatie and took a solo trip through the Gates of Hell.... er ah... Hellsgate. He was gone for a long time and returned with a funny look in his eyes......

After 3 1/2 hours of playing in the water, it was time to make the slog out of the Canyon. The Temps at this point had warmed to the mid 90's, so we soaked our clothes in the creek one last time and started up.

That first 1/2 mile is real steep and loose. We made it to El Grande Tank and soaked our clothes again. The next break was at the Wilderness boundary, where we had cached an Icy Cold Gatorade on the way down. Icy cold was now in the 80 degree range. From this point Dave took off and met us back at the Trail head. From the Creek back to the trail head took us 10 minutes longer to get out than in, at 3 hours 15 minutes.

Little 3 minute video. Denny is finally proper..

A fun time with the boys... great to hike with both Father Dave and 3D Denny again.
Tonto Creek
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First day of a four day trip down tonto canyon with Michelle, Bob, and Richie. First day in was uneventful, the hike was long, hot, and seemed uphill the whole way. Once down at the confluence we dropped packs, had lunch and started exploring up tonto and haigler creeks. After exploring for a couple hours, we caught crawdads as a supplement to our dinner and started cooking.
Tonto Creek
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Completed this thoroughly enjoyable trip in four days from the Hells Gate trail head to Gisela parking area. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm, despite a thunderstorm scare on the first night of our trip at Hells Gate (5/28'). The parking area at Gisela was a bit tricky to find (in my mind), but it was a nonissue due to the fact that three people out of our group of six had been on this hike a number of times.

The water level of the Tonto Creek was high, making for numerous swims and thundering waterfalls. The last waterfall prior to the narrows looks unsurpassable, but has a way under the falls which is navigated without too much trouble (on the left side on the falls when going downstream). We were glad to be with Tonto Creek Veterans that had been this way before, however!! ;)

We saw no one after leaving Hells Gate until we reached the popular Tonto Narrows area where we encountered many people and much trash (sadly).

The starry nights and solitude lend this place unimaginable beauty. We enjoyed the change from pines to saguaros along the elevation change during the distance of this trip.

We had a great trip - excellent company and a phenominal canyon experience!!! :D
Tonto Creek
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A friend and I slotted four days to complete this trip. We departed at 10am on Thursday and reached Hells gate by 1pm. From there we started down stream and found a very nice sandy campsite about 3 creek miles in.

The next day we marched forward another 3 creek miles before disaster struck. One of my dogs tore all his paws very badly and was bleeding significantly. We improvised and made some dog shoes out of material from a dog backpack and a leather string belt (very handy material). The shoes were sewn and tied with the leather string and secured to his ankles with duct tape. We debated whether to try and finish the hike, but because we didn't know how long the dog shoes would last in the creek we decided to head back to Hells gate. It was a good decision because by the time we reached Hells Gate 2 of the shoes had started to fall apart.

I would not recommend bringing dogs on this hike. I really don't think they enjoy it like we do. Take em to Hells gate and let them swim around, that's good enough. All three of the dogs we brought with us were weak and exhausted after one day. Even one of the dogs that had those "ruff wear" dog shoes you can buy at the pet store was suffering because the shoes didn't hold up and started to come apart.

That aside, even though we didn't complete the hike it was still an excellent time. Never be afraid to turn back on a hike like this. You're better of being safe than sorry. My suggestions for anyone attempting this journey are:

1) Wear good water shoes (not Tevas) like the pair of Salomon water shoes sold at REI.
2) Use trekking poles like Leki or some other brand for balance when wading in shallow water.
3) Use a giant dry bag. It's just easier than a backpack with a dry bag inside. This trip is so long and has so many swims you just get sick of dealing with the backpack.
4) Pack as light as possible.
5) Bring lots of food.

We'll try this one again next summer.
Tonto Creek
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This trip began at hells gate and went throught o the tonto narrows. The first six or so miles down to hellsgate were real killers. It was hot and there was no water on the trail, except a nasty, overgrown cattle-pond. Once we got into the creek though the cool water started to do its thing and after lunch (and a short cat-nap) the group was on its way. For the next several hours we scrambled, crawled, swam and fell throught the creek. The canyon walls are all granite and change from a newer red-rock to an older, smoother gray granite. The contact lines often resulted in small cliffs in what looked like a usable sie-passage around the creek. So there was some time spent backtracking. The next two days were about the same. We averaged about ten hours of walking (falling... swimming...) with an hours lunch break. Campsites were hard to come by and we had to walk extra hours after we determined it was time to camp. The first night was spent on a smoothed granit outcropping that sat just above the water level. I think we all slept with fingers crossed that it didn't rain somewhere upstream (even though it was unlikely). The second night was spent on a small sandy beach, nestled in between tussocks of grass (this was on of the more comfortable campsites I have ever slept in). The last day we encountered many large boulders in our path that required scrambling to circumvent. There were also a series of slick-rock water slides down otherwise impassably narrow canyons. To top it all off, towards the end there were two fifteen foot waterfalls that we either had to slide or climb down. The end was apparent as there were a bunch of swimmers and cliff-divers and the beer cans and other litter naturally associated with them. The canyon was nearly pristine (except for the end), we didn't see any signs of other backpackers while we were in the canyon. We left it that way, if you intend to go down here, please show the same courtesy.
This trip is not for the inexperienced, route finding and offtrail experience are a must for this trip. If you have any doubts about your own ability or this trips difficulty, please do not attempt it. There are no good evacuation points except for at the beggining and end of the canyon.

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