HELLS GATE WILDERNESS IN GILA COUNTY, ARIZONA

Lying at the base of the Mogollon Rim, upper Tonto Creek has incised a 1,000-foot-deep canyon that runs entirely through the center of this Wilderness.

 

A perennial waterway, Tonto Creek creates deep emerald pools sometimes separated by impassable falls. The area also contains Haigler Creek with its impressive rock formations. Elevations range from 6,440 feet atop Horse Mountain in the northeast corner to 2,960 feet where Tonto Creek leaves the area in the southwest.

 

Trout, catfish, and smallmouth bass inhabit both creeks, popular destinations with anglers. Available water helps to support a variety of wildlife: black bears, mountain lions, mule deer, coyotes, gray foxes, javelinas, beavers, and many small mammals and birds.

 

You will find exceptionally rough and broken terrain with moderate to very steep slopes on long rocky ridges.  See trails below for more information.

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Access Points

Welcome to Hells Gate!  It is among the most remote and difficult to access wilderness areas in one of the most remote parts of America. From Young, Arizona you can enter the wilderness and find one of its most popular hikes on Trail #37.  It drops into Tonto Creek and traverses the canyon to the confluence of Tonto and Haigler Creeks. The Gate is an impressive cut in the Tonto Creek side as the water cut a 100+ foot deep path through a rock face. When the water is high in the Tonto, you can jump off the lower cliffs. Tonto Creek is largely impassable above the gate, whereas Haigler Creek can be walked upstream for miles. It's a beautiful hike. Returning to the trailhead is a long, steep climb. Best done via backpacking.

Access:  Take Highway 260 in Payson, AZ to the Young Road on top of the Mogollon Rim.  Go to Forest Road 129 to FR133.  FR129 is a good road serving many ranches. FR133 is a rough 4WD road, very rocky and steep in areas, but doable if you go slow. It's a long drive, but so worth it.

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

History of the Hells Gate Wilderness

Hundreds of years before this area was established as a wilderness, Native Americans were making their homes within and adjacent to the Hell's Gate region. The southern portion of the Wilderness, in the area of the present settlement of Gisela, is known to have been inhabited prehistorically by Native Americans known to archeologists as the Salado. This culture developed in Tonto Basin, from an earlier occupation by the Hohokam. The Salado flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries and they are known today for their large villages and towns along the Salt River, as well as an active trading economy that brought them into contact with people from all over the Southwest. In this area, the local Salado inhabitants appear to have been primarily agriculturists who farmed the bottomlands and hunted the surrounding uplands.

 

The northern reaches of the Wilderness supported a much smaller prehistoric population, about which little is known. While probably related to the Salado, these people appear to have had equally strong relations with other groups living in the Sierra Ancha.

 

By about 1400 A.D., most of central Arizona had been abandoned and the Salado and their neighbors ceased to exist as recognizable cultures. The reasons for this abandonment are undoubtedly complex, but probably included such factors as overpopulation and environmental degradation.

 

Several hundred years later, the area was re-occupied by the Apache, an unrelated group that migrated from the Great Plains. They remained in this area, and followed a seasonal round of hunting and gathering until they were driven onto reservations in the 1870's. Shortly thereafter, Anglo ranchers and miners began to settle the area.

 

During the years 1886 to 1892, the notorious Pleasant Valley War occurred in the general area. The "war" was actually little more than a feud between two rival ranching families, the Tewksburys and the Grahams. It apparently began over some stolen horses, but quickly escalated into large local factions and may have resulted in as many as 50 deaths ranging from Holbrook to Globe. The feud finally ended when the last Tewksbury killed the last Graham in the streets of Tempe.

 

Roaming through the Wilderness, you may come across evidence of these previous inhabitants. We invite you to enjoy these windows to the past, reminding you that all prehistoric and historic sites, and artifacts, are protected by federal law and must be left where they are found. By doing this, we can ensure that future visitors can experience and learn from these resources. 

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Hells Gate Wilderness Trails

With more than 10 trail networks, ranging from moderate to rigorous, this is the perfect spot for experienced hikers and adventure enthusiasts alike. Throughout your trek catch a glimpse of natural wildlife, such as black bears, gray foxes, javelinas, beavers, trout, and catfish. 
 

Venture to Hellsgate Wilderness in the spring and fall to optimize your hiking experience, and make sure to bring your best hiking boots, as the backwoods trails have been known to be a bit unruly. 

Find Hiking Trails in the Hells Gate Wilderness

  • Hell's Gate Trail #37

  • Pocket Trail #38

  • Bear Flat Trail #178

  • Mescal Ridge Trail #186

  • Gordon Canyon TH

  • Smokey Hollow TH

  • Soldier Camp TH

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Hells Gate Wilderness Fish Species

Stocked with Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, and Brook Trout.  In 2018 A lot of wild Brook Trout have been caught this year in Tonto Creek, anglers who are stealthy and quiet may be able to locate and find these elusive fish.

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Hells Gate Wilderness Fishing Strategy

Small stream tactics are in order for this creek. Stealthy approach and making the first cast into each pool count. General attractor dries with small nymph or midge droppers will get it done on most days.  The best place to fish this creek is hidden pools at higher elevations where the water is cooler and the trout are larger. The access to these areas requires hiking so someone physically fit is recommended to find the daring spots. Flies and salmon eggs are recommended fishing baits.

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Boating Options

Tonto Creek forms as a runoff stream in the high elevations of the Sierra Ancha Mountains of Tonto National Forest on the southwest side of the Mogollon Rim a few miles north of SH 260 and east of Payson, then flows south by southwest about 72.5 miles to Roosevelt Lake, running parallel and in close proximity to SH 188 from southeast of Payson to the lake. Normally, the creek does not flow at navigable levels, but during the fall monsoons, or after a significant rainfall in the surrounding mountains, this dusty, rocky creek can quickly transform into a raging torrrent of Class IV to V whitewater rapids and drops on its upper end through Hell's Gate Canyon where boaters have died in recent years. Below the SH 188 turn-off from SH 87 is Rye Creek, which feeds Tonto Creek just above a 2-mile box canyon of considerable difficulty, where paddlers sometimes encounter barbed wire fences strung across the creek to contain cows. This section is particularly dangerous because of boulder garden rapids, moderate drops of 8-10 feet, keeper holes, dead-fall strainers, a VERY constricted channel, sticky pourovers, few places for good portages and difficult access, just to name a few reasons why most paddlers would avoid this place like they would the plague. The upper 30 miles of this trip, from Tonto Creek Campground to Sycamore Creek Road drops at an average of about 84.5 feet per mile in a very tight, very rocky channel that leaves little room for error.

 

A little below Hell's Gate Canyon the river start to widen (a little) and flatten as it enters the Sonoran Desert. It is possible to start trips near the top of the river, but the first practical put-in is at Tonto Creek Campground on the Zane Grey Highway north of SH 260 and northeast of Payson. Below Sycamore Creek Road the river drops at an average rate of about 24.8 feet per mile, which is still substantial, but far less than the 30 miles above and the channel is a little wider and deeper with a much more reliable flow that at the top where a lot of walking and carrying or dragging boats may be required. The downside to the upper section is that enough water not to have to walk also means a faster, more dangerous channel to negotiate, and this is also true on the lower half of the run, though with a little less danger due to the much shallower gradient and generally wider channel.

Several USFS campgrounds are located between Tonto Creek and SH 260 just east of Payson, just below the second access point where SH 260 crosses the creek about 2 hours northeast of Phoenix and around the top of Roosevelt Lake, some accessible from the river. To be sure, the upper end is a kayaker-only stream that is not well-suited for canoes and rafts due to difficult access and the tight, twisting channel that demands quick and effective boat control at all times. With adequate water Tonto Creek can be paddled from a few miles below its headwaters to Roosevelt Lake, but not in a single day unless it is so high that you should not be there anyway. It falls about as quickly as it rises, and getting out on foot would be a formidable task. Watch for rattlesnakes and copperheads in the rocks along the creek. Watch for natural and man-made hazards in the creek. Watch for a psychiatrist if you are thinking about running Tonto Creek in high water.

Info courtesy of Southwestpaddler.com

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Hells Gate Wilderness Camping Options

Christopher Creek (USFS) and Ponderosa (USFS) Campgrounds, both primitive forest campsites, are located between Tonto Creek and SH 260 just east of Payson. There are no other campgrounds located along or near Tonto Creek.  If you are backpacking or canyoneering there are many areas to camp along the creek.

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Hells Gate Wilderness Swimming Holes

Not far upstream the creek forms a deep pool about 20 meters long beneath a short, pretty narrow section and a waterfall. This is the popular swimming site and also has lots of litter, but there is no more beyond since very few people explore further up canyon. Depending on water levels, climbing ability and the desire to swim through other pools, it is possible to walk many miles further.

 

After the Swim Hole the canyon alternates between open stretches and enclosed deep-water channels, then soon the latter start to predominate and the walls become very steep. The rocks are colored various shades of red, grey and white - usually smooth polished granite at water level then jagged, crumbling, darker rock higher up. In some places pools can be avoided by climbing the cliffs above, though the rocks tend to be quite unstable, covered by cacti and other thorny plants, so remaining at water level is generally easiest. In the summer months, when the exposed cliffs become too hot to touch, wading through the pools is the only option and also provides welcome relief from the heat.

 

Upstream


Two miles into the canyon, a big pool beneath a 10 foot waterfall marks the end of the easiest section; beyond are more pools and cascades, and a tributary on the southeast side (Soldier Creek) then a long flooded section of around 100 meters. After this the canyon opens for a while at an area known as McDonald Pocket then constricts once more and remains narrow for most of the next 10 miles upstream to the Hellsgate Trail crossing.