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The Hells Gate Wilderness

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.

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. 

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

Hells Gate Wilderness Fish Species & Strategy

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

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.

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.

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.

Fall is here and temperatures are lowering but that does not mean your adventures have to stop. The Hellsgate Wilderness is an amazing place to let your imagination rule wild, spend time with family, and create lasting memories.

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