TONTO CREEK IN GILA COUNTY, ARIZONA

Tonto Creek is a year round stream with a considerable water flow that has formed a deep, remote and often narrow canyon below the Mogollon Rim in central Arizona. For 30 miles it snakes through the steep hilly land at the north edge of the Tonto National Forest, starting right beneath the Rim at an elevation of 6,600 feet. Here the rocks are sedimentary, the surroundings densely wooded and the canyon quite shallow but the character soon changes as the creek flows south into a particularly rugged area known as the Hellsgate Wilderness.

 

The rocks become jagged and metamorphic with a great variety of colors and forms, and enclose a canyon that is over 1,000 feet deep in places and contains many beautiful pools, cascades and flooded narrow channels. When the hills eventually recede and the creek enters a wide valley near the little town of Gisela, the land is now part of the Sonoran Desert and has typical Arizona scenery of huge saguaro and other cacti.

 

This marks the end of the canyon - Tonto Creek continues south through much flatter countryside and 20 miles downstream enters the upper end of Roosevelt Lake.

Creek Access Point #1:
FISH HATCHERY: Travel 17 mi. east of Payson on State Hwy. 260. Just east of Mile Marker 269 (at Kohl's Ranch) turn left (north) on Forest Road (FR) 289. Travel 4 miles to the parking area just outside the entrance to the fish hatchery. FR 289 parallels Tonto Creek most of the way to the hatchery. Park in the lot. Please respect private property along the creek.


Creek Access Point #2:
HORTON & UPPER TONTO CREEK RECREATION SITES: Travel 17 miles east of Payson on State Hwy. 260. East of Mile Marker 269, turn north onto Forest Road (FR) 289.

 

Creek Access Point #3:
BEAR FLAT: Travel 14miles east of Payson on State Hwy. 260, just past Mile Marker 266. Turn right on Forest Road (FR) 405 and follow it for 4½ mi. to the creek.

Access Points

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

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.

Tonto Creek Fish Species

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.

Tonto Creek Fishing Strategy

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

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

Tonto Creek Boating Options

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

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.

Tonto Creek Camping Options

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Not far upstream from the canyon entry point 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.

Tonto Creek Swimming Holes

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis