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Hellsgate Trail - Tonto National Forest

Summary: A hike through forest and chaparral to the gates of Hell. Not really, but if you do this hike on a hot August day like I did, it may feel that way. The destination features a perennial stream, swimming hole and tall cliffs.
Directions: From Payson, drive east on Highway 260 for 11 miles to mile marker 263. Turn right just past the mile marker and drive 0.5 miles on a well graded dirt road to a clearing on the right. There is a large Forest Service sign next to a fence for the Hellsgate Wilderness.
Road Conditions: Passenger Car
Navigation: Easy
Length: 15 miles
Date Hiked: August 2004
Weather Conditions: Hot and sunny with afternoon thunderstorms
Required Skills:
Hike Description: The sign at the trailhead reads: Hellsgate Wilderness, welcome to this trailhead which accesses the Hellsgate Wilderness via trail #37, all visitors should remember this is a special area, please remove all traces of your visit, caution the last half mile of the trail into Hellsgate, Tonto Creek is unsuitable for horses. Begin walking along the road which leads through the fence, bends left, then right and begins climbing fairly steeply up a hill. At the top of the hill the path/road levels out for while, passing a sign labeled 893, which I'm assuming is the forest road you're following. After 30 minutes of walking you'll reach a sign for the Hellsgate Trail pointing left. There are a few short cairned side paths along the route, these detours provide shortcuts to the road you are following and are recommended. Eventually the path reaches a second steep climb which tops out at a shoulder before dropping down the other side. The path becomes more trail-like at this point as it descends and climbs a series of low ridges heading south. After about 2 hours of hiking you'll pass through a gap in a fence (only foot travel and horses allowed beyond this point) and 5 minutes later you'll reach a sign marking the boundary of the Hellsgate Wilderness. It's all down hill from this point as the gravel strewn path follows a ridge to the south. When you reach a large stock pond, skirt it on the right and look for a well defined and cairned path that continues south. A short distance beyond the pond you'll catch sight of the prominent drainage of Tonto Creek. The trail heads towards the creek through open grassland, then bends right to skirt a prominent side drainage of the creek. The last half mile to the creek is steep and rocky with plenty of loose gravel to keep you on your toes. Once in drainage there is a good camp site just across the stream and another on stream right about 5 minutes down stream. You can explore up or down the creek from this point. Hellsgate, for which the area is named, is just up canyon and will require one moderately long swims to visit. When you've summoned the enthusiasm for the long climb out, return the way you came.
Rating (1-5 stars):
The author and his wife planned this trip as a two day through hike of Tonto Creek (ending at the small town of Gisela). When we reached the creek we found that recent rains had turned the water
a murky brown, making wading extremely difficult and slow. We decided with these conditions that our itinerary was too aggressive and instead decided to turn the trip into a day hike instead and spend some time exploring Hellsgate. The hike back to the trailhead was extremely hot. Total hike time was 9 hours.
Maps: Hellsgate: Map 1, Map 2
Books: Canyoneering Arizona - Tyler Williams
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.

Swimming in Hellsgate. Small falls just around the corner.

Steep cliffs and murky
brown water.
More walls and pools.