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Tonto Creek - Tonto National Forest

Summary: A strenuous, multi-day backpacking trip along the rugged drainage of Tonto Creek through deep narrows. The trip requires a considerable amount of climbing, wading and swimming to complete. Most groups should be able to finish the hike between 2.5 - 4 days, though it could take longer. In order to enjoy this hike, it helps to be well prepared. To that end here are a few tips:
1. Keep all your critical gear in waterproof containers. This includes food, dry clothes and sleeping bag. Most dry bags leak, so it helps to double dry bag these items or use a dry keg. I do not suggest carrying an inflatable boat or inner tube. These items are heavy and easily punctured. In fact you'll see quite a few of these floatation devices that people have abandoned in the canyon, being too lazy and inconsiderate to remove their own trash when their toys became useless. Another advantage of dry bags is that they will also add floatation to your pack, which is essential for the many long swims. With a buoyant pack, you can swim by either laying on top of it and kicking, or wearing it with the hip belt fastened and doing the back stroke (my personal preference).
2. Water is very heavy, you do not want to be lugging several gallons of Tonto Creek water out with you after every swim. Carry a pack that drains well and that lacks open cell foam padding that can absorb water. Grommets should be placed in the bottom of the pack to allow water to escape.
3. Do the hike when temperatures are very hot (above 100 F). Swimming is unavoidable. You will be soaked much of the time and can easily become chilled. A wet suit may be desirable during cooler weather or for skinny people.
4. Wear shoes that have good traction even when they are wet. The rock in the canyon is extremely smooth and slick. A walking stick may be useful for balance.
5. Do the hike during periods of dry weather. Rains churn up the mud making the creek run brown (as can be seen in photos in the Hellsgate Trail #37 hike referenced below). The hike will be considerably more difficult if you can not see the rocks beneath the water.
6. Purify all water before drinking.
7. Plan your camping about an hour in advance. Campsites are interspersed throughout the canyon, but they may not be located exactly where you'd like them to be. Be flexible as to where you stop and be ready to settle for a site that isn't ideal.
8. I would also suggest carrying a light weight, fully enclosed shelter. The canyon has some unpleasant blood sucking insects that would like you to be their friend for the night.
Directions: !Update! The lower car spot at Gisela has been barricaded and marked as a tow zone. Evidently some badly behaved individuals have ruined access for the rest of us.
Car Spot:
From Phoenix head north on Highway 87 towards Payson. Just after you pass the sign for the Barnhardt Trailhead turn right following the sign towards Gisela. Follow this paved road up and over Black Mountain staying straight at any branches. The road becomes well graded dirt, continue straight until you reach a 'T' intersection with mail boxes in front of you and Gisela Valley Farms on the right. Turn left and continue to follow the main road until you reach a metal gate with pull off area on the left. Park here. 
Trailhead: 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: 22 miles
Date Hiked: July 2006
Weather Conditions: Hot and sunny
Required Skills:
Hike Description: Approach Trail: Follow the Hellsgate Trail #37 for 7.5 miles to Tonto Creek.
Tonto Creek: Once in Tonto Creek, head down canyon. You will soon pass Haigler Creek which enters from the left. The wading and swimming begin in short order and after a bit of hiking the canyon begins to deepen, eventually entering a very scenic red quartzite box canyon. You will be in and out of the water continuously from this point on. The routine is to rock hop down stream, wade into a pool until you can no longer touch bottom, swim to the other side, and wade out again. Occasionally there are routes around on the left or right that can offer quicker progress than wading or swimming. The quartzite fades somewhat as you near Goswick Canyon and the swimming is slightly less frequent. Below Big Canyon the walking becomes somewhat easier with fewer swims and rocky benches that you can walk for increased distances. The creek then enters a very nice gorge with polished gray rock walls with a few small cascades and a natural arch. These narrows end in a long swim just above the confluence with Derrick Canyon, which enters from the right. Below Derrick, the creek is rather straight and somewhat less scenic until a point where the canyon bends to the right and the large drainage of Spring Creek enters from the left. Just past this point the canyon deepens once again, entering a section of colorful narrows where the rock is a swirling mixture of reds, yellows, purples, and grays. Just above McDonald Pocket, after another particularly long swim, the canyon walls fade back and saguaros appear on the banks. If you are hiking on a particularly hot day, the air temperature seems to rise ten degrees in this section due to the heat reflecting off of the rocks underfoot. The canyon is fairly wide for a while, then becomes somewhat more narrow as pink granite appears underfoot. The granite erodes very differently than the other rock in the canyon creating complex, undulating shapes which are interesting to look at, but very difficult to walk on. There are also many large boulders just beneath the water surface in this section that make footing tricky. The banks are also very steep which means you have to swim right up to them before you can touch bottom to climb out. Towards the end of this section, the canyon drops more steeply forming a few short waterfalls, the last of which is particularly nice and ends in a long pool. It's more rock hopping and swimming below this section for another hour or so until you come to the popular swimming hole at the Tonto Narrows. You can either swim through the narrows or bypass them by walking the ledge on the left. Just below the narrows, pick up a well used trail on the right that heads through the mesquite trees. After the path crosses Houston Creek it bends right and climbs out of the canyon to a road and ranch. Follow the road 0.5 miles to the lower car spot and the vehicle you'd left there earlier.
Rating (1-5 stars):
The author and his wife completed the hike as a 2.5 day trip at a moderate pace. Day 1 we hiked 10.5 hours to camp near Big Canyon. Day 2 we hiked 10 hours and camped on a bench across from a large, but un-named canyon at McDonald Pocket. Day 3 we hiked out in about 4 hours.
Total hike time was 24.5 hours at a steady pace (averaging just under 1 mile per hour). Because of all the climbing and swimming some groups could take much longer.
Books: Canyoneering Arizona - Tyler Williams
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.

The start of the hike in Tonto Creek. Red quartzite narrows.
Grey narrows. Multi-colored narrows.
Pink granite lensing. Final waterfall.