Hellsgate Wilderness

This wilderness was established in 1984. Hellsgate has a major canyon and perennial stream extending its entire length. Deep pools of water are sometimes separated by impassable falls. Spring and fall are ideal times to visit this area; however, trails are rare and access is limited.

Location: At the base of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona
Size and Elevation: 37,440 acres, 3,000 feet to 6,400 feet
Ecosystem: Plentiful water, leading to large wildlife population.
Features: Inaccessbile country. Tonto and Haigler Creeks flow through impressive rock formations with many deep emerald, pools
Activities: Hiking, Horseback Riding, Fishing

Before you hit the trails, you may want to learn more about the topography, vegetation, geology, climate, wildlife, livestock regulations, water, or natural fire management. Still not satisified? Check out more sources for information and other Tonto wilderness trails.


Hell's Gate Trail - 11 miles. A real challenge -- try getting back out. . . . .
Pocket Trail - 7 miles. Old jeep trail.
Mescal Ridge Trail - 3 miles. Easy, with excellent views of the countryside.
Bear Flat Trail - 9.25 miles. First quarter mile is steep, then you're in a pleasant forest.

#37 - Hell's Gate Trail
This trail is 11 miles in length, and at times very challenging. While the hiker faces several moderate to steep climbs on the route to Hell's Gate, the real challenge is getting back out. The trail climbs steadily for the first 1.5 to 2 miles leaving Hell's Gate. The last half-mile into Hell's Gate is unsafe for horses. Overnight camps with livestock are strongly discouraged at Hell's Gate. Lowest elevation: 3984 feet. Highest elevation: 5655 feet.
Termini: Forest Road #405A and Forest Road #133

#38 - Pocket Trail
Seven miles in length. Most of this route is an old jeep trail, although it can be difficult to find and follow. Lowest elevation: 3400 feet. Highest elevation: 3797 feet.
Termini: Forest Road #454 (near Pocket Cabin), and Forest Road #134 (northwest of Soldier Camp).

#186 - Mescal Ridge Trail
Three miles in length. Most of this route is an old jeep trail. An easy trail that works its way south on Mescal Ridge (with excellent views of the countryside) to a stock tank located between Tonto Creek and Bull Tank Canyon. Lowest elevation: 5400 feet. Highest elevation 5580 feet.
Termini: Bear Flat Trail #178 and dead ends on ridge above Tonto Creek.

#178 - Bear Flat Trail
Nine and one-quarter miles in length. An old jeep trail that is very easy to follow. The first quarter mile after leaving the Bear Flat Trailhead is steep, but the visitor is rewarded by passing through an unexpected grove of mixed conifer. Lowest elevation: 5200 feet. Highest elevation: 5800 feet.
Termini: Forest Road #405 at Bear Flat, and Forest Road #200.

Directions to Trailheads Hellsgate Ridge
From the intersection with Highway 87, follow Highway 260 east out of Payson 11.4 miles to Forest Road 405A on the right (just east of Little Green Valley). Drive down 405A one-half of a mile, then turn right at a cement water trough (at Forest Road 893). This area is an excellent place to begin your trip, especially if horses are involved. It is also possible to drive further down Road 893 if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Trail Accessed: Hellsgate Trail #37.

Bear Flat
Again, follow Highway 260 east out of Payson for 11.4 miles. Turn onto Forest Road 405A. Follow Road 405A for 2.7 miles to the junction with Forest Road 405. Continue straight ahead on Road 405 3.2 miles to the trailhead just south of the private land. This road is very steep, and not recommended for two wheel-drive vehicles pulling horse trailers. The Bear Flat Trail #178 begins across the creek near the private land.
Trail Accessed: Bear Flat Trail #178.

Gordon Canyon
Follow State Highway 260 east from Payson for 23 miles (approximately 3 miles past Christopher Creek), and turn right on Forest Road 291. Continue down Forest Road 291 for approximately 3.5 miles until reaching Forest Road 200. Follow Road 200 5.8 miles to the trailhead. The east end of the Bear Flat Trail #178 begins here.
Trail Accessed: Bear Flat Trail #178.

Pocket Cabin
Follow Highway 260 out of Payson for approximately 7.5 miles to Forest Road 436. Turn right on F.R. 436 and continue .1 mile to Forest Road 371. Turn right on F.R. 371 and continue seven miles to the junction of Forest Road 454. Turn left on F.R. 454 and go 3.8 miles to the locked gate near Pocket Cabin. Follow the drainage south from Pocket Canyon and meet up with Pocket Trail #38 near Tonto Creek. Keep in mind that four-wheel drive is recommended to reach this trailhead.
Trail Accessed: Pocket Trail #38.

Smoky Hollow
From Young, follow Forest Road 129 for 7.5 miles to the junction of Forest Road 133. Turn left and drive down Forest Road 133 for about 8 miles to reach this undeveloped trailhead. The south end of the Hellsgate Trail #37 begins here.
Trail Accessed: Hellsgate Trail #37.

Soldier Camp
Follow Forest Road 129 west of Young approximately 6.5 miles to the junction of Forest Road 134. Turn left and drive down Road 134 approximately 12 miles through Soldier Camp to the trailhead. The south end of Pocket Trail #38 starts at this point.
Trail Accessed: Pocket Trail #38.

Other Access
There are a number of cross-country routes going into the Wilderness that can be accessed from different points. If you choose to enter the area by one of these routes, beware that they are very rugged and that foot-travel can be very difficult. If you access the area by one of these routes, be sure to let someone know of your route of travel.

Access to the southwest portion of the Wilderness can be successful by following Forest Road 371 to Houston Creek. A cross-country route runs south along this drainage into the Wilderness.

For another route, follow Forest Road 417 through Gisela to the private land boundary just west of the confluence of Houston and Tonto Creeks. This access point is the western boundary of the Wilderness. Do not trespass on the private land!


The Hellsgate Wilderness encompasses approximately 36,780 acres, and lies in the central mountain belt of Arizona at the base of the Mogollon Rim. Upper Tonto Creek cuts a deep incision through the center of the Wilderness, creating topographic reliefs in the canyon of up to 1000 feet. The highest elevation of 6440 feet is located in the northeast corner of the Wilderness atop Horse Mountain, while the low point of 2960 feet is found along Tonto Creek as it exits the southwestern portion of the area.

This is exceptionally rough, and often inaccessible country. The Wilderness is characterized by broken terrain of moderate to very steep slopes on long rocky ridges. Tonto and Haigler Creeks are contained in impressive rock formations with many deep emerald pools.


The average high and low temperatures shown in the chart below are representative of elevations of about 4800 feet. Keep in mind that these temperatures can fluctuate considerably at the higher and lower elevations of the Wilderness. Winter temperatures in the high country can drop to extremes of more than minus 15 degrees; while summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees in the lower canyons. While most of the precipitation falls as rain, substantial amounts of snow can be deposited during the winter months.


Wilderness wildlife are the property of the state of Arizona and all applicable state hunting, fishing, and trapping regulations apply. For information concerning these regulations, please contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The primitive character and the abundance of water make the Hellsgate Wilderness an ideal habitat for many species of wildlife. Animals prevalent in the area include: black bear, mountain lion, whitetail and mule deer, coyote, bobcat, gray fox, javelina, beaver, and many other small animals. There are a large number of bird and reptile species as well.

Tonto and Haigler Creeks are inhabited by a substantial number of fish species such as brown and rainbow trout, catfish, and small-mouth bass.

Domestic Livestock

Many people do not realize that livestock grazing is allowed in this Wilderness. There are eight grazing allotments under permit which have acreages in and adjacent to the Wilderness. The Forest Service objective for range management in this area is for the "utilization of the forage resources while maintaining wilderness values."

Structural range facilities such as fences, corrals, and stock tanks, are located within this Wilderness. If you use these facilities, please be sure to leave them undamaged, and close all gates unless it is apparent they are meant to be open. Also, do not deny access to cattle or wildlife at any water source by camping at inappropriate locations.

Water Resources

The main sources of water are Haigler and Tonto Creeks. There are a number of other small springs and ephemeral streams where water is sometimes available. Unfortunately, even clear, cool mountain water can no longer be assumed to be drinkable without the appropriate tree meet.

Wilderness Access

Not uncommonly, one of the more challenging parts of a backcountry trip is attempting to find the trailhead itself. For this reason, we have developed the following directions for reaching the various trailheads or access points.

Recreation Opportunities

The Hellsgate Wilderness provides opportunities for the hiker who enjoys the challenge of a rugged area. The difficult and dangerous terrain of the area offers a true test of the visitor's backcountry skills when they travel through the canyons of Tonto and Haigler Creeks. The rock barriers of these streams must be traversed, and deep pools require you to swim and float backpacks across them. If you hike the canyons of either of these two creeks, remember to bring tennis shoes, swimming gear, and watertight bags for your gear.

Less strenuous challenges can be provided on the trails, where the visitor can enjoy the solitude and natural conditions of the area without too much work.

For the angler, Tonto and Haigler Creeks offer high quality cold water fishing opportunities. Fishing pressure can be high at points near established trails. If you do decide to fish in the Wilderness, please pack out everything you pack in! Styrofoam containers, monofilament line, plastic packaging, and other discarded fishing accessories do not blend in well with the wilderness character of the area. Also, please bury fish viscera away from any use areas.

The topography of the area lends itself to fine opportunities for photography. This is especially true on the ridges, where vast panoramic vistas of the surrounding country can be experienced.

The Hellsgate Wilderness is for our use and enjoyment, but man is only a visitor who has an obligation to leave this area unimpaired for future generations. The true wilderness challenge of today is to leave footprints as the only trace of your visit.


Few remnants remain of the wildlands that witnessed the early growth of Arizona. Many of these remnants are now protected and managed as wilderness areas by the Forest Service. In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. This legislation was the end product of many decades of effort to set aside public lands that still had their primitive character intact. The Hellsgate Wilderness was entered into the National Wilderness Preservation System with the passage of the Arizona Wilderness Act on August 28,1984.

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 Indians 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 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 reoccupied 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.

Sources Of
Additional Information

"Desert Survival"; Nelson, D. and S. (Tecolote Press, 1977.)

"Hiking the Southwest" ; Ganci, D. (Sierra Club Totebook, San Francisco, CA.)

"Flowers of the Southwest Mesas" ; Patraw, P.M. (Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Globe, AZ., 1977.)

"Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands" ; (Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Tucson, AZ., 1976.)

"A Little War of Our Own" ; Dedera, D. (Northland Printing Co., Flagstaff, AZ.)

"Arizona's Dark and Bloody Grounds" ; Forrest, E.R. (University of Arizona Press, Tucson AZ., 1979)

"Walking Softly in the Wilderness" ; Hart, J. (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA., 1977)

"The Archeology of Arizona" ; Martin, P.S., and Ploy, F. (Doubleday/Natural History Press, 1973)

"Veil of Tears: Tonto Basin in the 14th Century" ; Wood, J.S. (Tonto N.F.)

For further information contact: Payson and Pleasant Valley Ranger Districts - Tonto National Forest

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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