HellsGate II - Hike and Swim

Camille and I wanted another swim in the deep canyon of the Tonto Creek at HellsGate, and we planned an overnight trip in on Saturday, hammock camping and then hiking out on Sunday, October 11.

We had a few issues Saturday morning getting out of town. First, we needed to drop off some paperwork in Gilbert. Then I realized I forgot my wallet, and we had to drive back to Chandler to get it. Then up to Payson, where we finally had breakfast at the Bee Line Diner. When we got to the trailhead, Camille realized she had forgotten her sleeping bag. We figured we could overcome this, but then as we were packing up, I realized I had no hiking shoes in the car, only a pair of Vibram five fingers I planned to swim in. That was the last straw, and we decided there were too many signals to ignore. We decided to drive by Tonto Natural Bridge State Park on our way home and be more normal tourists.

We spent the rest of the day there, walking around the various trails and taking LOTS of photos. Here are some:

Camille under the bridge

Near the end of our day, there was a little hike down into this spot to see the travertine “growing.” This little alcove provided a nice studio, once we stepped through the constant curtain of [very cold, very wet] water across its entrance.

On the way home, we decided we could go back to the HellsGate trailhead in the morning and repeat our dayhike in and out of a few weeks ago. This would be OK, since we knew we’d need headlamps to hike out in the dark.


After hiking mostly up 5 miles, we reach the border of the Wilderness Area. To this point, we followed an old jeep trail, now used by the ATV club that maintains the trail in this area. Beyond here, no motorized vehicles permitted!

Now we began the long, rough descent into HellsGate at the confluence of the Tonto and Haigler Creeks. You can see on the elevation profile below the magnitude and slope of the walk. The views were wonderful as we anticipated reaching the swimming hole. There were no cars at the trailhead, so we expected to have the entire walk and the swimming area to ourselves. The day was much cooler than our previous walk in.

The Rim - The Mogollon Rim, to the North. Pronounced: mug-ee-yun


After sliding down the steep, slippery switchbacks of scree slopes skirting the swimming scene, we arrived! (did you like that? who liked that? just click here to send me a note that you liked it!!!)


Looking up canyon from our beach, northeast by compass. The water is much browner than our last visit. That must come with the 15 degree colder temperature difference we were about to experience ...


At the confluence, the water in Tonto Creek is very murky


But the calm water floating in from Haigler Creek is crystal clear.

We hung our packs on low branches and got our food out to snack. We took a little walk across the creek to try to find the camp site. There wasn’t a place flat enough without big rocks to erect a tent, as far as I could see. We walked to the confluence, and back. I was really tired, and we lay down on the rock beach and I actually slept for a little while. I think Camille slept also, but she was awake when I looked up.

As daylight was burning, I hopped right up out of a sound afternoon nap, and started walking into the very cold water. I asked Camille if she was going to swim, hoping she would chicken out. Not her. So, I fell/dove/tipped over into the water. Man, was it cold. Soon Camille dove in and we were swimming up current toward the beautiful canyon.





Here we are swimming in the first (lower) channel. Camille being the much stronger swimmer, is up canyon, to the east of me. We found out the new LifeProof case on my iPhone works well and really is waterproof. I took a few shots, then Camille swam up stream with the phone and took some looking back, west, at me. I found a very slippery reef rock to stand up on.

It was really cold in the water. I kept warm with my inefficient swimming dog paddle action. Camille was filming so she had to stand still and her lips were purple. So then I took the camera / phone and Camille swam farther up to near the lower waterfall. Last time, we had clambered up beyond both waterfalls.

The video does a little better in showing the awesome beauty of being in the canyon. I’m almost afraid to publish these, as the solitude may disappear if more people know how wonderful this place is.

And we did go up to the waterfall. In the last part of the last video, you can see how green the big rock is. There must be a lot of copper ore in this rock - it sure looks like cupric oxide to me.




Camille is sitting next to me on a huge boulder in the middle of the canyon, looking left down at the waterfall, and then right, down the canyon whence we came.

After photographing and getting really cold, we swam back down. Camille climbed up on the cliff on the left side, trying to find an overland route back to our shore and thus staying out of the cold water. But I was unable to climb up and out of the water. I tried swimming back by myself, but she was convinced I couldn’t make it, so she jumped back in to accompany me, ready to exhibit her life-saving tactics. Fortunately, I didn’t need them, and we got back to shore.

Again, we were an hour behind our tentative plan, but this time, it was OK, since we had strong headlamps and knew we would be hiking out in the dark. And this time, without a full moon to light the way. So, we tried to dry off as much as possible. We were both shivering ferociously. We ate the rest of our food, and we teamed up to filter water to fill our camelback bladders. Fortunately Camille had brought her lined rain parka and that helped keep her warm.

Loading up, we left the canyon and began the strenuous climb up the canyon wall on the switchbacks. We attained the top of the cliff much more quickly this week, and it seemed the steep part was behind us. It was, but there was still a lot of climb, just not so steep we’d slide downhill in the scree every other step!

I had brought soup to cook, and the stove, but we had chosen not to do so. We decided that if we got too cold or hungry on the walk out, we could stop any place and cook. Also, we could cook once at the car.

We took our time, in no hurry, and took in the wonderful scenery. Here is some of it:

A nearly perfect agave plant.

A strange looking chunk of bedrock peeking out of the earth’s hide.


The Rim, at dusk.

After it got full dark, we hiked along carefully in the light of my headlamp. I saw some red eyes looking at me in the light of it, and they were down low on the trail. I thought perhaps it was a rabbit or maybe a squirrel. They didn’t move, but stared at me unflinchingly. When we got right up to it, a bird fluffed out its feathers and swooped away down the trail in front of us.

We hiked along another few hundred meters, and I saw those red eyes again, looking at me from the same angle. It was down on the left side of the trail, sitting on the ground. When we got right to it, I asked Camille to stop and look. It was puffed right out again, and sitting in a very warm draft of air. The air here was noticeably warmer than on either side of the spot where the bird was. When Camille saw it, we both realized it was an owl, and looked like a baby ! I grabbed my phone to take a quick photo, but not quick enough! It puffed out and swooped down the trail again. We didn’t see it anymore.

Camille remarked on how warm the air was where the owl was resting. I mentioned that in the Longmire novels, I learned that some native americans consider the owl to be a messenger from the departed. Its mission is to help you. It is very rare to be visited by this messenger. I felt very blessed. Or maybe I have it twisted:

In his book Medicine Wheels, Roy I. Wilson speaks about the Owl as being one of the spirit messengers in the inner circle of seven stones around the sacred altar of the Native American Sundance Wheel. He says "The owl is the bird of the shadows, the darkness, the night. It is the messenger of death.” Yet, "The ability of the owl to see so well in the darkness of the night speaks to us of the spirit of the owl, as a spirit messenger, guiding us through the darkness of our night of bereavement. Therefore, the owl not only gives the message of impending death, but when it continues to manifest itself over a period of time to someone, it may be giving the message to that person that he or she is being called to a ministry to the bereaved.”

I’m not sure who is bereaved.

HellsGate II Swim
If you zoom into this Google Earth Pro high resolution image, you can see our hiking track in red, and our swimming track in blue. The swimming track is bouncing back and forth across the canyon. That is not the way we swam. It is very inaccurate because the canyon walls are so steep, the GPS unit (on my wrist) could not triangulate an accurate position.

HellsGate Map

2015-10-11 12-25-07 HellGate In

The hike into (and down into) Hellsgate, dropping about 1700’ in the last ~2.5 miles