Tonto Creek - Hell's Gate Canyon



This run stretches 23 miles from Bear Flats campground to the town of Gisela.  I counted 6 distinct gorges, but there are numerous mini-gorges, so it depends on how you count them.  Endless horizon lines provide a plethora of class IV drops with around a dozen larger rapids in the class V range.  The run is typically done in 2-3 days.  We ran it in 2 days with about 9 hours on the water the first day and 6.5 hours the second.  We had a group of 3, kept a brisk pace, and had one member who'd done the run before.  Unless you have a very health flow, be prepared for lots of mank on this run, but the payoff is numerous quality drops and stunning desert canyons that very few people have ever accessed.

The run starts out with some low gradient scraping through the bushes, but it's not long before a distinct pool drop nature settles in that characterizes the majority of the run.  There are several nice class IV drops, including a clean 10 foot boof in the first several miles.  There's a notable multipart class V drop with a nice slide in the middle of it that sends you sailing.  

Each gorge is separated by so many horizon lines and class III and IV rapids that I couldn't even begin to recollect them all.  The 6 major gorges tend to contain the largest rapids and most brilliant scenary.  If you count the mini-gorges, there are at least double the number I've itereated here.

1st Gorge:  The impending presence of the first gorge is signaled by the most significant rapid encountered so far on the run.  The river constricts through a small slot in a sliding double drop.  Run the obvious line or portage on river right.  As you enter the gorge proper, the second class V drop appears: a tight spout that drops 12 feet and requires a well timed boof to avoid plugging into the hole or hitting the river right wall (easy portage river left).  The final drop comes at the exit of the gorge.  The crux of the drop requires getting on top of a jet of water to avoid an unpleasant looking pocket against the right side of the constriction.  This rapid has a potential portage with a throw and go on river left.

2nd Gorge: This is the Hell's Gate Gorge, from which the run derives its namesake.  Enjoy the view looking into the stunning entrance of this narrow gorge.  The first rapid is a stout drop that starts with a tight entrance and most of the flow hitting the left wall, a small hole at the bottom and a recirculating eddy feeding into an undercut on the bottom right.  An easy portage exists on river right.  The second rapid is more straightfoward, requiring lining up a left to right move down a tongue to avoid a hole against the wall at the bottom.  The exit of the this drop feeds you into a narrow tunnel a couple boat widths wide and into the pool at the bottom.  The second drop has a beautiful 6 foot boof off a curler that launches you over the horizon line.  As you exit the gorge, the canyon opens up dramatically, a stream comes in from river left, butterflies flutter overhead and an amazing campsite awaits on river right, if you choose to use it.

3rd Gorge: This has been dubbed the "Black Canyon" gorge due to its boulder choked rapids full of sieves.  One impressive section is scattered with house sized boulders all across the creek bed forming a deadly maze.  Sneak around the maze on river right.  As I recall we didn't have to portage anything in this gorge, but scout the rapids carefully because the sieves are plentiful.

4th Gorge: Like most of the gorges, this one pops up out of nowhere.  We arrived here late in the day feeling tired and without a lot of light left.  The walls darkened and became remarkably steep.  We eddied out against the sloping cliff walls on river left and hauled our boats up to a perch 15-20 feet above river level.  Traversing the wall on river left provides a good scout of the rapid and beyond.  The drop itself looks impressive with all the water being constricted through a narrow channel.  There's a significant ledge hole at the entrance, followed by a smaller one and a slide with a large rooster spraying off a shelf on river right.  On river left is a nasty recirculating eddy against the wall, forming the most significant hazard of the rapid.  Portaging here may be possible, but would require some arduous and creative boat work that may be as sketchy as just running the line down the middle.  We all charged it down the middle 5-10 seconds apart.  The first boater flipped and got bashed against the right cliff wall a couple times while being propelled downstream before rolling up.  I came through second with a clean line, followed by the final boater who got slammed against the wall but stayed upright.  We reveled in crossing the crux at the end of a long day as we found our way through another narrow winding passageway, relishing the beauty of this place.

5th Gorge: This gorge was the least remarkable of the bunch with a couple of fun and straightforward rapids worthy of a scout.  As you come out of this gorge, the world magically transforms into the lower elevation Arizona desert mileu as 20-30 foot high saguaro cactus appear out of nowhere and blanket the hillsides.

6th Gorge: The final gorge seems to set the suffer factor for the run.  A fun entrance drop feeds into a pool before the cliff walls become steeper.  The next drop looks completely unrunnable, but has a portage line.  The final drop has apparently been run, but the line is questionable, as is grabbing an eddy above the drop to portage at river level.  Climbing up the gulley on river left after the second rapid allows access to scout the third.  We decided passage at river level was too questionable to attempt, so we made the decision to hike out the first gulley to the top of the canyon and portage the entire gorge above the rim.  The gulley is steep, full of loose rock, spiny plants, and Arizona sun.  Keep walking over the horizon downstream and find a relatively gentle slope down to river level slightly downstream of a gulley on the opposite side of the river. I recommend eddying out after the first rapid and scouting the entire gorge before committing to entering it.

Enjoy one last really fun rapid through a small grotto before the land opens up, gradient slackens, and civilization begins to appear.  When you see street lights and power lines, you've made it to the northern end of Gisela.  Hopefully you've predetermined your egress point because a protective man made wall blocks your view of most of the town from river level.  We found WWSR takeout directions completely unhelpful as we wandered around at 10pm at night, searching for an appropriate place to leave the car.  A couple of points are marked on the map under the "Access" tab for this run, indicating what we believe to be good takeout options.  We ended up walking out at the "middle of town" takeout and taking a short walk to the southern end of Tonto Creek Rd where we dropped our car.

A note on flows:

Like all of Arizona, the skunk factor on this run is high.  Our observation is that you can get away with less flow in the latter part of the season (March) on high elevation snow melt than you can in Jan and Feb (or from rain) due to a greater portion of the water coming from higher elevation and possibly water being taken out downstream of the run for irrigation. We had around 400-600 on the upper Tonto gauge during our run in mid March and it felt low, but not too low.


Class V
Current Flow 1.27 CFS
09-21-2023 10:15
Recommended Flow Minimum: 300.0
Average: 900.0
Maximum: 2000.0
Typical Season Begins: January
Ends: April
Recommended Use Kayaking: Yes
Rafting: No
Canoeing: No
Packrafting: No
Fishing: No
Length 23.0 Mile(s)
Gradient 150.0 FPM

Hell's Gate Gorge

03-17-2013 - looking toward the exit

Photo By: Kevin Cripps

Subject: Lucas Spaulding