Walking The Wilderness

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Hellsgate Wilderness is the nearest designated wilderness to the town of Payson. In 1984, this 37,440-acre section of Tonto National Forest was brought into being by an act of Congress. It contains the deep canyons, wide valleys and mountain ridges typical of the Tonto forest. The wilderness reaches along a 30-plus-mile portion of the forest, from near the town of Gisela on one side to near Christopher Creek on the other.

There are only a handful of trails that provide access to it. The one (FS983) that begins at the trailhead, just south of Little Green Valley, offers visitors a hike through a section of the forest with a variety of landscapes and ecosystems.

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Hellsgate Wilderness Trail
Length of hike: 9 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate -- steep and rocky in sections
Elevation at trailhead: 5,340 feet
Maps: Tonto National Forest -- North half; Diamond Point and MacDonald Mountain (7.5 min. topos)
Best time to hike: Spring and fall

In many places along its length, it follows portions of an old forest road and some older, abandoned roads that date back to the area's past. In others, it passes through sections that were probably never visited until the trail was established.

The hike isn't difficult for anyone in average physical condition. Most of it is relatively easy with some sections where the trail becomes steep and rocky. There is only limited Forest Service signage. However, a number of trees along its route have been blazed over the years, and rock cairns are found at regular intervals to help keep you on the path.

The trail begins at a parking lot, where it crosses an unnamed creek and passes through a park-like area of ponderosa pines, before climbing west out of Salt Lick Canyon. This part of the trail is actually an old road that is popular with ATV riders. There are additional ATV trails that branch off along this road.

At 1.25 miles from the trailhead, the trail (FS37) itself begins from the left side of the road.

Look for a piece of metal I-bar and a Forest Service sign that indicates where the trail heads off to the left. For the next 1.25 miles, the trail follows a meandering stream that you have to cross several times, while it heads in a southeasterly direction, until it reaches a small corral.

The trail then takes a turn to the west and heads up a steep ridge for about 200 yards. When it reaches the top, it bears off to the left and drops down the other side of the ridge.

Be sure to look for the trail near a fence line. A portion of an old road branches off to the right and continues on up the ridgeline. There are no markers or signs at this point, so just remember to stay to the left.

For the next 2 miles, the trail travels southeast as it makes its way up and down ravines, following the contours of the ridges above it. In some places, it passes through areas of chaparral, and in others it enters dense stands of trees -- pines, junipers and oaks.

The trail encounters short sections of the old roads before taking off on its own. Again, continue to watch for the blazed trees and rock cairns, as they will be your only guide here.

At the end of this portion of the trail, you will encounter a fence with an opening for access. A Forest Service sign will indicate that only foot travel is allowed beyond it.

From here on, you are entering Hellsgate Wilderness. About 300 yards along the trail, you will climb a small ridge and finally be welcomed to the Hellsgate Wilderness by a Forest Service sign placed near the trail.

There are some excellent views of the main part of Hellsgate Canyon and the Mazatzal Range from here.

From here, the trail drops down into Hellsgate Canyon. And, that's another whole story by itself.

To Get There

From the intersection of Highways 97 and 260, head east on 260 for 11 miles until you reach the turnoff on the right side of the road (mile marker 263) just beyond the ranch buildings on the east side of the valley. Continue straight ahead on a maintained Forest Service road for .5 miles. Watch for a turnoff on the right side of the road that leads down to the parking lot and the trailhead.

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