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Houston Canyon - Hellsgate Wilderness, Tonto National Forest

Summary: An out and back canyon trip in a pink granite tributary of Tonto Creek. 
Directions: 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 right. Park here. 
Road Conditions: Passenger Car
Navigation: Easy
Length: ~5 miles depending where you turn around
Date Hiked: February 2002
Weather Conditions: Cool and breezy
Required Skills:
Hike Description: From the car park duck through the metal gate and follow the road 0.5 miles to the end. You will see a crude sign on the left for 'Swim Hole'. Follow this sign on a well used trail down hill and through a gate. The stream immediately in front of you is Houston Creek. Turn left and head up the stream, hopping the barb wire fence. The first part of the canyon has been decimated by cattle & you'll have to dodge the cow pies as you go. There is a large pipe on stream right (the right side of the stream facing the direction the water is flowing) which must carry stream water to the farm below. When you reach the pipe intake the evidence of cattle fades away and you can now follow the clean water up canyon. Don't bother trying to keep your feet dry as you'll be forced to wade many times on this hike. Basically you just rock hop and bush wack your way upstream, be careful on the rocks, they are polished smooth and are extremely slippery when wet (the author wiped out twice on this hike, and was lucky not to be injured). After 20 minutes or so, you'll come to a dry tributary which enters from stream right. If you head up this side canyon you will be faced with 3 dry falls. The first is easily climbed, the second is quite difficult, the third looked like it might have a route around on canyon right, but the author did not attempt this last fall as it looked like the canyon became shallow and uninteresting above. Back at the main drainage, continue upstream. The pick granite walls and rocks form a very pretty scene, but they never really close in to form any good narrows. In several spots you will be forced to wade some deep pools, the deepest of which came up to my chest. After about an hour and a half of walking you will come to a very pretty section with a 30' cascading waterfall which tumbles between pink granite walls into a pool below. You can get right up to the falls by climbing the rock on stream left (or if it's warm enough you can swim right up the stream). This is probably the best place to turn around. The author continued upstream for another 45 minutes, but the canyon becomes rather shallow and uninteresting beyond this point. When ready return the way you came.  
Rating (1-5 stars):
The author stumbled on this canyon using topo maps. Given the narrow contour lines around the stream and the geologic features the canyon cuts through, I thought it might be promising. Unfortunately it didn't pan out to be as good as I'd hoped. The author spent 5 hours exploring upstream and in the side canyon. 
Maps: USGS Topographic Map (printed from AZ Topo! software)
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.
Pink granite and falls.