| Home | Warning | Gear | Books | Photography | Hikes | Links | Flora & Fauna | Etiquette | About Me | What's New |


Haigler Creek - Tonto National Forest

Summary: A strenuous, multi-day backpacking trip along the rugged, water-filled drainage of Haigler Creek. The trip requires a considerable amount of climbing, wading and swimming to complete. Most groups should be able to finish the hike between 2 - 3 days, though it could take longer. In order to enjoy this hike, it helps to be well prepared. To that end here are a few tips:
1. Keep all your critical gear in waterproof containers. This includes food, dry clothes and sleeping bag. Most dry bags leak, so it helps to double dry bag these items or use a dry keg. I do not suggest carrying an inflatable boat or inner tube. These items are heavy and easily punctured. Another advantage of dry bags is that they will also add floatation to your pack, which is essential for the long swims. With a buoyant pack, you can swim by either laying on top of it and kicking, or wearing it with the hip belt fastened and doing the back stroke (my personal preference).
2. Water is very heavy, you do not want to be lugging several gallons of Haigler Creek water out with you after every swim. Carry a pack that drains well and that lacks open cell foam padding that can absorb water. Grommets should be placed in the bottom of the pack to allow water to escape.
3. Do the hike when temperatures are very hot (above 100 F). Swimming is unavoidable. You will be soaked much of the time and can easily become chilled. A wet suit may be desirable during cooler weather or for skinny people.
4. Wear shoes that have good traction even when they are wet. The rock in the canyon is extremely smooth and slick. A walking stick may be useful for balance.
5. Do the hike during periods of dry weather. Rains churn up the mud making the creek run brown. The hike will be considerably more difficult if you can not see the rocks beneath the water.
6. Purify all water before drinking.
7. Plan your camping about an hour in advance. Campsites are few and far between in the canyon. Be flexible as to where you stop and be ready to settle for a site that isn't ideal.
Directions: Car Spot: From Payson, drive east on Highway 260 for 11 miles to mile marker 263. Turn right just past the mile marker and drive 0.5 miles on a well graded dirt road to a clearing on the right. There is a large Forest Service sign next to a fence for the Hellsgate Wilderness.
Trailhead: From Payson, drive east on Highway 260 for approximately 24 miles. Turn right at the sign for Colcord Road (which is also Forest Road (FR) 291. Follow this road (which turns to dirt after 2 miles) for 4 miles to FR 200. Turn right on FR 200. Travel on FR 200 for 9 miles, passing through the Haigler Canyon Recreation Site to FR 202A. Turn right and follow this unpaved road for 0.5 miles to the Alderwood Recreation Site.
Road Conditions: Passenger Car
Navigation: Easy
Length: 17 miles
Date Hiked: September 2007
Weather Conditions: Warm and mostly sunny
Required Skills:
Hike Description: Haigler Creek: From the Alderwood Recreation Site, walk through a fence and simply head downstream. After a short hike you will arrive at a nice section of red quartzite narrows which contains a few deep pools. If you're not quite ready to get wet, the narrows can be bypassed by climbing up and around on the left side of the canyon. The diversion only delays the inevitable and soon you'll be forced to perform a deep wade. The canyon opens up somewhat, choose a route that offers the least resistance. Sometimes a bench appears on one side or the other that allows for easier travel, other times the least brushy path is the streambed itself. As you progress, the canyon slowly begins to deepen which will force you into the water on a more frequent basis. Occasionally a short swim is required. After several hours of hiking, the walls of the canyon fade and the stream enters a wide riparian area which displays evidence of ranching. Quick progress can be made through this section by hiking along the wide bank on one side of the stream or the other. Soon, the canyon walls close in again and wading and swimming become more frequent. The slick, unstable rocks, coupled with brush and swimming make for slow and tiring progress. Do not expect to exceed a 1 mile per hour pace through this section. Just after passing Last Camp Canyon (a fault line which crosses the canyon) a 10 foot waterfall is encountered. It is possible to downclimb this obstacle with care. Just beyond is another short falls that empty into a deep pool. Below this point, swimming becomes a regular occurrence as the creek passes through a deep and pretty gorge. Keep your eyes open for Salt Canyon and Leo Canyon, which enter from the right offering visual cues of your progress. As you near the junction with Tonto Creek the walls of Haigler Creek begin to diminish. Just before the confluence, look for a use trail on the right that leads up to a wide, flat bench and camping area. If you camp on the bench - look for a bare spot on the ground. The ground cover has tiny, sharp spines which can puncture an air mattress. There is another decent campsite just north of the bench on the south side of Tonto Creek.

Exit Trail: Cross Tonto Creek and pick up the Hellsgate Trail #37, which begins just upstream from a small side drainage. The rocky path climbs steeply for the first half mile as it ascends out of Hellsgate to eventually travel through open grassland. The path skirts a prominent side drainage of Tonto, then bends left, climbing up to El Grande Tank (which has a perpetual green scum covering  its surface). The trail skirts the tank to the left, then continues climbing along Hellsgate Ridge to eventually reach a sign marking the boundary of the Hellsgate Wilderness. The path becomes less steep as it heads north along Apache Ridge, look for the trail as it skirts a few minor peaks to the left. After about 2 hours of walking the trail tops out at a shoulder, then drops steeply down the other side along an old road. Follow the road as it travels at a gentle grade through the forest. There are a few short cairned side paths along the route, these detours provide shortcuts to the road you are following and are recommended. The path ends at a junction with another forest road and sign for the Hellsgate Trail pointing back the way you came. Turn right and continue along this road. Eventually, the road begins descending at a fairly steep grade, jogging left, then right to arrive at the Hellsgate Trailhead and the car you spotted earlier.

Rating (1-5 stars):
The author completed this hike as a group of four. On day one we hiked the length of Haigler Creek from Alderwood Campground to the confluence with Tonto Creek in 10 hours. On day two we hiked out on the Hellsgate trail in 3 hours
Maps: A map of the canyon may be found here: Map 1, Map 2
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.

Upper narrows. Small falls.
Small downclimb Red quartzite falls.
Typical view in middle Haigler Creek.
Typical view in lower Haigler Creek.