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Christopher Creek Gorge - Tonto National Forest

Summary: This hike can be done as either a short stroll to the nice gorge & water hole, or as a more exciting canyon hike. This area is a popular weekend hangout during warmer months of the year. There's a lot of broken glass about, so be sure to wear good shoes even if you're basking on the rocks or wading in the stream. This hike is best done in warm weather since the water is chilly (or carry a wet suit if attempting it earlier in the season). Good climbers can do the canyon hike described without any specialized gear by bypassing one short section of canyon (or jumping, though I don't recommend it, canyon conditions change all the time) or better yet, bring a 100' rope, webbing and a harness to complete 2 short rappels. I'd also suggest having at least one good climber in the group who can belay less experienced members down the more difficult down climbs.
Directions: From Phoenix drive northeast on State Highway 87 (Beeline Highway) to Payson. In downtown Payson turn right (east) on Highway 260 for about 19 miles. Just past mile marker 271 park at a pull out on the right side of the road.
Note: as of 6/05 there are now no parking signs and a dirt berm at the traditional pull off for this hike. I'm not sure what the highway department is trying to accomplish or where they want people to park (seems to me like they are forcing people to walk across the busy, high speed highway on a blind corner, which doesn't strike me as good public safety policy). Anyway, most people seem to ignore the signs and park at the traditional pull off without any problems.
Road Conditions: Passenger Car
Navigation: Easy, except for those doing the canyon hike who will need to pay close attention to identify the proper exit point (I've also provided the GPS coordinate below).
Length: 1-2 miles
Date Hiked: December 2003, June 2005
Weather Conditions: Cold in December; warm, but not warm enough in June
Required Skills: No skills required to hike to the gorge and play in the water.
 - for the canyon trip described.
Hike Description: From the car park walk through the fence and pick up the wide, flat trail as it heads south towards the creek. Some well intentioned nitwit has painted orange blazes on the trees for those that are route finding challenged. Soon the path splits, what do you do?! Don't panic, the helping hand of our thoughtful vandal is there to guide you. Orange dots mark the path to the left, the word 'BOX' emblazon the path ahead (I suppose another symbol, like say a square, was considered too esoteric for a route marking task as serious as this one). Pick your poison, both paths are short and easy. I suppose the 'BOX' route is quicker if you're a busy executive, on the go type. Down at the creek bed you'll be greeted with a pleasant red rock canyon and small water falls. Heading downstream, you'll be faced with wading, swimming and climbing on the polished quartzite rock (which is smooth and slick). The geography is tilted in a way that the rock layers are angled upwards in the downstream direction. The implication for the hiker is that you often find a nice clear slab to follow which brings you further above the creek the further downstream you hike, until you're eventually cliffed out. For the most part it's best to stay near the creek. Heading down canyon there are multiple falls, swims and down climbs. There are also a few opportunities to jump (just be sure to assess the water depth beforehand, in no case should you jump if the water is cloudy and you can't see the bottom). Though I can't describe every little obstacle encountered on the hike, here are a few of the more prominent ones. The first trouble spot is a cliff band that requires a 15' down climb. If descending this cliff is daunting, this is a good place to turn around. Further down canyon, progress will be blocked by a drop off that reaches to both canyon walls. The easiest way down is to do  a 4' jump into the water from a narrow platform in front of a boulder on the right (you can also jump from a higher point if water levels allow). The next drop off requires a sketchy down climb and jump. This one is best avoided by climbing around on canyon right. Just beyond is a nice 35' waterfall. Those with gear can rappel the falls by rigging from a large fallen log to the right of the falls, otherwise you'll have to climb around in the brush on the right. Those that rappelled the falls will find themselves in a nice water filled box canyon. Swim downstream to arrive at rappel #2, a 20' drop next to a waterfall. The anchor is the chockstone at the head of the falls, and is a little tricky due to a rather awkward start. There's another short section of pretty canyon below and soon after you'll see a prominent side canyon which enters from the right (north). From this point, looking down canyon, you'll see that the quartzite rock fades away (indicating that the rocky gorge gives way to a more typical meandering stream. The right branching side canyon is labeled Spring Creek on the map and is the exit route (if you have a gps the coordinates are: UTM 493958mE, 3796673mN). Walk up Spring Creek (or climb up a rocky slope and drop into the creek above) and follow it upstream for ~15 minutes or so to a point where the creek bends right at a drop off and pool. Climb the rocky slope to the left of the drop off (keeping to the open, non-brushy areas) heading in a north-easterly direction. The slope is cairned in places, and power lines become visible as you climb higher on the slope. At the top of the hill (assuming you've gone in the right direction) you'll reach a short dirt spur road that can be followed to Highway 260. Turn right and follow the highway about 0.5 miles back to the trailhead and your car.
Rating (1-5 stars):
The author and his wife hiked down to the gorge. Then followed it above and along the bank climbing high on the cliffs when necessary avoiding the pools (in December wading was out of the question). Total hike time was about 1.5 hours.
At a later date we returned and completed the canyon hike described above.
Map: Click here for a map of this hike.
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.

Start of the gorge. The first down climb & falls.
Rappel #1. Rappel #2.