I'm in the middle of gearing up for another Grand Canyon technical canyoneering trip this weekend, but thought I'd take a few minutes to post up another older trip. Tonto Creek is a major drainage flowing down from the Mollogon Rim near Payson. It flows into a beautiful granite slot canyon in the Hellsgate Wilderness. Most backpackers who visit this wilderness simply hike in along the Hellsgate trail to stay at the confluence of Haigler and Tonto Creeks. However, with a bit of work, its possible to leave the backpackers behind and follow Tonto Creek into the heart of the wilderness- not on a trail, but directly down the streambed.
This is semi-technical canyoneering. Unlike a trail, where you can cruise for miles sometimes mindlessly, here you are constantly engaged, trying to figure out which rocks are most stable, where the footing is wet, where the handholds are, and whether to bushwhack and climb along the side of the creek, or wade and swim right down the middle. This is grueling work, but its also my favorite type of hike. The fun factor is way higher than a typical on-trail hike. Its basically the adult equivalent of visiting a waterpark like Sunsplash or Big Surf. But with no crowds, and a spectacular wilderness setting instead :)
There are multiple options for trips in this area. You can head down Tonto Creek from Bear Flat to Hellsgate (which we did on this trip), or you can follow Haigler down to Hellsgate as well. Its also possible to continue along the merged Tonto Creek downstream from Hellsgate. This is a minimum 3-4 day trip of constant canyon scenery. I did that hike years ago (2004/5 time frame), and in 2011 I did the Tonto - Hellsgate section as a solo overnight. This time around, I posted the trip on meetup. One person showed, which was ideal. Campsites in the canyon are small, and a group of two moves fast.
In the last year, I've moved into technical canyoneering. But this type of trip in some ways is more appealing. You get the same scenery, with less risk, allowing you to focus more on the wilderness setting without the distraction of all the tech details of anchors, rigging, rappeling, and other stuff.
More importantly, I've sometimes been stymied with how brief many of the most popular technical canyoneering trips are. I've done some incredibly scenic canyons like Salome Jug and been frustrated with how fast the trip flies by. Its like a little blip of awesomeness, then back to reality. We blasted through Sundance Canyon in less than 3 hours. For me, more time is needed in a wilderness setting to really reset. 3 hours, even in an incredibly beautiful place, is too short a window of time to shed your "civilized" thinking patterns and move into a more natural way of operating. So the prospect of an overnight or longer canyon is incredibly appealing, providing the opportunity to really immerse yourself in the setting.
This is probably also the reason canyoneering in the Grand Canyon has got its hooks in me. I relish the opportunity to travel through these kinds of settings for days at a time. So for me, Tonto Creek is one of the finest hikes in the state. Its just mile after mile of incredible beauty. Any of the spots along the creek would be worthy of an all-day hike, just to reach that one spot, as so many do with the hellsgate trail. To get to travel through it hour after hour, is a privilege.