Few remnants remain of the wild lands that witnessed the early growth of Arizona. Many of these remnants are now protected and managed as wilderness areas by the Forest Service. In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. This legislation was the end product of many decades of effort to set aside public lands that still had their primitive character intact. The Hellsgate Wilderness was entered into the National Wilderness Preservation System with the passage of the Arizona Wilderness Act on August 28, 1984.


Lying at the base of the Mogollon Rim, upper Tonto Creek has incised a 1,000-foot-deep canyon that runs entirely through the center of this Wilderness. A perennial waterway, Tonto Creek creates deep emerald pools sometimes separated by impassable falls. The area also contains Haigler Creek with its impressive rock formations. Elevations range from 6,440 feet atop Horse Mountain in the northeast corner to 2,960 feet where Tonto Creek leaves the area in the southwest. Trout, catfish, and smallmouth bass inhabit both creeks, popular destinations with anglers. Available water helps to support a variety of wildlife: black bears, mountain lions, mule deer, coyotes, gray foxes, javelinas, beavers, and many small mammals and birds.


You will find exceptionally rough and broken terrain with moderate to very steep slopes on long rocky ridges. Archaeology buffs will encounter evidence of prehistoric use. Six trailheads give access to the Wilderness, but human use is relatively light, especially off-trail and the U.S. Forest Service reports that foot travel can be very difficult. If you follow either creek you'll have to swim at some point. Snowfall may be substantial in winter.


Group size is limited to 15 people and 15 head of livestock. Length of stay is limited to 14 days.


History of the Hells Gate Wilderness


Hundreds of years before this area was established as a wilderness, Native Americans were making their homes within and adjacent to the Hell's Gate region. The southern portion of the Wilderness, in the area of the present settlement of Gisela, is known to have been inhabited prehistorically by Native Americans known to archeologists as the Salado. This culture developed in Tonto Basin, from an earlier occupation by the Hohokam. The Salado flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries and they are known today for their large villages and towns along the Salt River, as well as an active trading economy that brought them into contact with people from all over the Southwest. In this area, the local Salado inhabitants appear to have been primarily agriculturists who farmed the bottomlands and hunted the surrounding uplands.


The northern reaches of the Wilderness supported a much smaller prehistoric population, about which little is known. While probably related to the Salado, these people appear to have had equally strong relations with other groups living in the Sierra Ancha.


By about 1400 A.D., most of central Arizona had been abandoned and the Salado and their neighbors ceased to exist as recognizable cultures. The reasons for this abandonment are undoubtedly complex, but probably included such factors as overpopulation and environmental degradation.


Several hundred years later, the area was re-occupied by the Apache, an unrelated group that migrated from the Great Plains. They remained in this area, and followed a seasonal round of hunting and gathering until they were driven onto reservations in the 1870's. Shortly thereafter, Anglo ranchers and miners began to settle the area.


During the years 1886 to 1892, the notorious Pleasant Valley War occurred in the general area. The "war" was actually little more than a feud between two rival ranching families, the Tewksburys and the Grahams. It apparently began over some stolen horses, but quickly escalated into large local factions and may have resulted in as many as 50 deaths ranging from Holbrook to Globe. The feud finally ended when the last Tewksbury killed the last Graham in the streets of Tempe.


Roaming through the Wilderness, you may come across evidence of these previous inhabitants. We invite you to enjoy these windows to the past, reminding you that all prehistoric and historic sites, and artifacts, are protected by federal law and must be left where they are found. By doing this, we can ensure that future visitors can experience and learn from these resources. 

© 2020 - Town of Payson 
Parks, Recreation & Tourism Department
1000 W. Country Club Dr.

Payson, AZ 85541  |  928-472-5110

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Hells Gate Wilderness