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Tonto Creek, Arizona
Report by Marc W. McCord

Tonto Creek Campground to Roosevelt Lake
~ 60.6 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Tonto Creek forms as a runoff stream in the high elevations of the Sierra Ancha Mountains of Tonto National Forest on the southwest side of the Mogollon Rim a few miles north of SH 260 and east of Payson, then flows south by southwest about 72.5 miles to Roosevelt Lake, running parallel and in close proximity to SH 188 from southeast of Payson to the lake. Normally, the creek does not flow at navigable levels, but during the fall monsoons, or after a significant rainfall in the surrounding mountains, this dusty, rocky creek can quickly transform into a raging torrrent of Class IV to V whitewater rapids and drops on its upper end through Hell's Gate Canyon where boaters have died in recent years. Below the SH 188 turn-off from SH 87 is Rye Creek, which feeds Tonto Creek just above a 2-mile box canyon of considerable difficulty, where paddlers sometimes encounter barbed wire fences strung across the creek to contain cows. This section is particularly dangerous because of boulder garden rapids, moderate drops of 8-10 feet, keeper holes, dead-fall strainers, a VERY constricted channel, sticky pourovers, few places for good portages and difficult access, just to name a few reasons why most paddlers would avoid this place like they would the plague. The upper 30 miles of this trip, from Tonto Creek Campground to Sycamore Creek Road drops at an average of about 84.5 feet per mile in a very tight, very rocky channel that leaves little room for error.

A little below Hell's Gate Canyon the river start to widen (a little) and flatten as it enters the Sonoran Desert. It is possible to start trips near the top of the river, but the first practical put-in is at Tonto Creek Campground on the Zane Grey Highway north of SH 260 and northeast of Payson. Below Sycamore Creek Road the river drops at an average rate of about 24.8 feet per mile, which is still substantial, but far less than the 30 miles above and the channel is a little wider and deeper with a much more reliable flow that at the top where a lot of walking and carrying or dragging boats may be required. The downside to the upper section is that enough water not to have to walk also means a faster, more dangerous channel to negotiate, and this is also true on the lower half of the run, though with a little less danger due to the much shallower gradient and generally wider channel.

Several USFS campgrounds are located between Tonto Creek and SH 260 just east of Payson, just below the second access point where SH 260 crosses the creek about 2 hours northeast of Phoenix and around the top of Roosevelt Lake, some accessible from the river. To be sure, the upper end is a kayaker-only stream that is not well-suited for canoes and rafts due to difficult access and the tight, twisting channel that demands quick and effective boat control at all times. With adequate water Tonto Creek can be paddled from a few miles below its headwaters to Roosevelt Lake, but not in a single day unless it is so high that you should not be there anyway. It falls about as quickly as it rises, and getting out on foot would be a formidable task. Watch for rattlesnakes and copperheads in the rocks along the creek. Watch for natural and man-made hazards in the creek. Watch for a psychiatrist if you are thinking about running Tonto Creek in high water.


In the Tonto National Forest of Gila County of central Arizona. Phoenix is about 2 hours to the southwest of the headwaters, and Flagstaff is about 3 hours to the northwest. Payson, the near town, is about 20 miles to the west.

Distance from major cities

Phoenix 95 miles; Tucson 212 miles; Flagstaff 100 miles; Salt Lake City 622 miles; Albuquerque 553 miles; Denver 755 miles; Dallas 1,097 miles; Austin 1,116 miles; San Antonio 1,097 miles; Houston 1,302 miles; Oklahoma City 969 miles; Little Rock 1,308 miles; Kansas City 1,294 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality, when it flows, is generally good to very good, though muddy and gritty due to the large volume of sand being carried along. Flow is tradiitonally non-existent except during periods of high runoff in the fall monsoon season or after a significant local rain even near its drainage basin in the Sierra Ancha Mountains. Flows are more reliable in the lower half of this run from Sycamore Creek Road down to Roosevelt Lake.

Best time to go

The best time to run Tonto Creek is right after it peaks following a heavy rainfall in its drainage basin. The creek drops about as quickly as it rises, so there is a short window of opportunity unless in the midst of a prolonged period of rainfall.

Hazards to navigation

For the most part, everything about Tonto Creek though Hell's Gate Canyon is a hazard to boats and boaters. It begins rather tamely on modest Class I to II rapids, then gets progressively more technical and difficult as it approaches the box canyon, but then beomes a little tamer as it approaches Roosevelt Lake. Hazards may include, but not be limited to, barbed wire fences strung across the creek, dead-fall strainers in the channel, live tree strainers overhanging the creek along its banks, boulder garden rapids dropping into keeper holes, ample opportunities for pinning and wrapping, narrow slot drops of 8-10 feet, or more, rattlesnakes and copperheads hiding in the rocks alongside the creek, and very difficult access for emergency personnel, even by helicopter, in the event of an accident.

River Access Points

Upper Tonto Creek Campground (N 34° 20' 12.62" / W 111&3176 05' 47.11") on Zane Grey Highway north of SH 260 on river left at 0.0 miles; Upper Tonto Creek Campground (N 34° 19' 50.77" / W 111° 05' 41.27") on Zane Grey Highway just north of SH 260 on river left at about 0.5 miles; SH 260 (N 34° 19' 41.89" / W 111° 05' 39.18") at Kohl's Ranch just below the bridge on river left at about 0.7 miles; Goetti Crossing Law-water Bridge (N 34° 17' 41.05" / W 111° 04' 02.93") off Bear Flat Road just north of NF 405A on river right at about 4.8 miles; Frank's Crossing Low-water Bridge (N 34° 17' 20.75" / W 111° 04' 02.58") at Bear Flat Road on either side at about 5.2 miles; Pringle Crossing (N 34° 17' 04.55" / W 111° 04' 04.93") between NF 405A and bear Flat Road (campsites in right side) on river right at about 5.5 miles; Sycamore Creek Road (N 34° 06' 10.22" / W 111° 16' 24.96") at the end of the road east of SH 87 in Gisela on river right at about 30.0 miles; Old Route 188 (N 34° 01' 56.82" / W 111° 17' 22.61") off SH 188 west of SH 87 on river left at about 36.2 miles; NF 184 (N 33° 58' 21.22" / W 111° 18' 51.41") east of SH 188 on river right at about 42.25 miles; SH 188 / del Chi Rd. (N 33° 57' 52.26" / W 111° 19' 07.07") on river right at about 42.9 miles; NF 71 (N 33° 52' 13.38" / W 111° 18' 24.80") at Punkin Center on river left at about 51.5 miles; Bar X Crossing (N 33° 49' 25.60" / W 111° 17' 01.59") east of SH 188 on river left at about 55.3 miles; A-Cross Road (N 33° 47' 34.11" / W 111° 15' 22.64") east from SH 188 on either side at about 58.4 miles; Indian Point Campground (N 33° 45' 58.87" / W 111° 14' 49.42") at the top of Roosevelt Lake on river left at about 60.6 miles. There may be other accesses along Tonto Creek, some of which are on private land and some of which may be at USFS campgrounds at the river.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Christopher Creek (USFS) and Ponderosa (USFS) Campgrounds, both primitive forest campsites, are located between Tonto Creek and SH 260 just east of Payson. There are no other campgrounds located along or near Tonto Creek.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no liveries or outfitters located along Tonto Creek. Take everything you need, and arrange to run your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

Tonto Creek is one of those playgrounds for hairboat kayakers only above Sycamore Creek Road, and as such, will never be a major paddling destination, as if it usually had a navigable flow anyway. Below Sycamore Creek Road canoeists could also paddle the river, but it is usually too narrow and shallow for good rafting. This is a very seasonal stream where major rain events are necessary to raise it to boatable levels, but when it flows the creek becomes a challenging and potentially dangerous place where those of at least strong advanced level whitewater kayaking abilities can ply their skills in a very remote area of Tonto National Forest, where few others will ever come. Most boaters will forego the upper 30+ miles, putting in off Sycamore Creek Road in Gisela just east of SH 87 at Rye. Be sure to go with a group of other paddlers, all of whom are experienced hairboat paddlers, most of whom are swiftwater rescue trained, and at least one of whom has substantial First Aid training. It is advisable to contact the Payson Ranger District Station (928-474-7900) for current flow conditions before making the trip to Tonto Creek.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to IV (V)
Length ~ 60.6 miles
Minimum Flow 200 cfs
Optimum Flow 300-1,000 cfs
Maximum Flow 1,750 cfs
First Put-in Upper Tonto Creek Campground
Lat. / Long. N 34° 20' 12.62" / W 111&3176 05' 47.11"
Last Take-out Indian Point Campground on Roosevelt Lake
Lat. / Long. N 33° 45' 58.87" / W 111° 14' 49.42"
Elevation 5,410 - 2,116 feet msl
Gradient 54.4 fpm Av. / 84.5 fpm upper 30 miles
USGS Gauge Web:
Boats Kayaks only
Season Typically, fall monsoon season

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