Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Class Tree in Arizona, Christopher Creek and Hell’s Gate

Walled in would be an understatement, photo by Evan Stafford

It was the middle of February in Arizona, and Avery Potter and I had just finished a mellow lap on the lower gorge of Tonto Creek when a voicemail came through on the phone. It was Evan Stafford and a posse of Colorado and Wyoming paddlers who were on their way to the area and looking to link Christopher Creek into the Hell’s Gate section of Tonto Creek. This would be a three-day mission through a truly wild and desolate portion of Arizona. I couldn’t respond fast enough… “YES!”

Christopher creek, hells gate

from Chris Baer on Vimeo.

Hiking into Christopher Creek

The team, Evan Stafford, Ted Decker, Thomas Herring, Austin Woody, Aaron Koontz, Caleb Owen and myself, converged in the Payson City Safeway parking lot. We all had a multitude of mutual friends, but there were still a number of introductions to be made in-between people tearing off to obtain last minute provisions for the upcoming multi-day. Luckily, Thomas was not feeling up for the Christopher Creek section, and offered to help the team by bringing in the majority of the multi-day supplies (overnight equipment and food) via truck into Bear Flats. Bear Flats is the traditional take-out for Christopher Creek and the put-in location for Hell’s Gate.

Ted Decker launching his way into Christopher Creek

Ted Decker on one of the numerous waterfalls contained in Christopher Creek

It was approaching midday as we hiked off the highway into the Arizona wilderness. A brief half-mile hike in brought us above the very pronounced Christopher Creek slot canyon where we put on. Once on the water the crew moved well; we were scouting most of the large drops and following verbal beta for the in-betweens. The crew quickly formed a jovial rapport, with everyone smiling and joking together. As we completed an almost “todo” descent of Christopher Creek, the subpar flows combined with the tight canyon walls caused plenty of bloody knuckles. After the last of the hard rapids, downed trees, river cane, and willows became abundant, obstructing our downstream view and causing us to ricochet through our last few miles. It was a pin fest down to Bear Flats, by the time we bounced our way into Bear Flats it was well past dusk.

Austin Woody enjoying some air time in Christopher Creek

Aaron Koontz running a marginal crack, I think this led to bloody knuckles and a bunch of us deciding it wasn't such a bad rapid after all

Aaron Koontz running the marginally wet far left line at Big Lebowski

Aaron Koontz airing out Little Lebowski

Ted Decker looking for the auto flake

Since Thomas had opted out of Christopher Creek, there was a truck at Bear Flats and we took full advantage of it. Group consensus was to use the truck to get the other vehicle off the side of the highway, and to acquire plentiful and cheap cold beer and pizza. The getting-to-know-you’s continued into the evening, with everyone laughing and recounting how many times they had been pinned on the way out of Christopher Creek.

Setting up camp at Bear Flats

AZ wilderness and scenery living up to the hype, photo by Evan Stafford

Day Two

We headed into the Hell’s Gate section of Tonto Creek, twenty-six miles that we planned on traveling over two long days. The walls quickly grew to towering heights, and we found ourselves in classic Arizona scenery. The water level was still a bit low for my taste, and we again found ourselves bashing through willows and bouncing our way through marginal rapids, just to be greeted with yet another classic Class 5 rapid. Our pace was strong and we were crushing miles, but I could see the group tiring as we neared 12 hours in our boats. It was late on day two when we finally reached the confluence with Spring Creek and set up our camp. Everyone was a bit beaten up from the low water and a second long day on the river. I fell asleep early and woke up excited to see what day three had in store.

Austin Woody, another classic in Hell's Gate

Austin Woody and Tom Herring eyeing up another marginal line in Hell's Gate

Day Three

Thankfully, with the added water flow of Spring Creek, the rapids became less jarring. As we continued downstream the walls continued to grow and the scenery just kept getting better. I rounded yet another blind corner to see Evan Stafford lying on the back deck of his kayak with his mouth agape. We were making our way through one of the more beautiful locations that I have ever paddled. The whitewater was plentiful, and made for yet another long, strenuous day of scouting and probing countless Class 4 mank piles inter-spaced with plentiful and quintessential Class 5 slot canyon rapids.

Quintessential scenery in the Arizona wilderness

Chris Baer finishing up the last canyon, photo by Evan Stafford

How do we get out of here?

Eight hours into day three, the walls finally subsided. We were then met with our last challenge: shallow, braided flows through a willow jungle. We slowly trudged our way through to the very sketchy “town” of Gisela. Gisela reminded me of a Breaking Bad set: dilapidated trailers and police rolling through and joking with us about how they were looking to arrest a few of the locals.

The crew celebrating exiting the canyon and looking forward to cold beer

This run should be on your radar… but understand this is not a “give me”; appropriate flows are rare, and it’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere. That being said, the Hell’s Gate Wilderness is spectacular and linking Christopher Creek into it is a legitimate multi-day adventure.

Adventure by Chris Baer


  1. woah! canoing, it must be such an adrenaline rush especially in harsh waters like this. I will surely be adding hells gate to my places to visit list!


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