People are beginning to tell us that we
must be a couple of sick bastards for hiking into places like
Hell's Hole and
Hell's Gate. "What, are you nuts? Why on earth would you want to hike in a
place called Hell-something?"
Because we have a death wish and we really want to descend into the gates of
hell. That's why!
Well, not really, but on this particular trip, it seemed as though we were
really descending into the fiery pits of hell, and the devil wasn't doing a
good job of maintaining the trail leading there.
After doing research for nearly a week in order to find a day hike for Sunday,
April 11, John and I decided to do the
Hell's Gates Trail #37, which leads
into the Hell's Gate Wilderness Area. This would be a new wilderness area for
us, having never visited it before, and we were hoping to have the chance to
play naked there.
So Sunday morning, we left the apartment at 6:00 a.m. and headed towards
Payson. Since the trailhead was easily accessible by sedan, we took the
Oldsmobile because it gets better gas mileage than the van. With gas prices
being so outrageously high these days, John and I have been trying to use the
car more often in order to save money.
To get to the trailhead, we took SR 87 to Payson, then turned left (east) on
SR 260, towards Little Green Valley. Just past the ranch that is owned by one
of the Earnharts, we turned right onto FR 405A, a light-duty road, and
followed that for a half a mile, until we reached the junction with FR 839.
Just past the junction, along FR 839, is the Hellsgate Ridge Trailhead parking
area, which is well-marked with trailhead signs. FR 839 continues beyond the
fence, through a forest service gate, but it is definitely a four-wheel drive
road that is impassible in anything but a Jeep or a Hummer. We knew that
someone had braved the road recently because there were tire tracks in the
snow -- and the snow on the ground had only been there a week, thanks to the
freak snowstorm we had on Easter Sunday.
There were two other cars at the trailhead when we arrived -- both of them
trucks -- so we knew that we would probably be encountering other people on
the trail. Just as long as they didn't interfere with our "wilderness
experience" (naked-time), I didn't care.
The Hell's Gate Trail follows FR 839 (and some trail) for four miles, at which
point the trail enters into the wilderness area. The road follows along a
creek, which was flowing rapidly with run-off from the melting snow. For the
first two miles, we had to cross this creek several times -- once at the
trailhead, just after we passed through the gate.
Almost immediately, the trail began to climb steeply -- THAT got the blood
circulating. Then, it descended and flattened out, only to climb again a
quarter of a mile up the road.
Part of the road followed along a fence line. About a half-mile up the road,
we passed by an open gate, and John was convinced that we had to go inside to
continue on the trail. Fortunately, he was also carrying a compass and a map
because he soon figured out that we were going the wrong way, so we returned
to the road.
After two miles, we came to a corral, at which point the trail continued to
the right...and straight uphill, through the snow. It made me think of
something that we would have to tell our kids someday: "When we were your age,
we had to hike thirty miles, through the snow, uphill both ways, against the
And that about summed up the first six miles of the trail! At times, we were
hiking through snow, other times through high desert (depending on which side
of the hill we were on), going steeply uphill and down. As we crossed over
ridgelines, the trail would flatten out, but it would be very windy. That,
however, was the easy part of the trail.
The last half-mile was the hard part, and with good reason. We had been warned
that the last half-mile of the trail was dangerous and that it was not
suitable for horses. However, we now believe that there should be an addendum
to the trailhead sign: "...not suitable for horses and other dumb animals,
like human beings." That is because the last half-mile is a very steep
downhill descent into Hell's Gate, a canyon through which Tonto and Haigler
Creeks flow and converge. And, to add to the danger of this trail, the route
is rough and rocky. Basically, in order to hike down to the bottom, it is
necessary to do so one step at a time, ensuring that, with every step, your
foot is firmly anchored before you take your next step. The best way to do
that is to hike down sideways, using steps that John and I learned in dance
class: side step, step together, side step, step together. This is very hard
on the knees and the calf muscles, but it is the safest way to make it down
such a steep incline.
However, it is not fool-proof, because this fool (me) still managed to slip on
the loose rock and fall. Of course, I landed on my behind, and the only things
to break my fall were the pointy, jagged rocks that lined the trail. Having
bruised my tailbone, I was unable to move for several minutes while I fought
the urge to pass out/throw up. John hovered above me, feeling helpless to do
anything but hold my hand and keep me alert. He was fully prepared to hike out
of there to get help for me, but in my opinion, I don't think he was prepared
to leave me there alone -- I think that thought scared him the most.
After a few minutes, I was able to stand up. Though my rear-end hurt like
hell, I made it to the end of the trail, holding onto John's shoulder for
extra support. I then sat down on a big boulder next to Tonto Creek so that I
could rest and eat lunch.
Despite the dangerous conditions to get there, Hell's Gate is an amazing
place. When we were there, the two creeks were flowing rapidly, making it
almost impossible for anyone to cross. We passed a couple of backpackers there
who said that they were unable to ford the creek because the currents were too
Due to the fact that my butt was aching, we didn't get the chance to "play
naked" in the Hell's Gate Wilderness, and John decided to make light of that
situation by saying that he now had "blue balls". But think about it: you've
just hurt your tailbone, and it hurts to walk. Sex is going to hurt, too. I
told John that, for the first time in my entire life, I was NOT in the mood. In
fact, the only thing on my mind was getting out of Hell's Gate in one piece,
without being carried out. (John promised me that, if I made it out of Hell's
Gate on my own, without being carried out, he would buy me ice cream in Payson
on the way home.)
Getting out of Hell's Gate was another story. For one, it was easier to climb
that steep section than it was to descend it. John gave me a head start, knowing
that I was going to have trouble getting out of there. He stayed behind to
refill the camelbacks. By the time he reached the top, I was already there,
waiting for him (and, of course, for my water), and he was surprised that I
made it out of there so quickly.
The next two miles on the return trip is one steady climb uphill, and it
proved to be exhausting, especially since we were both injured -- John's knee
was beginning to bother him because of the steep downhill descent. We stopped
often to rest and snack on raisins, peanuts, and Power Bars for energy. We
also had a snowball fight.
Now, despite our injuries, the long, trudging climbs uphill, and the slow,
careful descents, we made excellent time: we hiked thirteen miles in about
seven hours. We reached the car at four o'clock in the afternoon, and on the
way home, we stopped at the Dairy Queen for Blizzards. We made it home before
The Simpsons started, at which time we ordered a large pizza and washed it
down with a good wine -- medicine for our injuries.