Highway to Hell: A trip to the Hell’s Gate Wilderness

Waking up at three in the morning, piling in a car for hours on end, just to put on a heavy backpack and walk down a steep, rocky trail for miles and miles just so you can have the opportunity to walk back up those same miles is a strange way to spend a Sunday. Then again, hikers are strange people.

About 3AM on Sunday, Padre and I loaded up in the Subaru to head off to the Hell’s Gate Wilderness, just outside Payson, AZ. Hell’s Gate is a pretty ominous name, and the sign at the trailhead is no more reassuring:


And that sign is not kidding. The Hell’s Gate Trail is the only place that I’ve been to where I was legitimately worried that my hiking partner was going to keel over and die (and this has happened not just once, but twice, with two different people!). So why did we choose Hell’s Gate then? Well mostly because its really hard, and we wanted a challenge. And I would have the opportunity to makes jokes about being on the Highway to Hell over and over again without being annoying at all. Like I said, hikers are strange people.

Leaving the trailhead, we immediately started up a jeep road. In this area the Ponderosa Pine forest is dense, limiting the views. However, after a mile or so you turn onto a smaller jeep trail which takes you towards the Hell’s Gate Wilderness.


After a short time on this smaller trail we came to a coral, which is where the adventure of this trip truly begins. Immediately from the corral you climb a steep, albeit short, hill which my friends and I have lovingly named Mt. Sonofabitch. You will understand why  on the outward trek.  Our hard work was immediately rewarded though, as the views from the ridge line were spectacular.



At this point in the hike most people I know start thinking, You know, this isn’t so bad. That trailhead sign was full of shit. But just then you come across this:


And from here on you will drop at about 1,000 ft a mile for the remainder of the hike. Don’t believe me– this is past the half way point down:


And again, that is only half way down! At this point you are pretty much obligated to hum ring of fire at least once though.


I went down






Into a buring ring of fire…


Hell’s Gate, where Tonto and Haigler Creek converge, is hands down one of the most amazing places in Arizona. As with the Heart of Rocks, I don’t usually post pictures of these kinds of places, because I think you need to see it yourself. Padre wanted a picture of the two of us together though, so I pulled out my Gorilla Pod and obliged. Long time readers will know that in every single hiking picture I am in, I am always the only one smiling. This time it will be different I thought I will not be the only one who looks like an idiot while everyone else looks tough. I will not smile. Then I took the picture, and somehow just couldn’t resist smiling a little bit, and somehow looking worse than if I had just really smiled. I suppose there is some metaphor here about how we all need to be ourselves, but I can’t get passed how dumb I look to see it.


Unfortunately being at the bottom means that you now have to climb out. Have I mentioned it’s steep?


And that the steepness doesn’t stop until you get back to the wilderness are sign?


One might even call it HELL-ISH


By that point, you’ll look something like this:


But at least we were lucky and had some amazing cloud formations to distract us:


A few miles of rolling hills later we reached Mt. Sonofabitch, the last real obstacle of the day. Now, Mt. Sonofabitch is not really that tall of a pass to go over, but by this point in the day you already have several thousand feet of accumulated elevation gain/loss under your belt. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how bad it really is, but know this: I have never taken a picture from the peak of Mt. Sonofabitch because I am always so damn tired by the time I get there that reaching for my camera seems like a bridge too far.

From the peak its a couple mile coast back to the car. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend these miles wondering why in the world you are doing this. Then you’ll spend the entire drive home planning a trip back to do it again.

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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

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10 thoughts on “Highway to Hell: A trip to the Hell’s Gate Wilderness

  1. Sounds like a trail where I would be cursing and asking myself over and over again why am I really doing this and loving every moment.


    1. That’s it exactly! Every time we go we swear we will never go back, but low and behold two times I year I end up on the same hill cursing myself again. It’s addictive!


    1. I know, right?! About 30 miles away there is another area called Hell’s Hole, and together these two might be the prettiest spots in the region. I guess they were pretty intimidating to the early settlers that named them, but now of days they are absolutely wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

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