5PM Saturday evening came fast as we drove to our rendezvous point with the two remaining members of our planned trip. Unexpected obligations had trimmed our initial seven party group to four. We pointed our cars up the Beeline Highway with the destination being Bear Flat Campground just outside of Star Valley. After dropping a car at our exit point (Hellsgate Trailhead) we arrived at camp at dark. We were early in the sack as we knew there were long miles ahead.
The plan was to drop into Tonto Creek at Bear Flat Campground and wind our way down creek. The ambitious goal was to make the 10 creek miles to the Haigler and Tonto confluence on Sunday. This would leave us with a early hike out Hellsgate. But like all good adventures plans went sideways quickly.
The beginning of the hike allows for you to avoid dipping your toes in the water for the first mile. By crisscrossing the creek you can typically avoid the cold water till your body has warmed up. A mile or so into the trip we began the first of many dips into the water. The water temperature was actually warmer then we had anticipated but still would have been more comfortable in a wetsuit. The constant rock hopping, or falling had taken it toll in the first mile, but we were all still in good spirits. Somewhere beyond that point one member of the party took a fall and wedged a foot between two underwater rocks. When falling the ankle became lodged and the individual sprained it. After a quick group chat and evaluation we determined that the sprain was minor and would not pose much hinderance on the trip schedule.
Lunch came quickly as we were distracted by the constant focus on footing and the beauty that surrounded the Tonto Creek. Pressing on we began hitting more narrows and swimming holes resulting in a slightly faster pace. The ankle sprain was slowing us down slightly, but not enough to be concerned about. We came across the first of three jumps. This was a mild 10 foot into a deep pool. When tossing gear to the individuals below we managed to lose a pair of trekking poles. Although they had floated the whole day, they decided that this location was an excellent resting place. We managed to lose a total of three poles over the course of the two days due to accidental sinkage. As the day pressed on we realized that our original plan to reach the confluence was probably not going to happen before dark. After re-evaluating the situation we decided that we would stop for the evening and camp at a decent site we found. There was very little promise for a better location and only the potential to really get stuck in a less ideal location. We ate, dried wet gear (some bags failed at keeping things dry) and tended to our many bruises, sprains, and exhausted body parts.
After a solid nights sleep we continued working our way down stream. The night had brought much needed rest, but also managed to swell the sprained ankle to a size that was obviously worse then we had speculated. At a slower pace we worked our way through the creek, hopping rocks till we had no choice but to enter the water. This time the water was even less inviting due to the lower temperature. For the next two hours I spent time shivering in between each pool we had to swim. Eventually the sun rose high enough that we were able to warm ourselves in sun pockets. The lower portion of the creek begins to narrow substantially and provides some of the most amazing slot canyons to swim through. The pools grew longer till we eventually made it to a multi-tier waterfall. This obstacle could be down climbed but was more fun to jump the 15-20 feet. After making our way past this obstacle we came to our final swim of the day. The swim is the longest of the entire trip and leads you through a narrow slot canyon before opening up into Hellsgate. We reached this point midday, and enjoyed a backcountry picnic along the banks of the Tonto Creek.
Although none of us were looking forward to it the climb up and out of the canyon was required to reach civilization. The trail out of Hellsgate is steep and exposed and not an ideal hike in the midday sun. Climbing out on the trail the heat began to take it's toll on members of the group. The exhaustion and injury were combined to escalate the situation further.
A few hours and four miles later we decided to re-evaluate our current plan. Water was running low, two members were showing signs of heat stress, and nightfall was approaching fast. Lucky for us the day was one of the longest of the year, and we squeezed every bit of it out. At the four mile point we decided to have myself hike ahead to the car to fetch the cached water and return to the party. The remaining three members continued hiking until they were down to 1/2 liter of water per person. This was the point at which they were to find a shady location and wait for me to return.
Two miles after leaving the party I was able to find a stale puddle and retrieved water. After dumping most my gear I began back up hill to meet them. The other members had made it slightly past a mile when I reached them. Their spirits were lifted slightly by the water availability and the amount of downhill ahead. The group pushed on all together to the water source and was now a short 2.2 miles to the salvation known as the car.
As the sun was setting we were racing to arrive to the trailhead without needing the headlamps. Unfortunately the day was just not quite long enough and we made the final 3/4 mile out by artificial light. Just a few moments before 9PM we found ourselves dropping packs at the bumper of the Subaru and enjoying the end. Although the trip did not go exactly as planned on paper, we made the best of our hand and tried to enjoy the beauty that most will never see in person. If you are interested in doing this route I highly recommend you go with someone who has run the route or knows the area well.
Trail Information can be found here.