Tonto Creek - 01. The Box (SH 260 to Roosevelt Lake)

Tonto Creek, Arizona, US


01. The Box (SH 260 to Roosevelt Lake) (canyon section)

Usual Difficulty IV(V) (for normal flows)
Length 50 Miles

Twice as Gneiss Rye Creek to Gun Crk

Twice as Gneiss Rye Creek to Gun Crk
Photo by Brady Black taken 02/11/13

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-09499000 500 - 1800 cfs IV(V) 02h00m 19.4 cfs (too low)

River Description

TO GET THERE: Go to Jakes Corner (I88, the turnoff for Lake Rosevelt, and Apache Lake) and there is a dirt road that goes off the left side of the road. It has a gate, but you can open it, just close it behind you, because of cows. This road goes to Rye Creek. If tonto creek is running, then Rye will be. Put in at the parking pad there, where the road ends. This creek is easy but there are three barbwire fences that cross the creek. You will either have to portage, or smash under them. Wye creek then empties out into The Box section of Tonto Creek (the stuff you want to run). The put-in and take-out long/lat are estimates.

THE RUN: This is a fun run when it is running. Usually doesn't run unless it is in the monsoon season (fall) or in a heavy run-off. The creek is a beginners creek and is a good stepping stone to bump up your skills. At high water this is a class 5 and pretty demanding. In 1993 Wesley Hall died here, after a long swim, and the creek was flooding (extremely high). There are a bunch of boulder gardens, and a few strainers hanging over the shoreline that you have to look out for. About halfway through this run some powerlines that cross overhead, and it is a good idea to eddy-out river left, to scout the biggest drop on the creek. The drop is about an 8-ft. tounge that is very constricted, with a mean hole at the bottom. The drop kind of goes in this narrow canal and is very aerated, lots of fun, and you go deep! After that there are your usual boulder drops and a few sticky pourovers, that always surprises the unaware boater. Overall definitely worth doing, especially if you are an AZ ELF BOATER. (Extremely Low Flow).


This is also added....note: That Tonto is one of AZ best day runs, added safety is a must!

-Tonto Creek forms as a runoff stream in the high elevations of the Sierra Ancha Mountains of Tonto National Forest near SH 260, then flows south by southwest 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, but during the fall monsoons, or after a significant rainfall in teh surrounding mountains, this dusty, rocky creek can quickly transform into a raging torrrent of Class IV to V whitewater rapids and drops 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 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.

A couple of USFS campgrounds are located between Tonto Creek and SH 260 just east of Payson, and just below the first access point where SH 260 crosses the creek about 2 hours northeast of Phoenix. To be sure, thi 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 about 50 miles from 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.

For the most part, everything about Tonto Creek 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 a few miles above 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 in the event of an accident.

Tonto Creek is one of those playgrounds for hairboat kayakers only, and as such, will never be a major paddling destination, as if it usually had a navigable flow anyway. 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 SH 188 and SH 87 northeast of Phoenix, along Rye Creek, which then feeds into Tonto Creek just above the box canyon where the most technical part of the creek will be found. 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.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2017-07-15 03:36:43


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
48.0canyon put inAccess

Rapid Descriptions

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
February 20 2008 (3830 days ago)
x (1)
We ran the box at about 850-900 on 2/17/2008 from Rye Creek. We didn't encounter any barbed wire.
We had some good surfing (front only) about 100 yards after the confluence of Rye and Tonto. The
canyon was very beautiful. 2 things about the Put-in: 1. There was not a gate to go through 2. It
is about 2-3 miles from Jake's Corner. Take a right 50 yards before the one lane bridge that goes
over rye creek. Take that road about 1/8 of a mile to a dirt pullout on your left (before private
land-looking gate.) and hike down to Rye Creek. Enjoy!
February 3 2008 (3847 days ago)
Chip NortonDetails
We ran The Box at 500 cfs yesterday and found it to be a friendly intermediate run with no Cl. IV.
Due to the narrow nature of the gorge in the middle section, it is apparent that higher flows would
clearly increase the degree of difficulty and hazard. It is a beautiful, although short, run and
can be done in a few hours if one puts in at Rye Creek.

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