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Monday, January 7, 2019

The Back Roads to Tonto Creek

The Back Roads to Tonto Creek
The pebbly fringe of Tonto Creek north of Roosevelt Lake.
Occupying a few dusty acres between nowhere and Roosevelt Lake, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it community of Jake’s Corner is a popular waystation for outdoor enthusiasts.
A rustic gate along Forest Road 184D
Its outwardly ramshackle appearance and come-as-you-are ambiance are big draws for anglers, hunters, boaters, bikers and ATV riders.  Sometimes, hikers find the place, too. 
Located 22 miles north of the lake along State Route 188 in Gila County, the iconic watering hole is the northern outpost of a string of RV parks, creeky-floor honky-tonks, bait shops and general stores.
The back roads around Jake's Corner are rough but scenic.
The scenic stretch of SR 188 runs through the Tonto Basin—a drainage gorge that separates the wilds of the Mazatzal Wilderness and the Sierra Ancha Mountains.  Dozens of creeks and streams in the area flow off the foothills into the major course of Tonto Creek which feeds Theodore Roosevelt Reservoir.  Although recreation in this hilly, watery back country usually involves a motorized vehicle, there are plenty of places to hoof it along dirt roads.
Paper Flowers bloom year-round above Tonto Creek. 
Tonto Creek
Other than the state-traversing Arizona Trail which makes a grueling climb through the mountainous terrain to the west, there aren’t many non-motorized routes nearby unless you go 20 miles north to Payson.  But, hiking on shared-trails can be just as enjoyable when common courtesy is applied.  Directly across from Jake’s Corner Bar, a maze of forest roads offer miles of boots-on-the-ground exploratory options.  Like the adjacent community, the walkabouts here harbor no pretense. They are simply-signed and retain a raw, non-nonsense air. Many of the routes are championed by the Tonto Recreation Alliance--a volunteer organization that works with government agencies to maintain and promote off-highway vehicle access and educate recreators about public access issues in the Tonto National Forest.  
Cacti and mesquite frame Mazatzal Mountains views.
One circuit to try is a rough-cut route to Tonto Creek.  From a dirt parking area a half-mile from the bar, follow Forest Road 184A a few yards, then head left at Forest Road 184D. The first mile is a wobbly trek through wide-open high desert with great views of the Mazatzal Mountains.  After a series of dips and climbs on choppy two-tracks, pass a gate at the one-mile point and hike up to a knoll where a faint road curves to the left.
Glimpse of Tonto Creek from the difficult downhill hike.
From this highpoint, head right and continue to the Forest Road 184D/951 junction.  Ahead, to the left, is “hell’s half mile”. 
Mazatzal Mountains on the western horizon.
Primitive FR951 descends nearly 500 feet with take-no-prisoners aggression toward the creek.  A hiking stick is essential to work through the loose rock and uneven trenches.  Expect to pick up some mud and grit on this half-mile plunge. There’s no mercy until the messy road meets the sandy edge of Tonto Creek.
Sycamore and willow saplings grow in flood plains.
Rapids in Tonto Creek.
Lined with cottonwoods, sycamores and willows, this beautiful bend in the creek features white-capped rapids, calm reflecting pools and optional miles of streamside exploring. 
Tiny waterfalls in Tonto Creek.
Take time to watch for waterfowl and spy the footprints of deer, raccoons and bobcats pressed into sandbars before heading back the way you came.
The descent to Tonto Creek is steep and rocky.
Short in miles but with an overall elevation change of 917 feet, the effort warrants a post-hike beer and burger reward at Jake’s. Dressed in dusty boots and trail garb, you’ll blend.
A calm bend in Tonto Creek
A snowy bank where FR951 meets Tonto Creek.
LENGTH: 4 miles round trip
RATING: moderate-difficult
ELEVATION: 2607 – 3101 feet
From State Route 87 (Beeline Highway) south of Rye just past milepost 235, go 3.2 miles south on State Route 188 to the community of Jake’s Corner.
Across from Jake’s Corner Bar, turn left onto Forest Road 184 (not signed) and continue 0.5-mile to Forest Road 184A (utility poles) and park.  Roads are paved and sedan-friendly dirt.
INFO: Tonto Recreation Alliance


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