The Mountains of Arizona •
King Ridge Highpoint • Hellsgate Wilderness
• Tonto National Forest
• Gila County

King Ridge, Arizona
Trailhead and the soob
King Ridge, Arizona
View of the trail/road atop the ridge. It was like this most of the way
King Ridge, Arizona
King Ridge is ahead, partly hidden by foreground hills
King Ridge, Arizona
King Ridge Highpoint Hill
King Ridge, Arizona
The top
King Ridge, Arizona
This is Hill 5851
King Ridge, Arizona
And this is Hill 5866

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Date: January 17, 2021 • Elevation: 5,933 feet • Prominence: 373 feet • Distance: 7.2 miles • Time: 4 hours • Gain: 630 feet net, 1,590 feet gross • Conditions: Freezing at first, warming later with blue skies


King Ridge is a long forested ridge that meanders about four miles to a point overlooking cliffs fronting Tonto Creek in the Hellsgate Wilderness, over a thousand feet below. The highpoint, spot elevation 5,933 feet, was my destination today. I was hoping there might be some views down into Tonto Creek. The hike itself looked simple, following forest roads most of the way, with gentle grades and no particular challenges.

I made a half-hearted attempt to hike King Ridge last year in April, but it was uncomfortably warm that day, and I got in only a mile. I rounded a bend and heard all sorts of bashing and commotion up ahead but invisible to me, some large beasts moving about presumably because of my presence. I could not see them but it sounded like a lot of them and I really did not want to get closer to find out what they were. I assumed it was cattle, possibly javelina. Since it was warm and I live just ten miles away, I bailed and decided to try again when it was cooler.

We've had a delightful few days of very mild temperatures and dry weather for Payson, lows in the high 30s and highs in the low 60s, both about 15 degrees above normal (so I am told). However, in a couple days, a storm would be moving in with rain and snow expected. So I wanted to go for a local hike while the conditions were so inviting, before the weather went south for a week. I looked again at King Ridge, figuring now is as good a time as any.

I left home a little after 7 a.m., and drove east on AZ-260 about ten miles to milepost 263. Just past it is an entry into the forest. I followed the road in about a half-mile and parked in the small lot at the Hellsgate Trailhead. It was 7:30, and very cold outside, 23 degrees going by my car's thermometer. I was in shade and in a small valley, where the cold air collected. I stayed in the car about fifteen more minutes, waiting for the sun to rise some more. I started walking at 7:45 a.m.. I was dressed for warmer weather: shorts and clothing more suited for 50-60 degrees, not sub-freezing temperatures.

I walked south on the Hellsgate Trail a half mile, gaining about 200 feet. It was cold enough to make my hands hurt and my feet feel like big ice blocks. I never stopped, moving to stay warm. I made a hard left onto FR-1625, which is the road that runs atop King Ridge. I could see the top of the ridge in sunlight. Another ten minutes and I had achieved the ridge and the sun. Suddenly, the temperature was 15 degrees warmer and I felt much more comfortable. In a mile I had gained about 500 feet. Next up was a couple miles of tedious road walking on undulating forested ridge.

This segment generally stayed between 5,750 feet and just below 5,900 feet. The track was rocky and sometimes sloppy ... and sometimes smooth sailing. The forest up here was less of the usual ponderosa, and more of the shorter pines (Emory?), plus juniper and manzanita, so that views were not completely blocked by thick forest, but limited somewhat. It was tedious, but I made good time. I bypassed the top of Hill 5822. The track drops steeply here, to a saddle at elevation 5,720 feet, near King Ridge Tank.

As I neared this local lowpoint, I heard rustling and bashing, and saw a small herd of cattle, about a dozen of them. Some ran into the trees, and two stood their ground in the road. I was uncomfortable hiking amid them since they're each about five times my weight and they seemed skittish. So I stood there, banged my sticks and made holler noises to try to get them to move. Nothing. They just stared at me. I waited ten minutes, then chose Plan B, which was to bash briefly through the bush to bypass them. I only had to go a hundred feet, and I was past them. I hiked steeply uphill to top out on Hill 5866, a 140-foot gain from where the cows were.

Once a little east of this Hill, I had a good view of King Ridge highpoint, a mile away and behind one more hill. The track steeply descends Hill 5866, bottoming out at 5,700 feet, then gaining uphill again, now on the west flank of Hill 5851. The road splits here, with FR-1625 heading right (south). I stayed straight, now trending eastbound toward the highpoint. The grade here was steep but short. From the track's apex, I dropped about 110 feet to a broad saddle near an unnamed tank. This area was full of cow poop and random junk, but no cattle for now. The top was just a third of a mile away, a little under 200 feet higher. Up to here, I had been on road the entire way. Now, I left it and entered into the light trees and brush.

I followed a well-defined cow path as far as I could. The trees and brush closed in slightly but never was too thick. At worst, I had to move through a few feet of knee-high tangly brush with minimal scratches. I kept going uphill until I was at the summit. No markers of any kind were here and I wonder how many people have actually hiked to here. There were no views into Tonto Creek. I inspected the area to be sure I did not miss any rock piles. But I did not stop to rest. There were no good views and I wanted to be moving back down while I remembered what I could about the way through the trees.

I had plenty of reference points to use for navigation so it was easy to stay on route (I never use my GPS, I probably should). This was nearly trivial, as I was only in the forest for a few hundred yards and once down from the thick upper section and on the road, I could turn off my brain again.

I walked out the same road, and once back to the cows, had to battle them again. They stood in the road and stared at me. One was screeching, but he was down a side path and far from me. The rest were a little more animated than before. Some would move into the trees but others would scamper about three feet still in the road. Once again, I went into the trees to bypass them. Later, I told my wife what I did and she told me she would just walk through them, implying that I have a thing about cows chasing me. But they are big and they outnumbered me. I did not want to take chances.

The walk out was as scintillating as the walk in. I took my first and only extended break near Hill 5822. The day was lovely, temperatures now into the 60s. It was sunny and dry, and occasionally I could see surrounding hills and the Mogollon Rim. I was back to my car at 11:45, a four-hour hike. The cows were the most exciting part of the hike. It wasn't a bad hike but the views were minimal and there are better options nearby. I am happy to hike it, but likely will not repeat this particular jaunt. My timing was good, since this would be the last nice day before a week of snow and rain.

(c) 2021 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.