Bear Flats Swimming Holes Disappoint

This labor day weekend I ventured up North to Heber-Overgaard, AZ, where some friends and I rented a cabin for a few nights to escape the extreme heat in the valley. After our first day of settling in, enjoying the hot-tub and causing a raucous about the town we decided it was time to get our toes wet in the woods.

Using my Summer bible – Day Trips with a Splash: Swimming Holes of the Southwest, I found four or five swimming holes within 40 miles of our cabin. Due to the fact that we didn’t want to embark on a 3 hour hike to reach the water we choose Bear Flats which the book described as having “perhaps the pinkest granite in the Southwest with enchanting emerald green swimming holes.”

FR 405 the beginning of the descent

The drive down on Forest Road 405 is steep and requires caution around corners. A few of my companions were apprehensive and enlisted wild thoughts of certain death. I’ve driven up and down the Apache Trail and Fossil Springs roads so many times that this descent barely registered on my “holy shit, we’re all going to die” meter.

Looking Down...

Once you finally reach the bottom you’re likely to come upon a few random, unstructured campsites and a handful of cars…Bear Flats Campground is nestled against the Tonto Creek with the Hellsgate Wilderness to your right and a bridge which leads to Private Land on your left. If you choose to camp here no permits are necessary, but space is on a first come first serve basis.

I looked down the river a ways searching for these “enchanting pools”…the water however, was less of an emerald green, and more of a chocolate brown. A murky cesspool with crawdads lurking beneath the surface ready to inflict punishment upon unsuspecting toes.

Tonto Creek at Bear Flats

The book stated that we would come across the first swimming hole 1/4 of a mile in and then the second hole would be approximately another 0.3 miles further. The first semblance of a “hole” we found was filled with people in their floaties dodging fishing lines from the bank.

The hike crosses the river

We continued on hoping by some miracle a spot of water would clear up or the second hole would be so freaking awesome that it wouldn’t matter that we were swimming in the Willy Wonka river of Chocolate. It was this point in time that I was sent on a scouting mission via the river. With my companions waiting on the north bank I took my trusty tortoise split ring inter-tube and disappeared. The river quickly changed from shallow rock-bed to deep pools where frigid spring waters caused me to gasp, and back again. After climbing through a few trees and hopping over mammoth boulders I turned around and hiked back on the bank. I reported back that while it was an interesting adventure, we should stay put.

The pinkest granite? Really?

Maybe I’m being harsh and I should re-evaluate this spot when we aren’t in the middle of monsoon season, but for now, this lady has a sour taste in her mouth and suggests you pass on attempting this one.

Words of wisdom: Bring water shoes, aqua socks… whatever you wanna call them to save yourself some pain and uncertainty.

Directions: From the Phoenix area – take the 87 North to Payson. Turn right onto the 260. Your exit is on the right with signage reading Bear Flats Campground. Shortly there after turn left on Forest Road 405 and continue down approximately 3.5 miles to the Bear Flats Campground.

Maureen Elsberry

Adventure seeker, outdoors junkie, UFO journalist, space geek. Co-host of the webseries Spacing Out! and Uncovering Aliens on The Science Channel and Animal Planet.

One thought on “Bear Flats Swimming Holes Disappoint

  • July 31, 2014 at 4:30 pm
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    Apparently on your way down the mountain from Heber you had your eyes closed to all the construction equipment covering several miles while coming off the Rim. All those big tractors, earth movers to be precise, were doing their jobs, moving dirt. Instead of the ground being covered by hardened earth like normal, its loose, silty, dirt. Then it rains. The rain water hits the soft dirt, absorbs it, and sends the brown coffee colored water downhill to Christopher Creek. Guess what Christopher Creek runs into? You guessed it. Tonto. A couple miles later you get to where you were. Bear Flats. I will say as someone who frequents Bear Flats a couple times a year to fish Hellsgate, I’ve probably seen the water at Best Flats to be “emerald green” only a couple times. The rainy season always stains the water.

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