Descent To Paradise

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The popular Fossil Creek trail begins at a trailhead atop Deadman Mesa, a few miles west of the town of Strawberry.

From the trailhead, the trail itself follows a road for a short distance, before becoming a single-track and beginning a definite descent into the Fossil Creek Canyon.

The trail is wide and fairly well maintained and is easily accessible by hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers. However, there are some places where the trail becomes somewhat steep and rocky, requiring extra care, but not enough to cause any problems.

For the first two miles, the trail travels along the walls of the canyon, as it drops down from the mesa above. It is cut into those walls and hugs its contours as it heads down. Across the canyon, Nash Point looms out from the dense vegetation that surrounds the trail on both sides. Its steep, rugged face towers high above the trail reminding one of the sheer approach to a fortification.

Low, thick scrub brush, stunted oak, pinyon pine and junipers hide much of the details of the landscape along the trail. On occasion, a visitor will have open views of the multicolored layers of geologic deposits that make up the mesas and ridges that line the walls of the canyon. You might even see a hawk, or a vulture, gliding overhead as it uses the natural updrafts in the canyon in search of its next meal.

After two miles, the canyon levels off somewhat as it enters the creek's drainage. On the left are the gentle rolling hills and ravines that are the remnants of dispositions of material left behind when the canyon was formed. To the right is the beginning of Calf Pen Canyon -- a smaller canyon that continues on the northeast. Not much of this picturesque extension can be seen from the trail. However, a short drive up the highway to the top of Mogollon Rim and a little bushwhacking to the northwest will provide you with some excellent views of this narrow, scenic canyon.

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Toward the end of the trail, hikers will reach a portion of the creek where the springs are located. There are several springs, some issuing into the creek from side streams and some emptying directly into the creek.

At 3.75 miles, a fence and a gate will be encountered. From here, the trail drops down toward the creek itself. A short distance further and you will reach a fork in the trail. The one to the right is the beginning of the Mail Trail that leads north along the creek. Turn left, and you will soon be at a point where the trail meets Fossil Creek.

From here on, the trail is not well defined as it continues along the left bank of the creek. Fossil Creek is typical of many creeks in Arizona in that, during wet years, the runoff is high and the creek rises out of its normal drainage and fills the surrounding area with large boulders and a number of fallen trees. The trail passes through this area and caution should be used as travel can be difficult at times.

About 100 yards along, the trail will appear to disappear as it opens out onto a wide, flat table of smooth rock. This would be a great place to stop for a snack and a little rest. Continuing on along the left side for another 200 yards, the trail will reach the portion of the creek where the springs are located. There are several of them, some issuing into the creek from side streams and some emptying directly into the creek.

There are numerous waterfalls along this part of the creek and the water rushing over them echoes through the nearby woodland.

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Descent to Fossil Creek
Length of Hike: 8 miles (round trip)
Altitude at trailhead: 5,797 feet
Altitude gain/loss: 1,400 feet
Difficulty: Easy (descending)/moderate (return)
Best time to visit: Spring and Fall
Maps: Tonto National Forest, Strawberry (7.5 minute topo)

At some point, you will want to cross over to the right bank. From there, you can follow the creek all the way down to a dam, which is another 200 yards downstream. Just keep in mind that the hike back to the trailhead is uphill all the way, so save a measure of your energy for the return trip.

To Get There

From the intersection of highways 260 and 87 in Payson, head north toward the towns of Pine and Strawberry. At the north end of Strawberry (19 miles), turn left onto Fossil Springs Road. There is a sign at this turnoff indicating that the oldest schoolhouse in Arizona is about a mile down the road. It has been refurbished and is open to the public during the season. Watch for it on the right side of the road.

Continue on this partially-paved, part-gravel road for 4.7 miles until you reach the turnoff to the trailhead. Watch for a sign on the right for the trailhead just before you reach the turnoff on the right. The parking lot for the trail is about 100 yards off the road. Limited restroom facilities are available at the parking lot.

It is recommended that visitors bring two quarts of water per person on the hike. As there are no sources of water along the trail, this is good advice.

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