The Forest Service will limit weekend cars allowed down to Fossil Creek for the next two months in response to a flood of visitors and gridlock on the narrow, dirt road.
About 4,000 people head down the hairpin Fossil Creek Road every weekend, a big jump from last year, said Connie Birkland, a public information officer for the Coconino National Forest.
The Forest Service will turn cars around once the limited number of about 200 parking spots fill up along the creek. That will prevent people from parking along the side of the road and blocking access for emergency vehicles into a canyon that produces frequent rescues.
Birkland said people should expect to find the road closed to additional cars between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends. She said the closures probably won’t affect access during the weekdays, but that could change if use rises any more.
“Lately, use between the hours of 10 and 5 on the weekends exceeds our capacity. If we don’t have spaces, they begin to park along the road. You can’t get through. It creates a gridlock and that creates health and safety issues,” Birkland said.
The Forest Service has obtained grants to cover the cost of posting seasonal workers in the canyon bottom who can radio up to people posted on the roads that lead into the canyon from Strawberry and from Camp Verde. Once the parking spaces fill up, the monitors will not let anyone else down unless a car comes out.
“As cars come out, we can let more cars in,” said Birkland.
Meanwhile, the complete ban on camping and campfires along the river corridor remains in effect. The Forest Service maintains 14 portable toilets in parking areas along the creek to prevent pollution of the pristine waters.
However, the Forest Service doesn’t maintain any sort of trash pick-up service.
Birkland said projections suggest the creek will attract 60,000 visitors this summer — making it more popular than the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park — perhaps the best-known tourist attraction in Rim Country.
She said the vehicle count has risen by 5,000 this year. That increase came in spite of the Tonto National Forest’s decision to shut down all access from Strawberry into the creek as a result of extreme fire dangers.
Fortunately, the number of citations issued for people who litter, start fires or pollute the creek have declined slightly, despite the rise in visitation.
She added that Coconino and Tonto forests will handle the road closures jointly, mostly with money from the General Forest Service Recreation Fund, which allowed the Coconino Forest to double the number of seasonal rangers working in the canyon to four.
The Forest Service continues to work on a long-term master plan for Fossil Creek, due to its designation as one of two “wild and scenic” rivers in Arizona. It has also become one of the premier refuges for native fish, many of whom now qualify as threatened or endangered species.
The Forest Service has held several public hearings on its Fossil Creek plan. The leading proposal at present calls for charging people to visit the creek — at least during the busy summer season.
One proposed plan also would ban cars during the summer and set up a shuttle bus service to take people down to the bottom.
Those hearings also focused on whether the Forest Service should make some use of a large, cleared area that used to be the site of a power generation plant. Arizona Public Service removed the power plant, which for a century diverted the water from Fossil Creek down a flume and through a turbine. APS also removed a bridge that would have actually made it possible for visitors to cross the creek and use the large, flat, cleared area for parking.
As a result, people have to park in a handful of flat areas alongside the road, which can accommodate perhaps 200 cars at one time.
Birkland said she’s not sure when the Forest Service consultants will propose a draft master plan that will include a decision on whether to set up a shuttle service, ban cars and develop additional facilities — like campgrounds.
However, she noted that the Forest Service expects to have the plan in place by 2012.