Each year, in that glorious time between the brisk cold of winter and the searing heat of summer, my children and I embark on an expedition down the Fossil Creek Trail to the spring source.
One of our favorite trips of the year, we look forward to playing in those magical pools, but also prepare for the trek with plenty of water, hats, lots of snacks and time.
Unfortunately, many of the people badly underestimate the rigors of the eight-mile round trip complete with 3,000 feet of elevation lost and then painfully regained. Every weekend, search and rescue teams haul the unlucky or ill prepared up the long, steep trail. This summer could set rescue records, especially if the current closure of Fossil Creek Road prompts even more flip-flop-wearing, beer-cooler toting flatlanders to go slopping down the trail.
The descent takes about two hours, past eroded spots that slow the best of hikers. The return trip takes twice as long.
Off the trail at the bottom, we pass by the 45 cubic feet per second springs gurgling out of moss-covered spigots. The water sparkles pristinely clear — its color a tropical green from the calcium carbonate infusing the liquid. We often refuel our water bottles at this point because of the purity of the water.
As soon as we can, we find a spot and set up camp for the day.
Nearby pools have drip castle travertine walls. Tiny native fish and frogs dart about and water plants choke the stream near the start of the creek.
Along one wall of gently oozing springs, a mossy bank grows ferns and rainforest plants despite the desert climate.
In the riparian trees surrounding the creek, multiple species of birds hop from branch to branch of rustling trees that offer shade for our weary, sun-bleached bodies — in sharp contrast to the sun-blasted trail.
In a report for the Mogollon Rim Water Resources Management Study, researchers determined that Fossil Creek derives its water from a deep aquifer formed under the Rim that sits at an elevation between 4,400 and 4,600 feet. Fossil Creek flows from the intersection of the Diamond Rim and Fossil Springs faults. The limestone slowly dissolves, adding calcium carbonate to the water.
Although Fossil Creek is a paradise, the trail down is not for the faint of heart and out of shape. The four-mile, each way trail offers a grueling 1,500-foot elevation change, which makes this an excellent place to practice for a Grand Canyon hike — or to suffer dehydration, a sprained ankle or simply exhaustion.
Last year, 90,000 people visited Fossil Creek. Prior to 2009, only 20,000 people visited the area, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
That exponential increase in visitors caused the local rescue groups — the Mounted Posse and Tonto Rim Search and Rescue (TRSAR) — to spend most of their time and resources on saving people from this area — most often from the trail.
Many visitors have little respect for the challenges of the hike. Members of TRSAR look on in astonishment as people with sandals and a small water bottle for three or four hikers naively head down the trail, completely unaware of the dangers from dehydration.
In severe cases, dehydration can cause delirium and unconsciousness.
Thankfully, a springtime trek sidesteps heat exhaustion, yet we can still don our bathing suits and enjoy a swim generally accompanied by a sunburn.
The pools downstream from the springs lend themselves to careful plunges from steep hillsides and rocks along the route. The stream calls for a refreshing dip — or a meditative sit on a rock in the middle of the swirling beauty.
After resting up from our early morning hike, we usually take a stroll downstream to the former site of the dam. The water plunges over a concrete wall from at least 15 feet up. Jumping into the pool below would cause major damage, so I make sure my girls don’t jump off this wall. We do carefully hike down the area to investigate the waters below, however. This added exploration probably adds another two miles of trekking to our day, but the grottos and pools we find are well worth the effort.
One of only two federal wild and scenic rivers in Arizona, the honor requires the Forest Service to protect and enhance the creek. The hoards of visitors make that increasingly difficult. This year, the Forest Service has shut down the road from Strawberry to the creek.
Payson District Ranger Angela Elam said Arizona Public Service (APS) used to spend an average of $180,000 annually to maintain the road. With federal budget cuts, the Forest Service can no longer afford the upkeep — or the cost of policing use of the creek, said Elam.
APS ran a hydro-power plant for close to 100 years on Fossil Creek, which paid for road maintenance, but shut off the supply of water to the creek — destroying habitat.
In 2005, conservation groups won the right to return the river to its natural flow. The Arizona Game and Fish Department restored the creek with original fish and amphibians. Fossil Creek is now a refuge for native species, but visitors are loving it to death. Until the Forest Service can determine a safe sustainable way to allow access to the creek, only the trail will be open from Strawberry.
Because of this news, rescue groups are already bracing for a tough season with unprepared visitors making their way down the trail instead of the road.
However, for those who do not wish to hike down, drivers may take an alternative route on the Fossil Creek Road from Camp Verde.
My girls and I usually plan on taking three to four hours to hike to the top. We start to head up around 3 p.m., often stopping to take a rest and enjoy the beauty of the canyon and talk about our adventures from the day and preparations for next year’s hike to paradise.