The prolonged closure of the Fossil Creek Road (FR 708) below Strawberry barely dented visitation at the overwhelmed refuge for native fish and sun-blasted flatlanders, according to visitation figures compiled by the U.S. Forest Service.
Some 90,000 people visited the creek last summer, most of them driving in from Camp Verde on FR 708 where it connects to Highway 260.
However, the Forest Service hopes to finish work in the next few months on an ambitious plan to save what has become one of Rim Country’s most heavily visited tourist attractions. That plan could include anything from sharply limiting visitation to setting up shuttle buses to facilities in the heart of the canyon.
The release of that plan can’t come fast enough for Rim Country residents and businesses, that have fretted and fumed for the past two years at the continued closure of FR 708 just outside of Strawberry.
The Payson Ranger District two summers ago closed FR 708 down to the spring-fed creek that has become the premier refuge for native fish in the state, citing not only crowds in the canyon bottom but concerns about the safety of the narrow, dirt road that remains plagued by rock falls.
However, visitors have continued to flock to the creek by getting on FR 708 just outside of Camp Verde off Highway 260.
Visitation did decline slightly this summer to about 90,000 from about 93,000 the summer before. However, the decline reflected the Forest Service’s decision to close the gate from the Camp Verde side when visitors have claimed all of the haphazard, informal parking spots along the narrow dirt road. On most weekend days last summer, the gate remained closed to additional cars between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., said Connie Birkland, public information officer for the Red Rock Ranger District in the Coconino National Forest.
In addition, the Forest Service closed down the canyon completely for several weeks when the fire danger peaked early last summer. The Forest Service closed the canyon for another week last summer when a team of Arizona Game and Fish biologists put fish-killing poison in the lower reaches of the creek to kill off an invasion force of small mouth bass.