Everything about Fossil Creek, one of only two wild and scenic rivers in the state, is clean, clear and natural. But what lies outside its banks is anything but.
Trash, gridlock and human waste threaten the health of the river. The area has become such a popular place one U.S. Forest Service official said it is being “loved to death.”
But visitors are also at risk.
Vehicles used to stream down the narrow, dirt road into the canyon, blocking all access in or out — both for users and emergency vehicles.
“It was a mess,” said Brady Smith, forest public affairs officer with Coconino National Forest.
After 2011, the Forest Service closed the road that leads down into the canyon from Strawberry, but that only pushed people to the Fossil Creek Trail.
Now the vehicles that once went
into the canyon sit at the trailhead, once again blocking access for emergency vehicles.
Last weekend, the U.S. Forest Service began limiting the number of vehicles that can park at the trailhead on weekends and holidays during the summer months.
The Forest Service says despite the road closure, visitation to the area remains high.
On Memorial Day weekend last year, the Forest Service recorded 570 visitors to the area. This year, that number increased to 830 visitors and more than 100 vehicles parked at the trailhead designed for 30.
More than 400 people then hiked down the trail, many unprepared for the arduous hike back up in the high afternoon temperatures.
On a typical summer weekend, the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department makes at least one rescue due to heat-related injuries.
But reaching an injured hiker is half the battle. Due to the high volume of cars, getting a fire or ambulance truck to the trailhead can be difficult.
Forest Service personnel stationed at a contact station on Forest Road 708 near Strawberry now monitor the parking situation. Once all 30 parking spaces are taken, the lot is closed.
“Visitors can expect that the trailhead parking lot will be full early in the day and they should have back-up weekend plans that involve other, less crowded areas,” according to a Forest Service press release.
Visitors can check the status of trailhead access by calling (928) 226-4611.
Karen Muench with Up the Creek Bed and Breakfast off Fossil Creek Road, said she saw a number of vehicles turn around last weekend after the lot filled up.
The Forest Service says the number of users not only exceeds the capacity of the trailhead, but strains the environment.
Officials are concerned about the large amount of trash and human waste left along the road and trail.
Smith said some visitors don’t pack out what they pack in.
Some even defecate in buckets and leave them behind.
Others leave a bag of trash along the road, thinking the Forest Service has trash pickup. Other users will see this and leave their trash, creating a huge pile.
“The Fossil Creek area is pretty much loved to death,” he said.
Rick Slightam, with Gentle Hands Equine Center, a ranch along Fossil Creek Road that rents horses, said he saw more visitors on a recent ride into the canyon than ever before.
At one point, he and a friend had to stop their horses for 15 minutes to let a crowd of 50 some hikers pass.
“There were way too many people,” he said. “They are using the heck out of the trail.”
Slightam said as the number of visitors increases, so has the amount of trash.
He wonders why the Forest Service can’t figure out a better way to manage the flow.
Currently, the Coconino and Tonto National Forests are working on a Comprehensive River Management Plan for Fossil Creek.
Beth Dykstra, a team leader on the project with the Forest Service, said the plan has hit a few snags and the timeline has been extended several times.
They are working through an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. They expect to present a preliminary decision for public comment sometime this fall.
Dykstra said part of the hold up is evaluating all of the special characteristics of the river and designing a plan that protects those things, but still allows for public access.
“It is a very complicated project,” she said.
She said the Forest Service has no plan to close access to the creek, but is looking at limiting the number of people allowed in the area at one time.
Managers are considering public input as they weigh the different options, which may include fees, permits or campgrounds.