Despite a road closure limiting access, the lure of clear flowing water, waterfalls and shaded grottos continues to make Fossil Creek one of Rim Country’s most popular destinations. But it has become a nightmare of sorts for search and rescue volunteers.
With the Forest Service closing all vehicle access to the creek from Strawberry, many people instead hike the four-mile Fossil Creek Trail to reach the water playground 1,300 feet below.
While the hike down is easy, many visitors run into trouble the minute they leave the travertine shores, said Bill Pitterle, commander of the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue (TRSAR).
People lose the trail, run out of water or suffer medical problems nearly every weekend, prompting a constant series of rescues.
On one such recent weekend, search and rescue personnel handed out roughly 100 bottles of water to hikers while searching for a group of lost teenagers. Every time the search and rescue volunteers head down the trail, they will stumble across lost and dehydrated hikers in the midst of a mission, he said.
That was the case Friday when the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue and the Gila County Mounted Posse worked three back-to-back calls.
The first call for help came from two men who had deliberately gone off trail looking for a shortcut, Pitterle said.
The men told Pitterle they had searched for the trail, but couldn’t find their way back through the thick brush. With the panic rising in their voices and the afternoon heating up, Pitterle knew they needed help.
He tried to talk them through the process of locating their coordinates on their phone, but was unsuccessful. The men’s phone eventually died, leaving rescuers with no idea where they were.
Worried for his own team’s safety in the heat, Pitterle asked for the assistance of the Department of Public Safety helicopter.
Because the Fossil Creek Trail sits on a west-facing slope with little shade, hiking the trail in midday is dangerous for even the most experienced.
Luckily, a group of hikers spotted the men and helped them back to the trail. The men hiked out.
Tips for Fossil Creek Trail
• Bring plenty of water
• Since the trail sits on a southwest
facing hill and there is limited shade,
avoid hiking out in mid day
• Carry flashlights if you plan to hike
out after sunset
• Carry a cell phone
• Do not bring a dog
• Stash water halfway down the trail so
you have water to drink on the way out
• Wear proper footwear, not sandals
However, emergency personnel soon had a call from a dehydrated and overheated couple. Sgt. Terry Hudgens sent a team down to assist them.
While on that call, they received yet another call about another person with a medical issue near the bottom, Pitterle said. The Mounted Posse ended up bringing three people out by horseback.
Pitterle said that is just a typical weekend. Yet, surprisingly, rescues are down for TRSAR compared to just a few years ago.
In 2010, TRSAR had 52 missions. Last year, that number dropped to 22. This year, there have been roughly 15 call outs. Pitterle believes the drop in missions last year was partly attributable to the Forest Service closing the forest.
With no indication the Forest Service will close the forest yet this year, TRSAR is on track to hit 30 to 40 missions. Already. searchers have conducted several difficult rescues in Salome Canyon and Fossil Creek.
On June 2, emergency crews responded to Fossil Creek to help locate a group of lost teenagers. An 18-year-old in the group reported he and two females, 15 and 16 years old, had lost the main trail out.
“It was one of the first really hot days of summer,” Pitterle said.
As crews made their way down the trail, several hikers said they had spotted the group earlier. As volunteers searched the trail, they handed out roughly 100 bottles of water to ill-equipped hikers.
They also ran across a group of confused hikers that didn’t yet know they were lost, he said. That group had missed the main trail back up and instead were on the Mail Trail, which leads further into the canyon.
As Pine-Strawberry Fire crews called out for the teens, they stumbled across the group of four, wayward hikers. One woman in the group had blisters so bad the Mounted Posse had to give her a ride out, he said.
However, they could find no sign of the missing teens.
By “sheer luck,” the DPS helicopter spotted the teens in a side canyon, roughly 1.5 miles off the trail, he said.
The severely dehydrated group required IVs, but was otherwise OK.
Pitterle said it is easy to get turned around in the canyon, especially near the bottom where the trail intersects with other trails.
To better track the number of missions, Pitterle recently set up a Twitter account for TRSAR (@TontoRimSAR). He hopes people will take a look at it and think twice before heading down the trail wearing flip-flops and with only one bottle of water.