Fossil Creek: ‘Outstandingly Remarkable’

Unique features dictate management

The Forest Service must balance the demands of 100,000 visitors against the fate of a 17-mile-long stream that has become the best refuge for native fish in the state.


The Forest Service must balance the demands of 100,000 visitors against the fate of a 17-mile-long stream that has become the best refuge for native fish in the state.


Who matters most?

Sun-blasted Valley residents seeking a cool escape? Odd-looking native fish making their last stand? Rim Country businesses trying to survive? Fish-eating hawks dwindling toward extinction? Kayakers seeking a thrill? Eighty-nine dying species?

The high-stakes Forest Service effort to come up with a management plan for Fossil Creek turns on many of those questions — but Congress set the ground rules for a decision when it designated the travertine-tinted creek as one of the few Wild and Scenic River stretches in the Southwest.

The priorities set by that designation will shape the management plan for the 17-mile-long run of the creek from its origins in a series of 60 springs in a remote canyon to its juncture with the Verde River.

The management plan must do nothing to degrade the “outstandingly remarkable values of the creek,” as established by a study done before Congress approved the 2009 designation.

The study found the creek qualified as “outstandingly remarkable” when it came to recreation, geology and water, fish and aquatic resources, wildlife, history and traditional uses. That means the management plan has to protect those qualities above all others. Here’s what the report found in each area.


Water gushes from a series of springs at the head of Fossil Creek at a consistent 70 degrees, then runs down through a narrow canyon to create a spectacular series of waterfalls, spillovers and swimming holes. Unknown for a century as the state developed because Arizona Public Service diverted all the water to run a hydro-electric power plant, the decommissioning of the plant and the return of the water to the creek bed in 2005 instantly created one of the most remarkable recreational spots in a thirsty, desert state. Public use exploded, peaking last year at nearly 100,000 visitors. Fire-related closures this year reduced visitation.

A 2009 survey found that almost none of the visitors came from out of state, since Fossil Creek remains largely unknown nationally. Only 16 percent of the visitors came from Rim Country on the busy summer weekends represented in the survey. About 58 percent came from the Valley, with the cool deep pools less than two hours from the fifth-largest city in the country and its 115-degree summers.

Geology and water

Only three other travertine-dominated streams exist in North America — all protected in national parks. That includes Havasupi and a stretch of the Little Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellow­stone. Sites elsewhere include Agua Azul in Mexico and Plitvice in Croatia, also protected as national parks. The travertine is really dissolved limestone. The water gushing from the spring fell as rain and snow atop the Rim thousands of years ago. It emerged saturated with calcium carbonate from the limestone under 150 times the atmospheric pressure. As a result, the water deposits about 10 tons of calcium carbonate along the stream bed every day, building intricate, drip-castle check dams that create safe havens for aquatic creatures and plants. The springs at the headwaters of the creek produce a consistent flow of 40 to 52 cubic feet per second, twice the flow of any other spring in Rim Country.

Fish and Aquatic Resources

The effort to rid the 17-mile stretch of creek of non-native fish and efforts to reintroduce endangered natives has made Fossil Creek the most diverse and important native fish refuge in the state. The creek now harbors seven native fish on the threatened or endangered list, with more reintroductions possible. Native fish include the headwater chub, roundtail chub, speckled dace, longfin dace, Sonoran sucker, desert sucker, spikedace, loach minnow, Gila topminnow, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker. With almost every native fish in danger as a result of devastating changes in almost every stream and river in the state, Fossil Creek offers an invaluable refuge for these ancient lineages.


Riparian areas take up 1 percent of the land in Arizona, but play an essential role in the life cycle of more than 90 percent of the state’s wildlife species. Surveys have documented 200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians — but biologists say the creek can likely support 300 additional species. An astonishing 83 species found along the creek are on the federal threatened and endangered lists. That includes the Mexican spotted owl, southwestern willow flycatcher, Yuma lapper rail, Lowland leopard frog, Chiricahua leopard frog, black hawks, zone-tailed hawks, American dipper, Bell’s vireo, Lucy’s warbler, belted kingfisher, peregrine falcon and Cost’s hummingbird. The recovering cottonwoods, willows, alders, walnuts, ash, sycamores and other plants also provide possible refuge for a host of struggling bat species, like the red, Allen’s lappet-browed, spotted, Western mastiff and pale Townsend’s big-eared bats. River otters have moved into the creek from the Verde River. The stream may also provide a place to reintroduce endangered Mexican and narrow-headed garter snakes, which both hunt prey in the water.

History and Traditional Uses

A limited number of archaeological sites show the canyon 600 years ago formed a boundary between the Hohokam and the Southern Sinagua cultures. Human use of the canyon probably goes back at least 10,000 years. The Apache likely entered the area by A.D. 1500 and occupied the canyon seasonally until U.S. military campaigns against them in the 1860s and 1870s forced most of them to settle first in the Verde Valley and then on the San Carlos Reservation. The ancestors of the Tonto Apache were included in this war and exile. However, some Apache families eluded the Army and continued to live secretly along Fossil Creek. Even those families had drifted away by the time the first settler homesteaded the canyon in 1906. Soon after that began the construction of the remarkable hydroelectric plant that by 1920 supplied 70 percent of the electricity for Phoenix. The hydroelectric plant provided a source of jobs that drew many Apache families back to the canyon. However, by the 1950s the power plant automated most of the tasks and the Apache again drifted away.


Pat Randall 2 years, 6 months ago

The most unique and historical part of Fossil creek is gone. The wooden flumes that carried water to the electric plant. Built over a hundred years ago. 1903.


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