With too many inexperienced and ill-equipped hikers making the hike into Fossil Creek during the hot summer months, the Forest Service announced last week it is closing the trail from Strawberry entirely.
From July 1 through Aug. 31 there will be no access to Fossil Creek from Strawberry. If you want to cool down in the clear, travertine water you will have to drive to Camp Verde and head down Forest Service Road 708.
Tonto National Forest officials said the closure is “needed to address the high risk of heat-related illness and injury experienced by hikers unprepared for the arduous hike from Fossil Springs trailhead to Fossil Creek along Trail 18 during hot summer months.”
When a hiker runs out of water or their shoes break, it is emergency responders, like those from Pine-Strawberry Fire Department, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, who head down and help. This often entails giving hikers water, electrolytes and the encouragement to hike out. In one recent case, a deputy even fashioned a pair of temporary sandals out of medical tape so a woman could hike out.
Each call pulls resources away from the community with rescues lasting several hours. So far this year, the GCSO has rescued nine people from Fossil Creek and recovered one body (a drowning).
“The short-term goal is to reduce the burden on emergency responders and be responsive to safety concerns in a way that is environmentally and culturally responsible at this special place,” the Forest Service said in a press release.
Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd said while the rescues do put a strain on his office, he is against the closure.
“We have never advocated for (a closure),” he said. “We have been trying to work with (the Forest Service) to improve conditions for rescue workers.”
The Forest Service is working on the Fossil Creek Management Plan to manage recreation long-term and in February, after more than three years of study, the Forest Service released five options.
Plan E, which the Forest Service designated as the “preferred alternative” allows ATVs to eventually use an improved road from Strawberry to the creek as well as increases the number of cars allowed into the area from the present 148 to about 270 cars per day during the peak use periods.
The plan would also allow limited camping in developed campgrounds along the creek and add trails throughout the canyon.
It also envisions the addition of parking and visitor facilities at Cactus Flat, Heinrich and Irvine to handle the big increase in car traffic.
The preferred alternative would also develop a new trailhead for the existing Fossil Springs Trail, which would connect with the existing Mail Trail and the existing Flume Trail in the bottom of the canyon. It would also include nine recreation sites with parking along the creek.
None of this would happen right away, since the plan doesn’t include money for making such improvements.
In the meantime, local officials are trying to get improvements made more quickly.
Next week, local officials, including several Gila County supervisors, are meeting with Tonto Forest officials to discuss solutions.
This is after Ehab Hanna, the Agriculture Department’s acting director of engineering, technology and geospatial services, in a March 6 letter supported a meeting to discuss solutions, including working with Gila County to assist with emergency access maintenance needs on FR 708 if funding can be secured to repair the road.
A Forest Service study found, as part of its Fossil Creek Management Plan, that it would cost some $6 million to stabilize the slopes above FR 708 and roughly $100,000 annually to maintain the road.
Pending next week’s meeting, P-S Fire Chief Gary Morris said he could not comment on the Fossil Creek closure. He would say he is encouraged to see that the FS is ready to talk solutions.
“I will say, that based on the positive comments and the stated willingness in the letter to work with local public safety agencies (at least from the perspective of USDA), I believe we’ll see some positive movement with options toward solutions,” Morris wrote the Roundup in an email. “In addition to discussing how to prevent rescues, the discussion will also look at how to reduce response times to the victim and more rapid extraction. Presently, it takes nearly two hours just to reach the victim on the lower portions of the Upper Springs Trail and another five hours to get the victim to the trailhead and an awaiting ambulance.”
GCSO Deputy Cole LaBonte said he did not agree with the temporary closure. So far this year, LaBonte is often the person called on to hike in and rescue people.
“I don’t think we should be prohibiting the hikers who are properly prepared and able to make the hike because a few people can’t follow big, bold warnings on a sign,” he said. “The feds need to allow us to maintain (FR 708) so we can, in a timely manner, rescue the folks who need rescuing. With a maintained road we can quickly and safely deploy minimal and cost-effective resources.”
Shepherd said closing Fossil Creek is “an oversimplification of the problem.”
He would like to see the road improved and the Fossil Creek Trail widened so rescuers can drive quads down.
“The Tonto National Forest thoughtfully considered options before making the decision to temporarily close the Fossil Springs Trail, during July and August, typically the hottest time of the year.
“The amount of rescues that occur in the Fossil Springs area and the pressure on local first responders and search and rescue were both considerations,” said Carrie Templin, a public affairs officer with the Tonto National Forest.
Access to Fossil Creek during the closure will be limited to the Camp Verde side. And parking reservations are still required from May 1 through Oct. 1. They can be made through https://www.recreation.gov.
At the Strawberry Inn, which sits just a few miles away from the Fossil Creek trailhead, the owners say they understand the need for a closure.
“We completely support the proactive closure of the trail in anticipation of the high temperatures,” said Carson Eilers, the Strawberry Inn co-owner. “We appreciate all of the hard work that the Forest Service and first responders have to endure, and hopefully the forethought that they have shown will help drastically reduce the number of heat-related rescues.”
Eilers said they don’t believe the closure will impact business and “we are certain that our adventure-minded guests will still be able to enjoy other local trails during their stays.”