FOSSIL CREEK NEAR GILA COUNTY, ARIZONA

Fossil Creek is a Wild and Scenic River that can be accessed via Fossil Creek Road near Gila County's community of Strawberry, Arizona.  This river has long been one of Arizona's favorite recreational swimming holes.  But with that comes many challenges.  You will need a permit and parking pass to access the area. 

Fossil Creek is one of only two Wild and Scenic rivers in Arizona. At temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, water gushes out at 20,000 gallons per minute from springs at the bottom of a 1,600 foot deep canyon. Over the years, these calcium-rich waters have laid down huge deposits of a material called travertine. That rock-like substance encases whatever happens to fall into the streambed - forming the fossil-like formations for which the area is named.

Fossil Creek is a rare riparian area within an arid landscape. Many plants and wildlife depend on Fossil Creek for habitat, including otters, beavers, leopard frogs and black hawks. Native fish populations have been successfully restored to some segments of Fossil Creek.

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Fossil Creek Access Points

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Today, there are two primary ways to reach Fossil Creek:

Fossil Creek Trail, near Strawberry:

Fossil Creek Road (FR 708) is closed between Fossil Springs Trailhead (just west of Strawberry, AZ) and the Waterfall Trailhead (east of Fossil Creek Bridge) indefinitely.  You can get to the waterfall and river but it will mean you will need to put in a pretty good hike to get there.  The trail drops about 1,500 feet in four miles. After that, it takes more walking along the stream bed to get to the creek's main flow, which is what most people are looking for. With the hike back up, it works out to about a 10-mile day hike.  You will need a permit and parking pass to access this area.  See more information on the "Hiking" section of this page to see what you need to prepare for.

Camp Verde Access: 
The other approach to Fossil Creek is a twisty, rocky, gravel road that begins near Camp Verde and leads right to the creek — the part of FR 708 that is still intact.  Please note that Forest Road 708 does not provide access into the Fossil Creek canyon from Strawberry.

 

Fossil Creek Permit Information

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Advance permits are required to park a vehicle in the Fossil Creek permit area April 1–October 1. During this season, a maximum of one permit per person per calendar month may be reserved (one permit=one day). Permits are made available on the first of the month one month ahead of time. For example, permits for the month of April are available beginning March 1.

The permit allows parking for one vehicle only at one of nine designated parking lots. Maximum vehicle length is 22 ft. All persons listed on the permit must be accommodated inside the vehicle with a legal seatbelt. The permit guarantees a parking space within the specified parking lot, but specific parking space assignments are not made. Parking spaces are occupied on a first-come, first-served basis.

Permits are not required October 2–March 31.

Equestrian users may reserve an assigned parking space for a vehicle and horse trailer at Fossil Springs Trailhead only. The maximum vehicle and horse trailer length combined is 50 ft.

To get your permit - Click here.

History of Fossil Creek

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

For centuries, Fossil Creek ran free.
 

Humans may have occupied the Fossil Creek watershed as many as 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists have conducted surveys in the drainage and adjacent areas since 1890, finding evidence of prehistoric use, including collapsed stone masonry structures, diversion dams, pit ovens, and petroglyphs.  A number of historic sites reflect use by Yavapai and Apache hunters, gatherers and farmers, as well as by stockmen who drove sheep and cattle throughout the area. Although less than 3 percent of the cultural resources within the Fossil Creek watershed have been inventoried to accepted standards, all are considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, pending further evaluation.

Major human land uses within the Fossil Creek Watershed are recreation and livestock grazing. Currently there are seven grazing allotments that fall partially within the Fossil Creek watershed; five of these are actively being used.

It was home to beavers, otters and native fish. Black hawks nested along the creek, the roundtail chub swam in its waters, which maintained a temperature of about 70 degrees. The stream came bubbling out of springs below the confluence of Sandrock and Calf Pen canyons, some 43 cubic feet per second, a constant flow in a land prone to seasonal drought. As more springs fed into the creek, its flow increased.

The stream is rich in calcium carbonate, a mineral that covers objects that gather in the streambed — rocks, logs, sticks, leaves. Over time, the mineral hardens around these objects into a substance called travertine, layer upon layer, forming small dams, which create clear, deep pools. Fossil Creek is considered the fourth largest travertine system in North America.

River Ranger Mike Roseman talks to hikers on the hike down to Fossil Springs on Friday, June 12, 2015. (Photo: Michael Schennum/The Republic)

In 1907, Arizona found a new use for Fossil Creek — hydroelectric power. The steady flow meant the water could be harnessed to operate electrical turbines. The power fed mines and small communities such as Jerome, Clarkdale, Crown King and would eventually provide power for Phoenix.

The project was ambitious for its time. No roads led to the creek and the closest railroad was in Mayer. About 600 men, mostly Mexicans and Apaches who lived in the area, used 400 mules to pull more than 150 wagons. They hauled materials over rugged terrain, built 40 miles of roads, a dam, a power plant, then another.

The early stages of the project were overseen by a woman named Iva Tutt. The project went through various funding and management changes and eventually fell to the ownership of Arizona Power Company.

The water was transferred from the stream to a system of flumes, tunnels and pipes made of wood, steel and concrete. The Childs-Irving facility was the first power plant in Arizona, but it came with a cost. The dam slowed Fossil Creek to a fraction of its natural flow. Native fish populations declined and non-native fish entered the ecosystem. Fossil Creek became a very different place.

The power lit up Jerome's saloons, powered mines and streetlights during the boom years. Over time, Phoenix emerged as an economic powerhouse and Jerome's copper mines closed. Wood flumes were replaced by steel, APC became Arizona Public Service, which built newer, bigger plants. The little power plants that relied on Fossil Creek's flow still operated, but they cranked out a fraction of the power that central Arizona needed.

In the early 1990s, APS intended to renew its dam permit. But the world had changed since the little power plants were built at Irving and Childs. Tens of thousands of dams across the country provided power, flood control and other benefits, but some of them were becoming outdated. As scientists learned more about riparian ecosystems, there was talk about dismantling dams. When conservation groups approached APS executives about decommissioning the dam at Fossil Creek, they listened. The power plants created just 7 megawatts of power at full strength, less than 1 percent of the company's total output, said Phil Smithers of APS.

In 2004, APS agreed to let its license to operate the dam lapse. The following year, flowing water returned to Fossil Creek. Smithers supervised a crew of about a dozen men to dismantle what hundreds had built.

The area had not seen many visitors before the decommissioning. The two canyons leading into the creek had been named a wilderness area in 1984, and Congress named Fossil Creek a Wild and Scenic River in 2008. Fossil Creek is located along the northern reaches of the rugged Mazatzal Mountains, a remote area with one of the largest wilderness areas in the state.

But word started to get out about a place with water, in the high desert. The man-made impoundments had been taken down, but before long, Fossil Creek faced a new human threat: thousands of visitors a year.

Information provided by:  The Arizona Republic

Hiking in to Fossil Creek

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

If you plan on hiking in to Fossil Creek from the Fossil Creek Trailhead here are some things you will need to keep in mind:

  • First of all you must know it is a strenuous hike.

  • It is about 4 miles down to the river and 4 miles back out.  When you factor in all the miles you will put in while playing at Fossil creek it is about a 10 mile endeavor when it is all said and done.

  • There are no major facilities in this area so make sure you go to the restroom before you come.  There are restroom facilities in the parking lots but not down by the river.

  • You will need a good pair of shoes.  Many people think it is a short hike, but bear in mind the hike down is not as bad as the hike out . You will traverse some pretty rocky terrain on both your decent and ascent.  Flip flops are not adequate and you will not be protected during your hike.  

  • The trail down to the river is steep and rocky.

  • Make sure you have plenty of water.  This is one of the most common things people forget.  The hike can be very hot during the summer.  You should check to see how much water a person of your size and weight should have.

  • Carry with you something to eat.  It is a long hike and you will most likely want some nourishment.

  • It is not advised that you carry water coolers as it is a long way from the parking lot.  If you want to take something with you it is advised that you pack your items in a day pack. 

  • Someone in your party should have some basic first aid items like band-aids and Tylenol. 

  • If you are not in good physical shape this hike is not for you.

Fossil Creek Fish Species

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

In the fall of 2004, nearly 100 people from around the state worked together to restore Fossil Creek to a native fishery. This work involved removing non-native fish that had invaded the stream so the few remaining native species would have a chance to survive. Native fish in Fossil Creek include headwater chub, roundtail chub, speckled dace, Sonora sucker, and Desert sucker.  

Fossil Creek Fishing Strategy

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

Fishing is allowed seasonally, from the first Saturday in October through April 30. Fishing is allowed between the waterfall located approximately 1 mile above the Flume Trailhead parking lot along FS 708 and the downstream-most power line crossing (immediately below Sally May Wash). Catch-and-release only for roundtail chub.  Roundtail chub must be immediately released unharmed; no chub may be kept; artificial fly and lure only; single barbless hooks only.

Fossil Creek Boating Options

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

There are three distinct sections to this stream; the upper, middle and lower. All sections vary in geology and travertine deposition, both of which alter the type of rapids you will encounter on this gem. The lower is full of boulder garden sieves that have formed because of the loose conglomerate. You will be disappointed with the baseflow of 43 cfs in the lower (unless you’re there for the scenery which is noteworthy on its own). The middle is where it’s at – granite - gradient over 220ft/mile - high travertine deposition rates (that means slides and waterfalls of various sizes) - and water of the upmost quality (when you get there you’ll know what I mean).

 

The upper is sweet too, but it needs some more overland H2O from runoff. Oh yeah, the diversion dam is scheduled to come down in 2009. Once down, the natural flow will create another clean waterfall in the creek, that I’m guestimating at around 40-45ft. The run is class IV at normal flows. To get to the middle just head to Strawberry, AZ, and find Fossil Springs RD.

Once in the canyon, you have two options for running the upper; either walk up the trail along the creek from Irving or, leave shuttle and drive back up the same road to the Fossil Springs trailhead. The middle needs only one car, simply park at Irving and walk up to the falls with an 8ft slide into a 20 vert. The lower is the most strenuous to run; longer shuttle and a long grueling walk out.

Information provided by:   Jarrett von Cziesch

Fossil Creek Camping Options

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

The Fossil Creek area has very few developed facilities and visitors should be prepared for rustic and remote conditions. There is no camping in the Fossil Creek Permit Area from April 1 through October 1.

Fossil Creek Swimming Holes

Photo Credit:  Cameron Davis

The whole river is awesome for swimming but there are several designated areas that everyone flocks to.  For more information - click here