Fossil Creek, is one of only two rivers in Arizona that have been designated as “Wild and Scenic”.
The National and Scenic River designation is for protected areas in the US. The act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 in order to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. (Created by Congress: Public Law 90-542; 16 U.S.C. 1271 et seq.)
Wild River Areas – Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted. These represent vestiges of primitive America.
Scenic River Areas – Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.
Starting as Fossil Springs, the calcium laden creek flows at 20,000 gallons a minute. The creek seems to appear out of nowhere being fed from a number of springs from water running off the Mogollon Rim.
The calcium in the water leaves deposits of travertine. This mineral wraps around anything it touches with a rock-like hardened surface. The travertine helps form fossils for which the creek is named.
As you can imagine, Fossil Creek is a great location for photographers. The falls and surrounding trees, vines and rock formations make it perfect for great nature photos.
The Fossil Creek area encompasses 11,550 acres and is one of the most diverse riparian areas in the state of Arizona. You’ll find over thirty species of trees and shrubs, ferns and moss growing everywhere, unique animals including javelinas, snakes, spider, scorpions and well over a hundred species of birds have been observed in the area.
You’ll also find campers and swimmers in the summer time. Located just north of the Phoenix metro area, Fossil Creek attracts many campers and sun lovers. The water, although cold, is just right for cooling off after a hike. There are approximately, 30 million gallons of water flowing through Fossil Creek every day at a constant 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fossil Creek was once damned by the Arizona Public Service (an Arizona utility company). In 2005, the Arizona Public Service company decommissioned the dam and restored the water back to its natural flow. Since then, the waters have attracted thousands of hikers and campers.
Restrictions: mechanized vehicles, including mountain bikes, are not permitted in the Wilderness.
This area can become very crowded in the summertime. Plan in advance and arrive early at the trailheads.
If you’re making the hike from the Strawberry trailhead, be aware that there can be traffic congestion and you will have to park a long distance from the actual trailhead. In fact, because of the traffic, the roads to the trailhead will be closed occasionally. There is a hotline to find out about road closures and conditions: 928-226-4611.
When parking capacity is exceeded in the Fossil Creek area, traffic gridlocks can occur which impede emergency vehicle response and cause visitor traffic flow to come to a standstill. This can cause public safety issues and the Rangers limit access to address this situation especially during the high fire danger season.
The area is open year-round and one of the best times to hike is in the fall. The closest towns are Camp Verde, on the low elevation side and Strawberry on the high elevation side. There are toilets at the trailhead but not in the campgrounds.
Be smart about hiking in Arizona. Summertime temperatures can exceed 110 degrees and hiking in the sun can quickly become dangerous. Always, take enough water to ensure good hydration and head covers to keep out the sun/heat. The trailheads have information for your hike to help you make smart decisions about how much water and the length of time needed to make the hike.
If you hike from the Fossil Springs trailhead (Strawberry), the hike is a 10 mile round trip to the falls. You’ll descend in elevation to the creek through pine forests and arid desert. Once in the springs area, you’ll be treated to a lush riparian landscape complete with interesting rock formations, travertine pools and amazing wildlife (watch for javelinas).
Fossil Creek is managed by the Red Rock Ranger District – 928-203-2900
How to get there:
Fossil Creek is located just under 2 hours from the Phoenix metro area, about 30 miles southeast of Camp Verde.
To make the hike from Camp Verde: take exit 287 off of I-17 and turn east on State Route 260 towards Payson and drive about 10 miles. This will take you through the town of Camp Verde where you can pick up extra water.
Between mile 228 and 229, Forest Road 708 (Fossil Creek Road) will intersect SR260 on the right, where you’ll see a sign for Fossil Creek/ Verde River.
Drive the 12 miles down this washboard dirt road (high-clearance vehicles recommended) to the intersection with Forest Road 502. Then for day-hike areas continue straight on FR708 and cross the bridge and to find parking for your vehicle in the Tonto Bench, Irving, or Waterfall trailhead areas.
For overnight camping continue straight on FR 708 to the Homestead area before you get to the bridge or turn right on FR502 for the Old Corral, Sally May, Purple Mountain, Mazatzal, or Stehr Lakebed dispersed camping areas.
This is a very popular area in the summer. If you hike on the weekend you will definitely encounter many hikers, swimmers, jumpers and people generally having fun. Be careful near the falls as the current is strong. There area is very remote and you will not have cell phone service. Be careful.
Camping is in designated areas only. There is no camping along the waterfall trail. Make sure you are aware of the designated areas. Pack out what you pack in. There is trash on the trail from lazy hikers. Don’t be that person.
Fossil Creek Trail map and information.
Fishing at Fossil Creek
Fishing is allowed seasonally, from the first Saturday in October through April 30. Make sure where you are in the areas as fishing is allowed only 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 and they must be immediately released unharmed; no chub may be kept; artificial fly and lure only; single barbless hooks only.