Hiking Fossil Creek Loop in Arizona
Fossil Creek is one of Arizona’s two scenic streams included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and for good reason. Not only is it considered the most diverse riparian area in Arizona, but it’s creek has unique geologic features, with the most interesting being its rimstone dams/travertine. Additionally, there are all kinds of things to do here that go beyond hiking, including swimming in geothermally heated pools and caves, fishing, and canyoneering. We hiked a loop, but you can also do shorter hikes that don’t create a loop. Read below to learn about how permitting and regulations change with the seasons, what you should pack, or getting there. You can also read about and view photos from our trip.
Route: Fossil Springs, Flume Trail, Waterfall Trail, FR 708 (loop)
Date: February 17, 2018
Trailhead: 34.407439, -111.568980
Terrain: nice maintained trail, old road
Distance: 16.7 mi
Elevation Gain: 5,213 ft
# Nights: day hike
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Map of the Fossil Creek Hiking Loop
Click on the POI (orange circles) on the map to view photos of that area.
Our Trip at Fossil Creek
A multi-sport adventure type of day. . .hiking the Fossil Creek loop has it all, between swimming in geothermally heated pools and caves, gawking at geologic formations, fishing, and running up a short canyon.
The theme of someone telling us, “you’re going to die”, started off rather early, but this time it was in the form of signs. We pass the first sign warning us that 200 people have to be rescued a year. We don’t think much of it. We pass the second sign and read it a bit more closely. It seems as though this is a pretty popular summer-time hike because of the swimming holes and heat reaching over 100F in the area. So, many people tend to get into trouble with heat exhaustion and not preparing properly. Luckily, the high for today is ~65F.
After passing the third and final warning sign, we start down the Fossil Springs Trail descending into the canyon. On the far side of the canyon is a massive travertine rock outcropping that can be seen on Google Earth, covering about a quarter mile of the canyon that parallels the creak. We pass many campsites that are littered with garbage, an indication that this area is quite popular and not that hard of a place to hike (if you are dressed properly and have plenty of water).
Plants in the stream at the geothermally heated Fossil Springs.
We make it to the first junction and turn left to continue down the Fossil Springs Trail. Soon after, we arrive at Fossil Springs (#1 on the map above). Philip feels the water at the spring, impressed by how much head there is, and is surprised by how warm it is (72°F). We then begin to notice the large amount of biodiversity in the stream, where the water is warmer, as seen in the photos above. Philip then decides to go for a swim, stripping down to his boxer-briefs and jumping in just down stream of the spring (marked as the “Swimming Hole” on the map above).
From the spring, we continue hiking downstream, seeing some limestone rock-outcroppings to our right. All we are able to find is shelter caves, but many appear to be filled with soot from fire being burned in them.
The waterfall at the Old Fossil Creek Dam/Toilet Bowl.
About 4.5mi from the trailhead, we arrive at the first waterfall, also refereed to as the “Toilet Bowl”, due to the flushing manner that the water runs down an isolated section of the rock (#2 on the map above). You can see remnants of an old dam here as well. Just downstream of the waterfall is a shelter cave. Due to the heavy amount of calcium carbonate in the water here, the water in the cave is blueish-green in color, making it an enticing place to swim (marked as “Swimming” after mile marker 4.5 on the map above). We decide to do just this!
Rimstone dams along Fossil Creek.
Because of the calcium carbonate precipitating from the springs, rimstone dams are formed downstream of the springs and begin forming after the shelter cave. After swimming in the cave, we hike further downstream, finding rimstone dams along the way. In the photo above, I am standing on a rimstone dam (#3 on the map above). The dams here formed “koi-ponds”, trapping the fish in them.
By this point, I start to wish I had brought my fly-rod, because of the amount of fish we’ve seen in the creek. . .
Shortly after passing the rimstone dams, we begin one of the ascents, until we get to the suspected canyon that Philip had been eyeing on the map. It turns out it is a short canyon that ends in a boulder choke (#4 on the map above). You could probably hike up and around the canyon, if you really wanted to see the top.
This section of the trail is referred to as the Flume Trail and is just an old gravel road, so between the terrain and grade, the walking is quite easy. We continue along this section of the trail until we get back down to Fossil Creek, where we take off our shoes to cross. Across the stream is the Irving/Flume Parking lot. From here, you can continue hiking downstream or along Fossil Creek Road in either direction (towards Camp Verde or Strawberry). To finish the loop, we start the final ascent, hiking up Fossil Creek Road towards the town of Strawberry.
A rimstone dam with a blue pool along the Waterfall Hike.
By this point in the day, we start to wonder how long this hike really is. We had estimated it to be 12 miles, but have gone a little over 10 miles and it is 5pm.
Despite this, we decide to do the waterfall hike. The waterfall is formed out of travertine and the water is a magnificent turquoise (#5 on the map above). There is also an interesting island of trees just below it. Just above the falls is a deep pool to swim in.
We hike back to Fossil Creek Road (red line on the map above), backtracking on the waterfall trail. The bottom of the road is in great condition, but as we get higher it gets worse and the consequences become more severe if you were to drive off. The whole road is in great condition for hikers and bikers, but, by the top there are large boulder in the middle that have fallen from the cliffs and the road gets quite narrow, with steep cliffs on the side.
We make it back to the car just after the sun has set. We ended up hiking 16.7 miles, instead of the estimated 12 miles. It’s probably better that we didn’t know the true distance because it allowed us to hike at a slower pace and gawk at the scenery.
A view of the canyon while hiking up Fossil Creek road.
Before You Go to Fossil Creek
This is by no means a difficult hike, but every year there are a surprisingly large number of people that need to be rescued from this area because they underestimate it and don’t come prepared. Here are some of the most common reasons for needing a rescue and ways to avoid them:
- dehydration – carry plenty of water or bring a water purification system
- heatstroke or fatigue – take breaks in the shade, try to avoid hiking during the hottest time of day, and, most importantly, know your limitations before you start
- poor shoe choice – wear durable close toed shoes with proper support for the hike (not flip flops)
- water related accidents – be cautious and make good decisions around water
During the summer, Fossil Creek experiences an increasingly high amount of use, which, over the years, has lead to an increased number of rescues, resource damage, and trash. Due to this, there has been an increased number of prohibitions and restrictions put into place, to help reduce some of these issues. It is important that you know these because violations could result in a fine of up to $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail.
Checkout the table below to learn more about what is prohibited and/or restricted:
|Season||Spring / Summer
(April 1 – October 1)
|Fall / Winter
(October 2 – March 31)
|Map||Fossil Creek Permit Area||Fossil Creek Area|
|Permit||required for guaranteeing a parking space within a specific parking lot ($10/vehicle/day)||not required|
|Day Use Restrictions||8am – 8pm, last entry 4pm||none|
|Vehicle Restrictions||large vehicles, exceeding 22 feet in length, are prohibited||none|
|Camping||not allowed in the Fossil Creek Permit Area||allowed, with some restrictions, in all areas except between Fossil Creek Dam and Fossil Creek Bridge|
|Fossil Creek Road Closed||April 15, 2017 – April 15, 2019 (or until rescinded), National Forest System Road 708 (known as “Fossil Creek Road”) will be closed between Waterfall Trailhead and 1/2 mile west of the Upper Fossil Springs Trailhead entrance (red line on the map above). For additional information, you can read the Fossil Creek Road Closure Forest Order|
While the trails are clearly labeled and easy to follow, the allowed permitted usage of them is a bit more complicated than your average hike. More, or less, all prohibitions/restrictions are divided between Spring/Summer (April 1 – October 1) and Fall/Winter (October 2 – March 31) and noted in two seasonal maps.
The key things to note on these maps are:
- trails, parking locations, road closure(s), gate locations
- what is considered part of the Fossil Creek permit area
- where you are allowed to camp
- creek location with relation to the trail
- note: there is a large section of the flume trail that has no creek access
Spring/Summer (April 1 – October 1)
- Required: a permit is required for guaranteeing a parking space within a specific parking lot
- Cost: $10/vehicle/day
- Obtain: can be obtained for a specific parking lot online at Recreation.gov (not issued on-site)
- permits become available one month ahead of time, at 10:00 a.m. ET on the first of the month
- Limits: you are allowed a maximum of one permit/person/month
Fall/Winter (October 2 – March 31)
- Not Required: no permit required
Still have questions about permitting/parking reservations? Checkout the Forest Service’s Questions and Answers About Fossil Creek Reservations web page.
Getting to Fossil Creek
There are two primary destinations that people seek out in the Fossil Creek area, which include: the Waterfall and the Old Fossil Creek Dam/Toilet Bowl. However, there is also easy stream access that may be appealing to some. In terms of hiking distance and elevation gain, the Waterfall is a lot easier to access than the Toilet Bowl. We hiked a loop, starting at Fossil Springs Trailhead, and stopped to see both the Toilet Bowl and Waterfall along the way.
The Waterfall Hike
The Old Fossil Creek Dam/Toilet Bowl
Fossil Creek Loop
- Where to park: Fossil Springs Trailhead Parking Lot @ 34.406746, -111.568373 (closest)
- Alternate parking option: Irving/Flume Trailhead Parking Lot @ 34.402922, -111.617341
- Trailhead: 34.407321, -111.568683 (most elevation gain at the end of the day)
- Alternate trailhead option: start by hiking up Fossil Creek Road @ 34.402922, -111.617341 (most elevation gain at the beginning of the day)
Getting Around the Fossil Springs Road Closure
Normally, you could drive the Fossil Creek Road (FR 708) down the canyon and to the other parking lots, but, because of the road closure, you need to drive around the wilderness area to access the other side (the road closure is marked in red on the map above).
To get from the Fossil Springs parking lot to the Waterfall or Irving/Flume parking lots, you must:
- drive back on Fossil Creek Road (FR 708)
- once you reach the town of Strawberry, take a left on AZ-260 W/AZ-87 N
- drive on AZ-260 W/AZ-87 N for 7.7 mi
- take a left on AZ-260 W
- drive on this for 23.8 mi
- take a left on Fossil Creek Road (FR 708)
- drive on this until you reach either the Irving/Flume park lot or the Waterfall parking lot
- Note: high-clearance, 4WD vehicle strongly recommended!