Fossil Springs Wilderness – Fossil Springs Trail

Fossil Springs Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. The Wilderness has 11,550 acres with 30 species of trees and shrubs and over 100 species of birds. Fossil Creek itself is one of two Wild & Scenic Rivers in Arizona as well, designated by Congress in 2009 after the Fossil Springs Dam was decommissioned by Arizona in 2005. The next few entries will follow the loop from the eastern Fossil Springs Trailhead through Fossil Canyon along the Flume Trail to the Fossil Creek Bridge, then returning to the start along Fossil Creek Road (FR 708) with a spur on the Waterfall Trail. I did the full loop in a day but one could easy split it into two and I’d recommend that for less experienced hikers or those who are just out for a weekend to give yourself a bit more time to soak it in. Today’s entry will cover the eastern segment of the loop, running along the Fossil Springs Trail from the Bob Bear (Fossil Springs) Trailhead 3 miles west of Strawberry to Fossil Creek Dam.

Two important things to recognize about the full loop: permits are required to park at the trailheads from April 1-October 30, and FR 708 (Fossil Creek Road) is closed from just below the Waterfall Trailhead to Just west of the Bob Bear Trailhead, so plan your starting point and route to get there in advance with that in mind and be aware it’s not easy to get from one side to the other by car. You can, however, walk or bike the closed stretch of road. It is a long, sustained climb up the canyon wall, as we’ll see tomorrow – so consider that if doing the full loop as well. Some might prefer to go down the road first and up the shorter but steeper trail at the end. Or if you started at the bottom (Fossil Creek Bridge) you could go up the road or trail first, depending on your preferred method of ascent. Just remember, again – once you go to one of the two trailheads, that’s where you’ll be starting.

General things to know about this hike before we launch in:

Fossil Springs TrailFossil Springs Wilderness Loop
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack Dirt (75% singletrack, 25% road)
Type of hikeOut & backLoop
Length (mi)4.6 mi one-wayAbout 20 miles
Elevation Change (ft)14261625
SeasonAll yearAll year
Potential Water SourcesFossil Springs
Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs
Fossil Creek
TrailheadsBob Bear Trailhead, unless combined with Flume TrailBob Bear Trailhead
Fossil Springs – Irving Trailhead
Permits required?Yes, seasonallyYes, seasonally

The trail descends from the Fossil Springs trailhead to the bottom of Fossil Canyon, a 1600 ft deep canyon carved over time into the Mogollon Rim. Upon reaching the canyon floor, it passes a junction with the Mail Trail, which ascends the Mogollon Rim (honestly, this would be a sweet potential alternate route for the AZT) and then traces the Canyon to reach the former site of the Fossil Springs Diversion Dam.

Fossil Canyon, upcanyon view
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fossil Canyon, upcanyon view
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Descending into Fossil Canyon, view back up to Mogollon Rim
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Descending into Fossil Canyon, view back up to Mogollon Rim
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Pools in Fossil Canyon
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
View to Mogollon Rim from bottom of Fossil Canyon
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Diverse vegetation in Fossil Canyon, including yucca
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fossil Canyon, upcanyon view back toward Mogollon Rim
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall alive and well in the diverse riparian zone within Fossil Canyon
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall alive and well in the diverse riparian zone within Fossil Canyon
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest

The Diversion Dam, as the name suggests, diverted water from Fossil Creek into flumes that carried it four miles down Canyon to the Irving Powerhouse, built in a much more accessible spot; these flumes were calibrated to drop 1 ft of elevation for every 1000 ft in distance in order to develop the requisite hydraulic gradient for power generation. The dam was built in 1916, entirely by hand at 25 ft tall and 5 ft thick; it makes for a great waterfall today with the top 11 ft removed to allow the creek to flow freely again. On the opposite bank from the trail, but accessible by a spur trail, is a natural feature called the Toilet Bowl, a rounded out area of the rocks separated by a rock wall from the main channel of the creek, but with an underground connection between the two – so in a sense, anything that ends up in the “bowl” winds up being “flushed” into the main channel. Swimming in the Bowl is not recommended. Foundations related to the flume or dam structures are nearby as well, and travertine formations abound, encasing fossils within – hence the name of the area.

Waterfall at remains of Fossil Creek Diversion Dam
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Waterfall at remains of Fossil Creek Diversion Dam
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Waterfall at remains of Fossil Creek Diversion Dam, panorama
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Remains of structure associated with the Fossil Springs Diversion Dam
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
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Fossil Creek Dam waterfall
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fossil Creek, downstream view from site of former Fossil Creek Diversion Dam
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall in riparian zone along Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest

Meanwhile, the trail takes its name from Fossil Springs itself. Releasing 20,000 gallons/minute – or 30 million gallons daily – into the Canyon at 70°F, they are prolific and can be witnessed close to the main trail.

Fossil Springs
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall in riparian zone along Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fossil Creek Dam mistbow
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Waterfall at remains of Fossil Springs Diversion Dam
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Waterfall & rainbow at remains of Fossil Creek Diversion Dam
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
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Fall in riparian zone along Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall in riparian zone along Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall in riparian zone along Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall in riparian zone along Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall in riparian zone along Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
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Crystal clear water at Fossil Springs, source of Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Fall in riparian zone along Fossil Creek
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest
Waterfall at Fossil Creek Diversion Dam
Fossil Springs Wilderness
Coconino National Forest

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Arizona Trail, Passage 25: Whiterock Mesa, Part 2

I got started around 10, heading down Passage 25 toward the East Verde River.
I hike through a gate and enter the Mazatzal Wilderness. Following cairns, the surface alternates between the basalt and more dirt – like walking through a wash. As the trail skirts the rim briefly, a magnificent view of the Mazatzal Mountains and Red Hills opens up to the hiker, then the trail experiences yet another spectacular sunset as it and the backpacker fall off the Mesa to Polk Spring near the East Verde River.

Fossil Springs Wilderness – FR 708

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

Fossil Creek Wilderness – Waterfall Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. From the Fossil Creek Bridge trailhead, FR 708 begins to climb the wall of Fossil Canyon. A short distance up, the road is gated. Just on the other side is the trailhead for the Waterfall Trail, one of the most popular spots in the wilderness.

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Fossil Springs Wilderness – Fossil Springs Trail

Take a virtual hike through the Fossil Creek Wilderness! Fossil Creek Wilderness is one of the most spectacular areas in Arizona – so much so that permits are required from April 1-October 1. The Wilderness has 11,550 acres with 30 species of trees and shrubs and over 100 species of birds. Fossil Creek itself is one of two Wild & Scenic Rivers in Arizona as well, designated by Congress in 2009 after the Fossil Springs Dam was decommissioned by Arizona in 2005. Fossil Springs, the source of the creek, release 30 million gallons of water per day, incredibly prolific for its location in Arizona.

Arizona Trail, Day 46 – Passage 26 (Hardscrabble Mesa)

I finally get off around 11:30 & run into Matt and a female friend near East Tank. I’m glad for the company and we walk together for a while. The road condition is terrible – lots of loose basalt – and the going is slow. I finally reach the split to Strawberry and encounter them again, and their friend who picked them up flags me down and brings me a beer. Some more trail magic! I think my biggest challenges are becoming the pack weight and the solitude. I head for a short side trip to Fossil Creek.

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Arizona Trail, Day 45 – Passage 25 (Whiterock Mesa)

The trail first rolls through the pines and passes Pine Creek (dry) and Bradshaw Tank on its way to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa, which provides an excellent overlook of Oak Spring Canyon, the highlight of the passage, before dropping to the bottom. Like on the Highline, foliage still lingers in the warmer Canyon. I also spot some cool geology in what appears to be dikes in some of the rocks.

Arizona Trail, Day 43, Part III – Passage 27 (Highline)

The Arizona Trail following the Highline continues its route around Milk Ranch Point, passing some artifacts – perhaps ranching or mining related, as many seem to be in Arizona. Magnificent views to the south are common, with the Mazatzal Mountains an ever-increasing sight to the southeast.

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Arizona Trail, Day 43, Part II – Passage 27 (Highline)

Having filled up on water and eaten lunch, the trail ascends from Webber Creek and the Geronimo Trailhead toward Milk Ranch Point, jutting out from the Mogollon Rim. This is a much more consistently wooded & shaded stretch that appears to have been spared by the Dude Fire of 1990 and February Fire (2006). It also seems to be wetter here – there are still touches of green in the ferns as the trail ascends. Gamble oaks, maple and ponderosa dominate the trail through this stretch, and the light filtering through the canopy and the leaves is magical.

Arizona Trail, Day 42-43, Part I – Passage 27 (Highline)

The trail continues to roll across the eroded foothills of the Mogollon Rim, the impressive and distinctive southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau, where the elevation jumps around 4000 ft in elevation. The Highline continues to define itself as a diverse landscape where the species of the desert below and the pine forests above mingle.

The Mazatzal Mountains – the next major hurdle once I make it to Pine – loom in the distance as well, and ironwood line the more open stretches of path across the Highline, where the Dude Fire burned the forest in 1990,

Arizona Trail, Day 41 – Passage 27 (Highline), Part 3

The Arizona Trail continues west toward Pine, curving around parts of the Mogollon Rim that reach out, and segments that sit farther back, rolling across the eroded foothills beneath the parapets that’s tower overhead. The diverse plants continue to amaze. How often do you find blue spruce growing next to agave cactus!

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Arizona Trail, Day 41 – Passage 27 (Highline), Part 2

Arizona Trail, Day 41 – Passage 27 (Highline), Part 2

Magnificent views of the Mogollon Rim and one of the most ecologically diverse stretches of trail to date, this entry covers from the Washington Park Trailhead across the Highline National Recreation Trail.

Arizona Trail, Day 41 – Passage 27 (Highline)

It’s another chilly morning, camped directly on the Mogollon Rim. I’ll be dropping several thousand feet today to the base of the Rim, completing the long traverse of the Coconino National Forest and entering the Tonto National Forest with views that are nothing short of spectacular.

Arizona Trail, Day 40 – Passage 28 (Blue Ridge)

Managed to push through the entire Blue Ridge Passage today, one of my best days on the trail. I left the Blue Ridge Ranger Station this morning and headed south for the Rim. Saw a herd of elk near the Blue Ridge Campground and Elk Tank while climbing Blue Ridge itself. The trail also passed through an active prescribed burn, though it was low intensity so probably not considered a public hazard at this point. I’m familiar with them anyway, having worked as a PIO (public informations officer) on one over the summer at Grand Canyon. The trail crossed Blue Ridge and dipped across the steep valley of East Clear Creek, dry at the crossing.

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