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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National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 51: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23), Part II

Disruptive event today, an F-16 that flew over while I was packing. It flew extremely low and around a mountain – possibly North Peak – and made me think very seriously about why that would be allowed over a designated wilderness area. Still, I manage to knock out a few miles to Chilson Spring before dark, with spectacular views of Deadman’s Canyon, the Verde Valley, and the western Mazatzal foothills along the way. The mountains are jagged and rugged and the trail traces steep slopes nearly the whole way across precipitous terrain.

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