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Fossil Creek Wilderness: A Natural River Oasis in Arizona

Fossil Creek Wilderness is an amazingly unique place in the Coconino National Forest and Tonto National Forest. Located in central Arizona, it’s one of two ‘Wild and Scenic’ rivers in the state.

This natural river oasis has waterfalls, swimming holes, wildlife, ground springs, and endless natural beauty.

Fossil Creek Dam Falls.

The magic of Fossil Creek is that over 30 million gallons of water that flow out of ground springs per day!  These natural springs feed enough water to keep the river flowing year-round. Fossil Creek eventually flows down into the Verde River.

And considering Arizona’s generally dry and arid climate, this perennial stream is even more special.  The fertile valley floor is in surprising contrast with the surrounding desert landscape.

Fossil Creek attracts many visitors per year for its unique natural beauty and various recreational activities.  Visitors enjoy swimming, sunbathing, hiking, camping, snorkeling, and more!

I want to explain a little about the geology and history of Fossil Creek, so that we may understand the importance of being a responsible visitor.  This area has struggled with the adverse affects of over-tourism.

So I hope that the background information will help to deepen our appreciation of how truly special Fossil Creek is. As always, adhere to Leave No Trace principles.

Geology | Fossil Creek

Fossil Creek is fed by ground springs that release very warm water, averaging around 70(F) degrees.  This means that the creek is not dependent on seasonal snowmelt, or rain cycles. The warm water makes the creek very favorable to all kinds of plants and animals.

The water is highly saturated with calcium carbonate, which forms travertine along the creek bed and its banks.

Travertine is a form of limestone that is created by carbonate deposits. Fossil Creek gets its name from the fossilized casings of travertine that form over many things along the creek.

And it also forms into unique geological features that create pools, terraces, and waterfalls along this scenic river.

The calcium carbonate gives the water a blue-green color that adds to the aesthetic appeal.

History | Fossil Creek

A historic black and white photograph of Fossil Creek Dam.

Due to the year-round flow of water, the area was popular with the Apache and Yavapai Native American Tribes.

In 1908, a hydro-electric dam was completed on Fossil Creek, which diverted most of the water to nearby power plants for generating electricity.  The dam was hailed as an impressive engineering feat. However, the theft of Fossil Creek’s water had profoundly detrimental effects on the natural ecosystem’s plants and animals.

Nearly 100 years later, in 2005, the dam was removed and a restoration project commenced.  While measuring the damage to Fossil Creek is hard to ever fully quantify, the creek is now much closer to its original state than during the “dam years”.

After the river flow was restored, the number of recreational visitors to the area exploded.  The unfettered increase in visitors prompted a need for a permit system to help preserve Fossil Creek for present and future generations.

Fossil Creek Permits

To help mitigate the effects of over-recreation, permits are required to visit between April and October.  Getting permits for the most desirable spots can be very competitive!

But don’t worry, here’s everything you need to know.

The permit are secured in advance through

But luckily the parking permits are only $6 per car, per day.

Permits are issued on a per car, per parking lot, per day basis.

The permits are quite competitive and released at on the first of each month for the following month. They are always released at 8am Arizona Time (remember, Arizona does not observe daylight savings

For example, on March 1st at 8am, permits for the month of April become available. On April 1st, the entire month of May is available, and so on.

Reservations guarantee a parking space within the specified parking lot. You may only park in the parking lot you reserved. The rest of this post can help you decide what parking area is best for you.

You must display your parking pass on your vehicle dashboard.

And be aware that the main access road is a very rough 14-dirt road that requires a high clearance vehicle. And four wheel drive is recommended.

Recreation Activities

Jake and I finding a swimming hole to stay cool in summer vanlife

Fossil Creek is a very popular area for hiking, camping, swimming, sunbathing, and enjoying nature.  During the hot months, it’s an amazing place to escape the hot Arizona sun and cool off in the many natural swimming pools.

And even in the winter, the “warm” spring water is a nice surprise in a place where one would expect frigid snow-melt.

We visited on a warm day in February, when the air temperature was barely 65F degrees. And that was all the warmth needed to enjoy a nice swim in one of the clear pools.

But Fossil Creek Wilderness is still a great place for hiking and exploring nature even when it’s not warm enough to swim.

As with all designated Wilderness Areas, it is not allowed to mountain bike, drone, or any other mechanized equipment.

Jake dives into the clear water at Fossil Creek Dam Swimming Hole.
Jake diving into the clear water beneath the “dam”.

Fossil Creek Access

Fossil Creek is accessible from both sides of the creek.  But beware that GPS directions are often wrong. Follow these directions…

From the West (Driving)

From the West, you can take Fossil Creek Rd (708) from Camp Verde and drive all the way down to the creek.  Thus, this forest road accounts for most of the visitors to Fossil Creek because the parking lots are right down in the canyon.

It’s a rough 14-mile dirt road, so a high-clearance vehicle with 4×4 is recommended.

From the East (Hike-In Only)

From the East, the only access to Fossil Creek is via Bob Bear Trail (AKA Fossil Springs Trail).  The Bob Bear Trailhead begins at a parking lot that sits at the top of the canyon, just east of Strawberry.

The road to the trailhead is still dirt, but high-clearance 4×4 is not necessary to get here.

Then you must hike down the canyon to the creek.  Bob Bear Trail is a difficult trail that’s 8.3 miles round-trip and 1,500 feet of elevation.

Part of the difficulty is the lack of shade in hot weather. But in cooler weather, I would consider the hike’s difficulty only moderate.

A rocky cliff along Bob Bear Trail in Fossil Creek Wilderness.
A rocky cliff along Bob Bear Trail.

If you visit during permit season (April 1st – October 1st), how you access Fossil Creek will largely depend on which permit you get.  So be sure to keep track of the dates that permits are available. They are issued on a per car basis.

If you crave a less crowded experience, try to visit during the off-season or at least a weekday.  And some spots are more popular than others.

The Most Notable Spots Along Fossil Creek

(List is from North to South, or upstream to downstream if you prefer to think of it that way)

This forest service map is a helpful guide for learning and locating the notable landmarks.

The Springs

Accessed by Bob Bear Trail, AKA Fossil Springs Trail.  Shortly after you reach the creek, there is a fork in the trail, follow the sign that points left to “The Spring”.

Fossil Creek Natural Ground Springs Youtube Video Link
See the underground springs in action on YouTube.

While there are many springs that feed into Fossil Creek, this one is easy to find and is constantly pumping out lots of water.

Fossil Creek Dam (The Toilet Bowl)

Accessed by Bob Bear Trail – 8 miles, Shortly after you reach the creek, there is a fork in the trail, follow the sign that points right to “The Dam”.  Or it can also be accessed by Flume Trail – 10 miles. The Flume Trailhead which departs from Irving Day Use Area on the other side of the creek.

Fossil Creek Dam Waterfall is a dynamic cascading waterfall.
Fossil Creek Dam Waterfall

The naming is confusing because there isn’t a dam here anymore.  What’s left now is a large waterfall and a couple of deep pools below.

This area is incredibly beautiful, despite the unfortunate nickname.  The Toilet Bowl is just below the falls to the right where the water swirls into a hole in the rocks. And the water exits the bowl through a hole underwater, so it looks a lot like a toilet bowl in action.

Woman walks the rim of the "Toilet Bowl". in Fossil Creek Dam.
Emily walks the rim of the “Toilet Bowl”

But be careful around the toilet bowl, because there’s strong undertow and the walls are steep and slick.  If you fall in the only way out is to swim out underwater through the hole under the rock wall.

In 2019, a man drowned by not being able to exit the toilet bowl. Dangers like this are why it’s highly recommended to bring footwear with good traction.

Fossil Creek Dam Falls

Fossil Creek Waterfall

Fossil Creek Waterfall in Coconino National Forest.
Fossil Creek Waterfall

This the most popular location in the entire area because of the waterfall, large swimming pool, and only about a 2-mile hike. (Accessed by Fossil Creek Waterfall Trailhead by driving in from the West on Fossil Creek Road #708. Then you hike Fossil Creek Waterfall Trail ≈ 2 miles.).

You cannot reach Fossil Creek Waterfall from the East (Bob Bear Trail)

If the Waterfall Trailhead parking is fully reserved, you may use the lots listed below as over-flow parking for the Waterfall Trail. You will just have to hike a little farther.

Other Parking Sites

And then downstream from the waterfall, there are a number of Day Use Areas and Recreation Sites.

Irving Day Use Area

Tonto Bench Day Use Area

Homestead, Sally May, Purple Mountain, and Mazatal Recreation Sites

Each of these sites offers some parking spaces and access to the creek with opportunities for swimming or wading.  Or you can just enjoy nature’s beauty along the creek.

Camping In Fossil Creek Area

Camping is prohibited within the entire permit area from April 1st to October 1st.

Camping in the permit area is only allowed during the off-season (Oct 2 – March 31st).

And camping is always prohibited between Fossil Creek Bridge and Fossil Creek Dam. Here’s the off-season map that details camping rules and designated areas.

Downstream of Fossil Creek Bridge is great for car camping, as long as you camp in established campsites that are more than 100 feet from the creek.

Otherwise, regular dispersed camping is allowed year-round in the National Forest Land outside the permit area.

Backpacking In Fossil Creek Wilderness

And Bob Bear Trail would make for a really fun but challenging backpacking trip.  The hike in and out would be demanding, but once your camp is set up, you would have the perfect “home-base” for exploring the area.

The campsites just between “The Springs” and Fossil Creek Dam are really picturesque. You could spend days out sunbathing and swimming, hammocking, and exploring.

And the day-use visitors would likely only be there during the middle of the day. So mornings, evenings, and nights would provide amazing solitude in this beautiful place.

For those looking for a traditional campground, Clear Creek Campground is just at the beginning of Fossil Creek Road (708), near Camp Verde.

Safety and Responsibility

Fossil Creek is a very remote area with almost no facilities.

Like many beautiful natural areas, there are limited resources available to protect and preserve the natural beauty.  That leaves the responsibility on us visitors to be good stewards of the earth. Be responsible for your own safety and for the preservation of the area.

This area has had issues in the past with trash and human waste. There are is no trash service in Fossil Creek Wilderness.

As always, practice Leave No Trace Principles.

Most of the parking lots have vault toilets.  But the list of amenities basically stops there.  Plan your bathroom breaks if you hike away from the parking areas.

Pack it in, Pack it out! This includes all food waste because it can impact wild animals.

Bring plenty of water, sun protection, and proper footwear.  If you plan on going in the creek at all, it’s highly recommended to bring river water shoes or an appropriate water-sandal (Chaco, Keen, Teva).  The riverbed is very slippery.

Be aware of wild animals and always give them proper space. Rattle snakes are common sightings in this area.

Takeaway: Fossil Creek Wilderness

Emily stands on the bridge bisecting Fossil Creek Dam Waterfall.

Fossil Creek Wilderness can be enjoyed in so many ways.

During less busy times it offers serene wilderness that nourishes the soul of nature lovers.

During the hot summer months, it’s a refreshing desert oasis to sunbathe and cool off in the crystal clear water beneath beautiful waterfalls.

A sunset shows blue mountain layers from Bob Bear Trail.
A sunset view from Bob Bear Trail

If you are looking for more cool adventures in Arizona, check out our Incredible Arizona Road Trip!

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