Fossil Creek, one of two “Wild and Scenic” rivers in Arizona, seems to appear out of nowhere, gushing 20,000 gallons a minute out of a series of springs fed by the cliffs of the Mogollon Rim. Over 30 million gallons of water are discharged each day at a constant 70 °F. Throughout the years these calcium laden waters have laid down huge deposits of a material called travertine. That rock-like substance encases whatever happens to fall into the streambed – forming the fossils for which the area is named.
Most people come to Fossil Creek to swim, sunbathe, wade, hike and bird watch. It’s also a great place to take photographs. The lushness of the riparian area strikes a sharp contrast to the brittle desert that surrounds it. Many plants and wildlife depend on Fossil Creek for habitat, including otters, beavers, leopard frogs, and common black hawks. While you’re here, keep an eye out for javelina and deer. Both are abundant in the area.
In 2005, Arizona Public Service (APS) decommissioned the Fossil Creek Dam and Flume, restoring full flows to Fossil Creek. In 2009, Congress designated Fossil Creek as a Wild and Scenic River to protect the river’s amazing attributes for years to come. The Forest Service is mandated to develop a Comprehensive River Management Plan (CRMP) that will analyze existing conditions and prescribe management designed to protect the area.
Fossil Creek has a number of Dilzhé’é (Western Apache) cultural sites. The Dilzhé’é lived along Fossil Creek for generations and several families consider this to be their homeland.
NOTE: The road (FR 708) from Strawberry is closed until April 15, 2015. The Fossil Creek hiking trail is still open. This is a 4-mile hike each way. Please go prepared with supplies, food and plenty of water.
From Cabins on Strawberry Hill, take Highway 87 south ¼ mile and turn west onto Fossil Creek Road. Continue approximately 4 miles (past all homes). The turn off to the trailhead lies to the right off of the dirt road. Parking is limited, so arrive early.
East Verde: Water Wheel
The East Verde River emerges from a spring at the base of the Mogollon Rim up above Washington Park, then runs for 15 miles along Houston Mesa Road, flowing past East Verde Estates and on down through miles of wild canyon lands, finally dumping into the Verde River northwest of Payson. The Salt River Project is now releasing an additional40 cubic feet per second into the stream at Washington Park, which has dramatically increased its flows and left the water clear and clean and cold. It’s a treasure: please protect it.
Some of the most popular swimming holes in all of Mogollon Rim country are found just east of the Water Wheel Campground along the East Verde near Houston Mesa Road. A fire closed the area most people utilized to get access, but just look for parking near the bridge and hike up to the stream. As you hike east along the creek you’ll encounter several swimming holes, the first few of which are usually shallow enough for children. The ones farther east are narrower and relatively deep. About a quarter-mile from the road begins a series of small waterfalls and pools near the bottom of a narrow stone canyon. The Water Wheel area offers the best single swimming hole around- a deep pool and 50-foot waterfall!
From Cabins on Strawberry Hill, take Highway 87 south approximately 5 miles to Control Road. Turn east (left) onto this gravel road and drive approximately 9 miles to Houston Mesa Road. Turn south (right) onto Houston Mesa and continue for 4-5 miles. Water Wheel lies south of second crossing, where the stream flows across the road. There are no bathrooms, so be sure to carry out your waste. It’s a good idea to check with the ranger station for water levels by calling (928) 474-7900.
Additional, easy access to the East Verde River can be found off of Flowing Springs Road, 5 miles north of Payson on Highway 87. Go east ¾ miles to the Verde River crossing. This is a great place for kids.
Tonto Creek boasts excellent swimming in a succession of beautiful pools that are visited all summer by locals and tourists alike. This easily accessible stretch of river perfectly combines water and scenery. The lower reaches of Tonto Creek in the Hellsgate wilderness area offer an unforgettable stint of canyoneering for the adventurous and brave. The river returns to civilization, often nearly exhausted, at Gisela, where it waits at the end of Forest Road 417 off Highway 87. Tonto Creek continues into Roosevelt Lake.
From Payson, head east up Highway 260 through Star Valley toward the Mogollon Rim. In about 18 miles, you’ll come to Tonto Creek. If you turn north off the highway, you’ll follow a dirt road up and along the trout-stocked creek. Eventually, you’ll hit the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, which produces the fish that stock all of the Rim Country streams. You can take a tour of the hatchery. You can find places to park all along that road leading up to the hatchery and head down to the creek. The creek gets heavy use during summer weekends, but even then you can hike up and down the creek and find your own little swimming hole. Alternatively, you can turn off Highway 260 before you get to the hatchery road and make your way down the narrow dirt road to Bear Flat, where you can evade some of the crowds on prime weekends.
Haigler Creek lies at the end of a dirt road. A popular hiking trail winds through the forest alongside the creek. To reach Haigler, turn off Highway 260 on the unpaved Forest Road 291, go three miles, then turn right onto Forest Road 200. You’ll come to a trailhead in another five miles. From there, it’s a quarter-mile walk to the creek.
Christopher Creek sometimes all but dries up in a drought. To gain access, take the turnoff for Christopher Creek from Highway 260, then turn north onto Forest Road 284 toward See Canyon. You’ll find a campground shaded by poplars and spruce.
Horton Creek lies just one mile from Highway 260, just off the Tonto Creek Hatchery Road. Park at the Horton Trailhead and take the beautiful, two-mile hike through the trees to Horton Creek, which twists and turns through slots in the limestone beneath a forest canopy. The creek sometimes goes dry in its lower reaches, but push on upstream toward the spring to regain the splash of water and work the small pools for wary, wild brown trout.
Canyon Creek offers soothing rewards for the adventurous, since it lies well off the highway. Head up onto the Rim on Highway 260 and just past the Young turnoff look for Forest Road 288. Go south to Forest Road 33 and turn east. Continue until you hit Forest Road 34 and turn left. That road soon crosses the creek. Park there and work upstream or downstream to enjoy the small pools.