RIVER OF THE MONTH
One of only two Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona, Fossil Creek weaves a ribbon of life into an otherwise harsh and arid landscape. The stream flows from a series of mineral springs on the Mogollon Rim and winds 17 miles through the Sonoran Desert to the Verde River. It is one of the Verde’s primary tributaries and crucial to the overall health of the Verde River system. Fossil Creek’s mineralladen water hovers around 70 degrees year-round and creates beautiful limestone formations that give the river its name.
Why It Matters
The Sonoran Desert’s major rivers depend on spring-fed tributaries like Fossil Creek. This rare mineral stream delivers clean water to the Verde River at a near-constant rate all year long, despite the scarcity of rain. Fossil Creek was drained dry by a hydroelectric project for a century and was recently restored through the largest river recovery effort in the Southwest. The recovery was remarkable, and the river again supports diverse wildlife and offers a cool escape from the sun for nearby communities.
Fossil Creek is the longest river reach in Arizona free of nonnative fish species. It supports nine native species, including spikedace, loach minnow and Gila topminnow, all of which are endangered. The presence of these fish gives the creek national significance. DAN SORENSEN
In addition to its importance to fish, Fossil Creek supports diverse wildlife, including river otter, beaver, endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, threatened yellow-billed cuckoo, threatened Chiricahua leopard frog, 15 species of bat, and a wealth of other bird species.
FOSSIL CREEK, ARIZONA
How to See It
Fossil Creek is a remote desert stream, accessible primarily by a long dirt road from Camp Verde. From April to October, you’ll also need a permit. To minimize visitor impact on this fragile river, the Coconino National Forest instituted the permit system in 2017. Can’t get there? See Fossil Creek in this US Forest Service photo gallery.
Fossil Creek is a true oasis, fed by a mineral spring that gushes 20,000 gallons of water per minute from the desert rock. Pools are a perfect 70 degrees throughout most of the creek. With the new permit system, crowds should be less of an issue.
There are miles of rugged and spectacular trails along and around Fossil Creek. For a comprehensive trail list, visit the US Forest Service’s website. Be sure to bring ample water if you go. The wilderness gets brutally hot in summer.
Fossil Creek and its associated riparian areas support prolific bird life, making it outstanding for birding. Over 100 species have been identified in the area, including several threatened or endangered species.
Access permit parking via SR 260 near Camp Verde and along dirt Forest Road 708 (14 miles, rough); or by hiking 4.5 hard miles to the headwaters of Fossil Creek from the Fossil Springs Trailhead parking lot near Strawberry. No thru access via Strawberry by road.
From Phoenix: 2.75hrs; Flagstaff: 3hrs; Tucson: 4.25hrs Best times of year to visit: Apr-Jun & Sep-Oct
CO N S E R VAT I O N
THE WRC STORY In 2016, WRC conserved the last unprotected parcel of land within the Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic River corridor by acquiring a 19-acre property and conveying it to the Coconino National Forest for permanent protection. WRC’s acquisition of these lands helped strike a balance between conservation and recreation within the corridor and will improve the Forest Service’s ability to manage recreation along the river. Our efforts build on 12 years of conservation and restoration work by state and federal agencies and restoration groups.
How to Help
www.westernrivers.org KERRY ESTEY KEITH