Fossil Springs Trail Guide: Waterfall Bound in Arizona’s Coconino Forest
Hike into the heart of the Coconino Forest along Fossil Springs Trail. Here's how to track down Arizona's prime waterfall spot.


Fossil Springs Trail Guide Overview

  • Region: Central Arizona, just outside of Strawberry
  • Trail: Fossil Springs Trail, aka Fossil Creek Trail
  • Trail Length: Eight miles total (four in and four back)
  • Trail Time: Six hours
  • Elevation Change: 1,300 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate day hike
  • Attractions: Fossil Springs Waterfall, horseback riding, the toilet bowl, springs, camping

  Meeting at the trailhead and looking at a map in Fossil CreekDirections to the Fossil Springs Hiking Trail The Fossil Creek trail is just west of Strawberry in central Arizona, approximately two hours outside of Phoenix. From AZ 87 (AZ 260), turn west on Fossil Creek Rd. Continue along Fossil Creek Road for approximately 4.7 miles. You’ll notice the road will change from asphalt to dirt as you pass over cattle guards and drive further into the Coconino National Forest. At approximately 4.7 miles, turn right and continue about a quarter mile toward the dirt parking lot and outhouse. Park your car in any open spot. Starting the Fossil Springs Hike We began our hike at 9:00 a.m. on the dot. And though I’d completed this hike a few times before, my legs already tensed at the thought of the hike out. 1,300 feet of elevation change is typically anything but forgiving on the calves and knees. But to my surprise, Arizona smiled down on us that day, not with scorching rays of desert sun, but gentle smirks through spots of clouds and the smell of morning rain. As we laced up our hiking boots and hit the trail, my eyes were immediately drawn to the Vermillion Cliffs and desert shrubs stretched from every nook and cranny – resilient little things in the shadows of the mighty Mogollon Rim. Boots met dirt and the worries of yesterday gave way to the route ahead. Gazing into the horizon at Fossil Creek in Coconino National Forest I’ve grown especially fond of hiking in the desert. Sure, there’s the challenge of staying hydrated and braving the elements, but moreover, the desert has a way of always saving its best for last. It keeps you thirsty, and Fossil Springs is no exception. I held the key. I knew of the treasures that were ahead. And I savored the arid horizon that so poetically cloaked the oasis below. Save the occasional flower or caterpillar along the way, the only color that stretched before us was the crimson sidewinder and its many switchbacks that led us onward, ever closer to falls. I wondered, were these the very steps of the ancient Yavapai and Apache peoples who lived here long ago? We trudged through pine trees and creosote, down rock gardens under Redwall Limestone, Coconino Sandstone and more. Each rhythmic step predictable downhill, offering plenty of time to take in every vista without fear of stumbling. There’s not much in life these days that allows us to stay the course so long – no distractions, no deadlines. But hiking is a constant, unchanging and intentional. We choose a destination and carry on. We set our sights on a landmark or waterfall and move forward toward a collective goal. And when the wind’s to your back, there are moments you feel you could keep on forever. Hanging out with friends on the Fossil Creek Trail in Coconino National Forest Our group consisted of many coworkers that day – peers and professionals united by the trail. And like a good meal, our silence was the symbol of a great time. The trail tamed our hurried lives and turned off our phones. I could see it in their eyes. There was little use for words. For some, this wild was a brand new experience. For others, this was coming home. For all of us, though, this was the first meeting in a long time that we hoped would never end. Approximately 2.7 miles down, we encountered a small cattle gate that signified the completion of our descent. Just a few hundred yards more and we’d enter the bounty of our efforts – flowing creek water and lush vegetation from head to toe. We hiked through puddles and streams, careful not to disturb the toads and small reptiles that called this home. The soft hush of the water lulled us forward through ferns and grasses under the canopies of cottonwoods. Our leisurely strides shifted to rock hopping and balancing across logs. We approached a fork in the road with a quaint handwritten sign and kept right toward the toilet bowl and Fossil Creek waterfall. Neon tents stretched before us from time to time, still silently guarding the sleepers within. We tamed the final hill and the trickling stream began to roar. And quick as the creek jumped up from the desert floor some miles earlier, it now plummeted three stories below to turquoise and emerald pools. We skirted slippery rocks to the amphitheater below and set down our packs within the mist. Most of the hiking crew was hungry. But I was thirsty and needed a dip. watching a waterfall in Fossil Creek One brave coworker and I unlaced our boots and carefully scaled our way back up the falls. Our feet dipped into the stream, we spotted our landing, planned our trajectory, and dove in. Time slowed as we flew out beyond the granite fingers that lurked off the wall and we plunged into the pools. Tired bodies have no better cure. We swam around while my co-worker explored the toilet bowl – a tub-like formation with a natural tube that spits you out the other side – and we eventually dried off to join our team eating the best PB&J sandwiches of all time. Hawks soared above reminding us we’d best begin the hike out before our cool spell gave way to textbook Arizona heat. The upward hike had its challenges and we were conscious to pace ourselves. Breaks became much more a demand than an option; the group caught its breath between switchbacks. We didn’t set any records on the way out, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thoroughly impressed with the team. Looking back into the canyon below, it was hard to believe we’d been there and back in half a day. We packed our things, careful to leave the trail as clean as we’d found it, and piled into our cars. hiking the Fossil Springs Trail in La Sportiva Synthesis GORE-TEX SURROUND® Boots Convenient as it may have been, traveling on wheels felt strikingly wrong. My mind wandered until our celebratory breakfast burritos in the heart of Payson snapped me back to reality. Hiking in the desert always leaves you thirsty for more. Fossil Springs Trailhead Preparations and Hiking Safety Tips If the postings and rangers somehow haven’t made it clear enough, make sure you have plenty of potable water. While there is typically plenty of water at the end of the hike to swim in, it’s not recommended you consume any of it without proper filtration or treatment. Before you leave your car, double check that everyone has their hiking essentials, food and hydration. Skim over the wooden signs for trail updates and heed their cautions. Accidents do happen and rangers do their best to post safety tips and ample warnings for hikers of all skill levels. Use the restroom if need be and venture along the posted trail to the core of the hike. Fossil Springs Parking Reservations Fossil Springs has grown in popularity in recent years. To account for the parking and foot traffic, prime seasons – May through August – may require a Fossil Springs parking permit from recreation.gov. If You Liked This Arizona Hike, You’ll Love


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