Tag: arizona hiking

Hiking Near Payson, AZ: The Fossil Springs Trail

Why You Might Love This Trail

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

Fossil Springs Trail is one of the emerging stars among the trails of Arizona. It isn’t all that uncommon to run into pictures of the waterfall and the unflatteringly named “toilet bowl” on Instagram. It will be immediately clear why people from all over the world enjoy this hike. Fossil Springs is truly an oasis in the desert, with its mossy falls and lush riparian trees. The trail into the Fossil Springs canyon will also take you through some of the higher country scrub forests of Arizona. These are absolutely beautiful in conjunction with the wide-open spaces of the drier parts of the state.

Of course, if you love hiking, this is a very good trail to explore. You get to experience the high elevation and riparian forests of the state. If you enjoy swimming, there are also some wonderful spots along the creek for a dip, and there is an endless array of photo spots.

Trail Stats

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

Length: ~8-9 miles (~4.5 miles in either direction, give or take)

Permits: Required from April 1-October 1

Access: Accessible with 2WD when dry; parking is down a dirt road with bumps and potholes, but I made it in my Acura RSX which has very little clearance.

Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult; This is a long trail with elevation gain on the way out. I didn’t find it to be particularly steep (1,500ft over the course of 4 miles), but I hike regularly.

Getting a Permit

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

If you want to hike the Fossil Springs Trail during more mild weather, you will most likely need a permit (April 1 – October 1). But if you have 4WD and are prepared for snow hiking, you can also go hike the trail without a permit from October 2 – March 31.

In any case, if you plan ahead, it really isn’t difficult to get a permit. Just go to the Recreation.gov website and see if there are any available for your dates; you can buy permits a month ahead of time. If you want to go more than once in a year, you are allowed to hold one permit per month. Permits only cost $6 per vehicle.


fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

There are multiple trailheads/parking lots, but I would suggest reserving your permit for the Fossil Springs Trailhead near Strawberry, AZ. For those of you looking for hiking near Payson, AZ or coming up from Phoenix, you will need to drive north through Payson on the 87. You will pass through the small village of Pine. Then in Strawberry you will travel west on Fossil Creek Road/FR 708. Five miles down this road, and you will turn right to get to the parking lot.

Before you are able to park, you will need to have your permit checked. So, be sure that you follow all instructions on Recreation.gov and have your paperwork ready to go!

Depending on where you are coming from, you might need some slightly different directions, or you might be heading to a different trailhead. Whatever the case, the Recreation.gov website will have more information for you.

Our Experience of the Trail

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

In my mind, there are two sections of this trail. The first part takes you down from the parking lot and into the canyon. The incline wasn’t horrendously steep and the trail itself is pretty wide until you get close to the creek towards the bottom. Much of this first section is shaded by the trees and shrubs that characterize the open forests of most hiking near Payson, AZ. You will also get to enjoy the beautiful red soil that you can find throughout this area beneath the Mogollon Rim. This is a lovely place with great views of the landscape and canyon. It is also the harder part of the trail, and that sort of makes it something to be pushed through.

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

You will come to the second section of the trail when you reach the bottom of the canyon. Here the trees transition from the higher elevation forests to the riparian ecosystems that make Arizona water-side places so special and vibrant. The trail gets pretty flat at this point. So, I like to amble along this section, stopping to take pictures, eat snacks, and swim. While most people head straight for the dam and the “toilet bowl” I would highly suggest that you take your time and enjoy it all. There are plenty of spots to take in the spring, snap pictures of the beautiful forest, and rest up before you have to start your journey back up the canyon.

Safety Concerns

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

While I did not find this trail to be particularly dangerous or strenuous, many many people underestimate what it takes to hike something like Fossil Springs Trail. In 2017, first responders were actually overwhelmed by the number of people needing to be rescued from this area. Accidents happen, and even the best hikers can get hurt and need rescuing, but you have to do everything in your power to stay safe and not be a part of this problem. Here are some tips for staying safe, but remember that your safety on the trail is up to you. Be careful and prepared at all times.

Safety Check-list

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

(1) Know your abilities. If you are planning on going on this hike, practice beforehand. Know that you can hike 9 miles round trip with the elevation gain. If you aren’t ready, wait and do it after you have had time to prepare your body.

(2) Always bring food, water, and first aid supplies with you. Plan on bringing enough provisions for an entire day, and if you are unsure, there are outdoor first aid kits specifically sized and designed for the length of trip and number of people that you can get at REI.

(3) Start early in the day, even if you aren’t a morning person. This will give you more time if you need to take it slow on the way out. You don’t want to still be on the trail at night, but bring a small light just in case.

(4) WEAR GOOD SHOES. You should wear hiking shoes for the Fossil Springs Trail, and you need to have broken them in before you go. Do several hikes in a new pair of shoes before taking them out somewhere as remote as this.

More Safety Tips

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

(5) Unless you are a very practiced hiker, do not do this hike alone, and insure that all of your hiking partners are prepared.

(6) Pay close attention to the weather. Arizona is a place of extremes and this can be dangerous. When it is hot and dry, you need to make sure that you stay hydrated and have healthy levels of sodium (bring salty snacks). And when it storms, it STORMS. Fossil Springs is in a canyon and thus there is a risk of flash flooding. Before you leave, make sure that you pay attention to the conditions and plan accordingly. You may need to cancel your trip if the weather is looking really bad, but better to cancel than end up getting hurt or worse.

(7) If you are going swimming, remember that you are out in the wild in moving water. Make sure that you are a strong swimmer, are going with other people, and pay attention to your level of exhaustion.

Lessons from the Trail

Before It Was Cool

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

Yeah, I went to Fossil Springs Trail before it was cool. Hahaha, but it wasn’t like that. I was a kid at the time (5 or 6 maybe? It’s one of those fuzzy memories that I have, probably from right when I started remembering things), and my dad and I hiked down to the creek to camp. I can’t remember exactly where this was in the canyon, but I believe it was on the opposite side of the canyon than the trail I’ve described above.

It was a lovely day, but unfortunately, this was before the internet, and we ended up getting stuck in a storm. Consider this a lesson in things not to do… and a reality check about how dangerous weather in these canyons can be.

I loved the creek as a child, because I’ve always been enchanted by flowing water, having grown up in the desert. I remember playing among the trees and along the water, and at the time, there were no other people camping or hiking in the area. We had this beautiful place all to ourselves and the day stayed bright and clear until sunset, when the clouds started to creep in.

Rising Waters

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

We managed to finish eating dinner before things started getting dark and stormy. The rain didn’t start out particularly hard, so we hunkered down in our tent and hoped for the best. Luckily, my dad decided that we needed to abandon our campsite as soon as it was clear that the creek was rising. By this point, it was pitch dark, and I remember clutching to a little stuffed animal that I had brought with me, protecting it from the rain as best I could.

My dad packed up everything he could, and then led me straight up the canyon, towards the road. Now that water was pouring down, we had to claw our way up through the mud, to avoid the rising water. We managed to make up onto the road, and we were out of danger from the rising water at that point, but we were turned around in the dark storm and we weren’t sure what direction our vehicle was. I don’t remember well enough to say what the temperature was at this time, but being soaked and lost in the dark is never a pleasant experience.

Again, luckily for us, my dad’s sense of direction was spot on, and after a bit of walking down the road we made it to our vehicle. Now, we get to look back at this memory and laugh, but imagine if things had gone differently. If we had fallen asleep in the rain, we might have been caught in the flood. If we hadn’t turned the right way, we would have had to spend the night in the storm, and potentially face hypothermia. Back then, we couldn’t go look up the weather in Payson-area online, and we didn’t have a cell phone; but now we don’t have those excuses.

Just Be Smart

That’s a lot of information on safety! Is this trail really that dangerous?!

If you are interested in hiking Fossil Spring Trail, just make sure that you are prepared. This is a great, beautiful hike. It is also one that has been plagued by people getting themselves into situations that they couldn’t get themselves out of.

fossil springs trail

fossil springs trail

Phoenix Area Hiking: Boulder Canyon Trail #103

Phoenix is a great city for hiking, if you have some common sense about heat exposure and keeping water on hand. There are many amazing mountain preserves throughout the city, one of the most famous of which is Camelback Mountain. What is less known to visitors is that the city is also ringed by several man-made lakes. Every one is unique, and they all offer a variety of outdoor activities. Canyon Lake is my favorite. And Boulder Canyon Trail is the best trail to get views of the lake, and surrounding mountains. Hike far enough, and you will also be able to see the Superstitions and Weaver’s Needle.

Boulder Canyon Trail

Level of Difficulty: Moderate; rocky trail, with consistent inclines. Easy to navigate within 3 miles of the trailhead.

Cost: $0

Where to Park: Canyon Lake Marina, dirt parking lot

Accessible to…: All vehicle types; the road leading up to the trailhead is paved, although windy and narrow at some points.

Necessities: Water, snacks, small first aid kit, map and compass, camera

Boulder Canyon Trail

Suggested Route: Unless you are very experienced with desert hiking and navigation, I would suggest just doing 3 miles in and then another 3 miles out (or less; out and back). This is straightforward and will afford you some amazing views. This is not a loop trail, but it does connect to the network of Superstition trails.

Trail Description: Boulder Canyon Trail starts across the 88 from the marina parking lot. You will be faced with an immediate junction, one trail to the left and one to the right. Follow the sign for Boulder Canyon to the left (if you go to the right, the trail is short and just follows the edge of the lake).

Boulder Canyon Trail

Once you get started, you will have to deal with a steady climb up Frog Peak. This mountain is quite rounded,  and more like a hill than anything else, but the trail is rocky and the climb is consistent. The plant and bird diversity is wonderful in this area, and even the rocks are little rainbows of lichen forests. When and if you find yourself puffing on the way up, be sure to pause and enjoy both the scenery and the unique ecosystem around you.

At the top of Frog Peak you will get some very beautiful views of Canyon Lake. The dam, marina, and canyon that gives the lake its name will all make an appearance. The colorful mountains that encircle this area are breathtaking as well. Honestly, I just can’t say enough how much I love this area. It is the epitome of desert beauty.

Boulder Canyon Trail

If you keep going past the cairn on the peak, the trail will wind you to the south along the mountains for a way. There are a few ups and downs here, but overall, nothing as strenuous as the trek up the first mountain. If you are feeling up to it, I highly suggest continuing on for a while. This is the part of Boulder Canyon Trail where you will get the best views of Weaver’s Needle, and you will have the opportunity to experience some of the lesser known mountain vistas in the area.

After this stretch, the trail will dip down towards a creek bed. This is where I typically turn around, either at the top of the descent or at the bottom if I want more of a work out coming back up. You can keep going, but Boulder Canyon Trail is quite long and connects with other trails, so for casual hikers or visitors, I wouldn’t suggest it. Plus, if you turn around, you will have more time to stop by Tortilla Flats for Prickly Pear ice cream!

Boulder Canyon Trail

For more info on the trail, read through Hike Arizona’s guide.

And if you are looking for more ideas for things to do in Arizona, our guide to the state will help you find unique events, hikes, and restaurants to visit.


A Hike Worth Hollering About: Tanque Verde Falls

It’s rare for us Nightborn Travel gals to pass up a chance to hike. On our recent trip down to the Ol’ Pueblo (or Tucson, as normal people would call it) we decided to venture out to Tanque Verde Canyon for our first time hiking Tanque Verde Falls.

View from the top of the trail – close to the trailhead.

This trail is located east of Tucson, just barely outside of the city – maybe 15 to 20 minutes. Take note that the paved road leading to the trailhead becomes a dirt road, so take that into consideration if your vehicle isn’t suited for dusty and slightly bumpy (but still driveable) terrain.

A comically angry-looking cactus near the creek bed. You’re welcome.

The hike itself is only about 2 miles long, but if you want to actually make it to the falls, there’s one BIG thing to take into consideration, and that’s water. Should you bring it? Yes. But also, has it rained lately? Because if it has, the creek along the trail will be running and while it will be beautiful, it will make your hike to the falls less of a hike and more of an… attempt.

Mmmm, sweet brown rainwater. (We did not drink this water, nor do we endorse drinking this water.)

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s exactly what happened to us. We made it about halfway up the trail before a mini-waterfall blocked us from going forward. We talked to a couple locals who told us that if the creek is dry or at least more of a trickle, you can scramble your way up the falls.

The mini-waterfall that hike-blocked us.

And here’s another thing to consider, the trail going down to the creek bed is relatively easy going, but from there on you’ll be encountering rock pile after rock pile and some times it will feel less like hiking and more like bouldering.

Rocks on rocks on rocks.

That being said, the area the trail is in is wonderful and the falls are said to be worth seeing, so there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be back. And, keeping what you’ve read in mind, we’ll hope you visit, too (if you’re not a big hiker, it’s a great little spot to find a rock along the creek and relax).

Happy hiking!


Cave Creek Hiking: Go John Trail

There is alot of variety to Cave Creek hiking, and Go John Trail is one of the most well known trails in this area. In fact, it was previously showcased by Sweat Magazine as reader’s choice best hike. And all for good reason. The Go John Trail is just the right amount of challenge mixed in with all the beauty you could possibly want. Sweeping views of the Sonoran Desert, and rolling, mountainous hills, covered with saguaro. This trail will take you through lush washes, and arid landscapes. And now, after the fires of 2020, it is also home to a burn scar which will shape the landscape for years and years to come.

Whether you are a local or just visiting, if you have the time (and weather) for this trail, it is a must.

go john trail

Sonoran desert from Go John Trail (c) ABR 2018

Need to Know

Location: Cave Creek Regional Park
Run By: Maricopa County
Fee: $7 per car
General Difficulty: Moderate
Round Trip Length: 5.4-6 miles (8.7 km)
Accumulated Gain: 1,260 feet (384 meters)
Crowd Levels: Light
Other activities: Camping, picnicking, visiting the nature center (where there is a desert tortoise!)

Why Do the Go John Trail?

The first time that I did this trail, I was a little underwhelmed, particularly because the person who took me kept telling me that it was the most beautiful trail in all the metro area. I’m sure that some people would agree with her, but I am partial to Spur Cross myself, if I were to point you towards my favorite trail. In any case, in the past few years, I have returned to the Go John Trail again and again, and I’ve really gained an appreciation for this trek. I think it’s a great way to experience the Sonoran Desert, whether it is your first time or your 100th.

There is really wonderful plant biodiversity on this trail, because you get some different microbiomes. You have the arid desert, and then some slightly lusher areas when you cross some washes. On wildflower years, I have seen all kinds of beautiful blooms here. And there are some extremely impressive saguaro along the trail as well. Likewise, there are tons of animals that you can view from the trail, although this takes much more practice, as many are experts at hiding.

Since 2020, there is also another reason why this trail is special to me- it is home to a large burn scar from the 2020 fire season. From this, you should be able to tell that “special” has an unorthodox connotation here. This isn’t something that makes me happy; in fact, the last time I walked through the scar, I cried. There are hundreds of saguaro that will likely die from the fire, invasive plants are already coming in, and its just a devastating landscape. But, I think it serves as an important look into what we risk by not addressing wildfire concerns here in Arizona and elsewhere.


Which means we can prevent many of them, but we need for people to care.


First Half

go john trail

Sonoran desert from Go John Trail (c) ABR 2018

The Go John Trail starts at the parking lot at the very end of the road in the recreation area. It is a loop hike that you can start heading north or east. The first section of the trail (if you head north on the Maricopa Trail) rises up over a saddle in the mountains. It’s not a particularly steep incline, but it was sustained enough to get my heart rate up. This is the hardest part of the trail, in my opinion, and after you make the top of this rise, Go John will take you down into a valley where you will first enter the burn scar.

The burn scar (c) ABR 2021

Before you descend onto the main length of the trail, however, I would suggest pausing to enjoy the view. The saddle is a great place to snap some pictures of the valleys to either side, one with the heart of Phoenix and one still wild (for now). The rest of the trail is fairly low elevation, so there aren’t tons of other spots for pictures until  the end. That being said, the mountains in Spur Cross will  be at eye line for most of your trek, so the horizon-to-horizon beauty is there.

It’s also the perfect place to compare the healthy desert with the burnt desert. The difference is striking.

Second Half

go john trail

Sonoran desert from Go John Trail (c) ABR 2018

Once you hike down into the washes, you will have some wonderful opportunities to see Sonoran desert biodiversity, with a multitude of plants growing in this relatively lush part of the Phoenix valley. But the trail will continue in and out of the burn scar for miles after the saddle. Birds abound despite the damage, however, and if you know where to look (and how to be both safe and respectful of the animals) there is also some good herping here.

The way back towards the trailhead goes require you to gain some elevation again, but it is much more gradual than the first half of the trail. And once you round the mountains to the east, you will finally exit the burn area and start exploring the thriving desert again. The difference should be immensely apparent.

Beautiful Sonoran Desert (c) ABR 2021

Despite what some uninformed people might proclaim, the desert is not empty. My home is full of life, it just so happens to look less lush than what most people are used to. In fact, Arizona is the third most biodiverse state in the United States.

Safety First

The Go John Trail is 6 miles long, and believe it or not, people have died here before. Never take hiking lightly; be safe! You are your own responsibility and this guide is not a guarantee of your safety.

Do not hike when it is hot (be wary of 85 degrees and higher).

Bring 2-3 liters of water on your hike, as well as salty and sugary snacks.

Wear good hiking boots that will protect your feet and help prevent you from slipping on sandy rocks.

For more safety tips, please reference our other hiking guides.

Does Fire Belong in the Sonoran Desert?

Invasive Stinknet (c) ABR 2021

Not in the way that we are seeing them now. Fires in the Sonoran Desert have not been as large, as hot, and as common as they are now. This change towards more fires that burn larger areas and are more destructive while burning is primarily due to various things that we are doing to the landscape. (1) We are lighting more fires. (2) Climate change is causing drought and higher temperatures which support fires. (3) Human-introduced, exotic grasses and competitive, fast-growing annuals are creating heavy fuel loads where there didn’t used to be any.

These more intense, more common wildfires are changing our landscape and the charismatic saguaro serves as a good example of why. These giant, loveable cacti are not adapted to fire and they are slow growing. So, when wildfires cross the landscape, they may initially survive but with more than 30% burns, even the oldest plants will die within 5 years. Young saguaro are even more vulnerable. Then, it is invasive grasses that emerge from the newly burnt soils. They compete for resources with the tiny, saguaro seedlings and if there are young saguaro that manage to grow after the fire, they are at risk for the next fire, which the invasive grasses will provide fuel loads for.

It IS Up to You To Prevent Wildfires

(c) ABR 2021

As Smokey Bear always says- it is up to us to prevent wildfires and that is true! There are several key things that you can do.

(1) Target shoot responsibly.

Many of our fires are started by target shooters, but this can be prevented. Pick places to shoot where there isn’t a heavy load of dry grasses and plants that can catch on fire easily from a spark. Choose areas with berms. Don’t shoot at metal targets which will spark, and don’t shoot at explosives of any kind.

(2) Check your tow chains.

If towing while on the road, insure that all of your safety chains are either outfiitted with anti-spark covers or adjusted so that they can’t drag on the group.

(c) ABR 2021

(3) Watch where you park.

Do not park your vehicle over dried grasses. Sparks from vehicles can and do cause fires.

(4) Do not throw cigarettes or leave camp fires unattended.

Tossing cigarettes on the ground and leaving campfires unattended and insufficiently doused can put entire landscapes at risk as well as the people in them. Put out your fires with water and stirred until they are completely out (no steam, no heat), and stamp out your cigarettes and pack them out with you.

go john trail

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