Why You Might Love This Trail
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
(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
(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
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.
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.