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Fossil Springs
Hiking Beneath the Mogollon Rim
Strawberry
May 11, 2002
by Chuck Parsons
  Trail Map 
group
14 adventurous hikers gather at the Fossil Springs Trailhead.

On a typically beautiful Arizona spring morning in mid-May the following fourteen adventurous hikers assemble for a group picture at the Fossil Springs Trailhead, before starting our 1,500-foot descent into the Fossil Springs area: Dan, Michael, Angela, Sam, Mike, John, Anatoli, Natasha, George, Tim, Joyce, Chuck, Kathy, and Tim. Under crystal clear, sapphire blue skies, with the temperature a balmy 75 degrees and a refreshing breeze blowing up from the canyon below, we start our four-mile hike into the springs. The time is 9:30 AM in Rim Country, Arizona, U.S.A.

Our trailhead starts out at an elevation of 5,800 feet, and we will descend all the way to 4,300 feet before reaching our destination at Fossil Springs. Most of our trail today lies within Fossil Springs Wilderness, 11,550 acres of rugged canyon country carved into the southern edge of the vast Colorado Plateau, an area we in Arizona know as the Mogollon Rim.

water
White water on Fossil Springs.

The upper trail follows a long abandoned jeep trail for the first couple of miles, as it winds its way down past an old gravel pit through forests of pinyon pine, juniper, scrub oak, and manzanita. The trail is relatively smooth in places, but much of it requires carefully stepping through a virtual minefield of rocks and small boulders, as we slowly make our way down to the springs.

It isn’t too long before we catch our first sight of the elevated water flume, built around 1900 to divert water from Fossil Creek for Arizona’s first hydroelectric generator in Childs.

In 1916 the flume was extended, and a second dam and hydroelectric generator was constructed two miles downstream in Irving.

paradise
Fossil Springs – a riparian paradise.

These two power plants were able to provide much of the electrical power needs for the city of Phoenix in the 1920s, when it was a sleepy little town of only 30,000 residents. Although still in operation, both plants are scheduled to be decommissioned and eventually demolished, along with the seven-mile long flume. The million gallons per hour of natural spring water, diverted these many years for the hydro plants, will be rerouted back into the creek bed, and the Fossil Springs area will be restored back to its original natural state. It was also during this period, popularly known as the Roaring 20s, that the Verde Hot Springs Resort was constructed about a mile upstream from Childs. These were Prohibition times, when alcohol was hard to come by for most, but with the right connections it could always be found in certain places, including Verde Hot Springs. Although the resort burned down in 1962, its two natural hot springs pools are still available to hikers who are willing to wade the Verde River a couple of times to reach them.

As we drop in elevation and become more exposed to the sun on much of the trail, the air temperature begins to heat up, but a cooling breeze always seems to cool us down just as we begin to get uncomfortably warm. After about 3.5 miles we finally reach the canyon floor and Fossil Springs, a lush green riparian habitat that supports over 100 bird species and more than 30 species of trees and shrubs, including towering cottonwood and sycamore trees that line the length of the springs. This is also an ideal haven for deer, black bear, mountain lion, javelina, coatimundi, fox, coyote, snakes (including rattlers), and numerous other small wildlife. This is such an amazing contrast to all of the other areas we have seen on our earlier hikes this year, where the land is suffering the effects of Arizona’s prolonged drought, that it almost seems like another world, a hidden little paradise unknown to most desert dwellers.

yellow
Golden columbine.

There are even a surprising number of wildflowers blooming along the springs, including the spectacular golden columbine.

Since it is now a little past 11:00, we decide this is the perfect place to stop and take a relaxing lunch break in the shade provided by an overhead canopy of cottonwood and sycamore trees.

Some of our hikers have removed their boots and socks and are cooling tired, hot feet in the crystal clear, cool waters of Fossil Springs. A couple of kids are trying their luck fishing for the spring’s elusive trout in a nearby deeper pool, while others are swinging out over the pools on a long rope swing and dropping into the water with a loud splash. This is one of Arizona’s few permanently flowing springs, where over one million gallons of pure 72 degree spring water gush out of the ground every hour. Fossil Springs actually acquired its name from exposed limestone containing 350 million-year-old marine fossils, remnants of an ancient past when Arizona and much of the west lay beneath a vast shallow inland sea.

hikers
Hikers stop to enjoy lunch and admire the scenery.
    It is really tempting to spend the rest of the day right here, just relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature, but we finally decide to move on and follow the trail south for another half-mile to Fossil Springs Dam. I was hoping to find some of the daring cliff divers, diving into the deep, dark pools far below, that we had seen on our hike here last year, but today we would only see a solitary couple sunbathing below us by the deepest pool below the dam.
beer
Last one in buys the beer, boys!

I had heard an earlier rumor over our TalkAbout radios about some nude sunbathers in the area, which is sometimes known for such frolicking antics sans bathing suits, but we would not see any of them today. I think perhaps they heard the Motorola Hiking Club was in the area and decided to suit up for us. Darn! Looks like I carried my telephoto lens for nothing today.

After crossing the dam and heading back on the opposite trail for a short distance, we come across several of our group, including Michael, Tim, and Sam, swinging out on a long rope and dropping into a deep pool beneath a sprawling sycamore tree at the edge of the springs. Kathy is also in the water, but I did not get a chance to see her swing out on the rope, and she did not seem any too willing to do a repeat performance for my camera, so I settled on several pictures of the guys swinging out and dropping into the cool waters.

As fun as all of this has been, we must think about starting our four-mile climb out of this canyon and back to the trailhead. We also have 1,500 feet of elevation gain ahead of us, and the day is only going to get hotter.

We split up and head back on both trails on either side of the springs to the main trail.

About a half-mile from the dam Kathy spots a small diamondback rattlesnake coiled up and sunning itself along the edge of the trail. Several versions of this snake story resulted in a rattlesnake that was somewhere between six inches and six feet in length. The snake must have decided we were not suitable prey and soon decided to slither off into the brush in search of something a little smaller and easier to catch.

By the time we got back to the main trail and started the climb out of the canyon and this lush aquatic paradise known as Fossil Springs, the temperature had risen to 90 degrees. Despite the unseasonable heat, we were fortunate enough to have a refreshing and cooling breeze accompany us all the way back to the trailhead, becoming even stronger as we neared the top.

swim
The perfect summertime swimming hole.

We also took advantage of the plentiful shady areas along the trail, provided by large pine and junipers. Between the shade, cooling breezes, and plenty of water breaks, we all made it back to the trailhead by 3:00 PM, despite the warm temperatures. After cleaning up a bit and parting company, Anatoli suggests that some of us meet in Strawberry for a few cold beers and something to eat. Arriving in the picturesque little village of Strawberry, we pull up to the Strawberry Sports Chalet. This place must be popular with the local bikers as well, since we had no sooner settled in at several of the outdoor tables, when about a dozen bikers pulled up on their Harleys.

While quenching our thirst with pitchers of ice-cold beer, Anatoli and Sam get into a deep philosophical discussion on the making of a good Russian vodka. Most of us were unsure if vodka was made from potatoes or wheat.

view
Flowers and falls.

It turns out that both are actually used, but the very best vodkas are always made with wheat, while the cheap stuff – pedestrian swill for the poor pheasants – is typically made from the local potato crop. Very interesting. As we dig into several plates of sizzling hot appetizers, including fried chicken strips, battered and fried mozzarella cheese sticks, and mushrooms,

Anatoli is questioned once again about his survival experience with Candi Cook last year, while hiking in the Four Peaks area.

Anatoli and Candi were on a routine day hike in the Four Peaks in April, 2001. Their goal was to hike to the top of Brown’s Peak, highest of the Four Peaks, and time permitting, climb at least one or two of the others. The day had started out bright and sunny, without a cloud in the sky, but unknown to them, a serious late spring storm front was fast approaching out of the west. As the front bore down on them, and the weather quickly deteriorated, they tried making their way back down the trail. Rain soon turned into sleet and then slushy snow, as the air temperature plummeted.

With the storm fast approaching near whiteout conditions, they realized there was no hope of making it back down the mountain and had to make some quick decisions. Candi had a cell phone with her and was able to get a 911 call out with their location, before the batteries eventually died.

They had no emergency supplies and no extra clothing with them, and soon realized they would have to spend the night in the middle of a snowstorm in the Four Peaks. A lot of people might not have made it under such life-threatening conditions, but Anatoli and Candi were seasoned and experienced enough hikers to keep presence of mind, to not panic, and, above all, not give up hope. That, perhaps more than anything else, made all the difference in the world for them, as they survived a night that saw temperatures drop to the upper 20s and resulted in a foot of fresh snow on the ground by early morning. They were actually able to walk out and meet their rescuers early that morning.

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updated August 28, 2018