Arizona may be mostly desert, but as Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest users everywhere have discovered it is also home to some of the most spectacular springs, creeks and waterfalls in the world. 

Me overlooking Mooney Falls in Havasupai
A view of Mooney Falls from down stream
Hanging out at Beaver Falls in Havasupai
Taking a swim at Havasu Falls
Ready for a picnic at Mooney Falls

Last weekend we were supposed to have hiked to one of these world renowned areas called Havasupai, which is a remotely located canyon on an Indian reservation in Northern Arizona that boasts a series of stunning turqouise blue waterfalls along a creek as it decends into the Colorado River. Thanks to COVID-19 the area remains closed and our trip to Havasupai has been rescheduled for next year. Our son Andrew was supposed to join Ryan and I on the Havasupai trek this year, so he came to visit anyway and we went camping as a family with our daughter Sara, son-in-law Ron and 1 year old grandson Jameson. We had a wonderful weekend filled with fun and family adventures, but we still needed an epic waterfall hike to round out Andrew’s trip.

The waterfall at Fossil Creek Dam

Fossil Springs has long been one of my favorite areas in Arizona. Partially because the hike in, on the recently renamed Bob Bear Trail, begins from Strawberry, one of my favorite towns in Arizona. But mostly I love this area because of the intense beauty and peaceful serenity it offers. 

Andrew enjoying the scenery on Fossil Creek

A little background about my love of Strawberry. When I was in high school I had to do several self guided field trips to historical sites in Arizona for an Arizona history class I was taking. As an ignorant teenager I was having trouble finding places to visit when my incredibly sexy and adventurous new boyfriend told me he knew the perfect place and took me to Strawberry, Arizona for a day trip. He showed me around town telling me stories about time he spent there as a child, and took me to the state’s oldest standing one-room school house. Before heading home we stopped at the old Strawberry Lodge (which I’m very sad to say is no longer there) for a slice of their home-made pie. This was not only our first road trip adventure together as a couple, but also the point in our relationship where I was able to see myself spending the rest of my life exploring, adventuring and eating pie with this amazing man. 

Okay, now back to the hike.  This incredible trail traverses rich red mountain sides dotted with boulders and lava rock as it decends from a pine covered mesa through harsh desert into a lush riparian wilderness. The area, one of only two in Arizona to bear the designation of “Wild and Scenic River”, is home to a diverse variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fish and mammals. 

Once in the canyon, crystal clear water springs from beneath the ground, bubbling up from below tree roots and pouring down the rock walls of the canyon into a colorful boulder strewn creek bed. Grapevines wind their way through sycamore, alder and boxwood trees and wild berry brambles stretch out across the canyon floor. Cat tails line the shores and provide a safe haven for creatures like leopard frogs, and monkey flower blooms along the creek luring bees and dragonflies.  

The water flows swiftly through the canyon rushing toward a stunning waterfall that is created by the remnants of an old decommissioned dam, combined with stunning natural rock formations and travertine deposits left behind by the mineral rich spring water as it continues its journey toward the Verde river. 

Beneath the falls, ferns and vining flowers cling to the rock and soak up the mist at the entrance to a grotto formed by these same mineral deposits. Further down stream, water churns and bubbles at the entrance to a cave that shimmers with a bright turquoise glow. Fossil filled travertine terraces form refreshing pools where hikers can dive in and find some relief from the searing hot Arizona summer sun. 

Some of the most beautiful areas in Arizona are the most difficult to get to. The harsh desert environment can be unforgiving and people often underestimate the severity of our environment.  Fossil Creek is one of those places. 

The Bob Bear Trail is located off Fossil Creek Road just outside the town of Strawberry. It is a heavily trafficked, moderately difficult out and back trail that is approximately 4 miles long and mostly downhill on the way in, which also means mostly uphill and fairly steep in places on the way out. 

The Bob Bear Trailhead near Strawberry, Arizona

The trail starts out on Deadman Mesa at an elevation of 5,700 feet. From the trail head the trail winds around the mountains as it decends over 1,500 feet into Fossil Creek Canyon. Wildflowers in bright hues of red, purple, pink, yellow, blue and white line the trail in spring time. 

There is very little shade along this trail and summer temperatures in the area can be greater than 100 degrees. The trail itself has a lot of loose rock and slippery silty sand so good hiking shoes with plenty of traction are a must. 

My Keen Newport Retro Sandals worked great in the water and provided plenty of traction on the slick river rocks

The forest service urges hikers to come prepared with at least 1 to 1 1/2 gallons of water per person and plenty of food/snacks for a full day.  We used our hydration packs equipped with 3 liter Camelbak water bladders and brought extra water bottles as well. I also carried a water filtration system and a SteriPEN UV light just in case. I can always count on Andrew to bring plenty of food for us. We had a couple varieties of trail mix, some Cliff bars, fresh fruit and nuts. And just in case, I always carry a couple extra packs of Gu energy gels in my pack. I had my SunDay Afternoons hat to help keep the sun off my head and neck, while Andrew was looking much more trendy in his Volcom hat. We both wore sunglasses to protect our eyes and our Kafka Kool Ties to help keep us from overheating along the way.

It is no wonder the forest service makes these pleas. Each year more than 200 hikers require rescuing from Fossil Creek. Whether from ignorant unpreparedness or accidental injury,  it is a dangerous position to be caught in.  Injuries also occur from things like falls, jumping off rocks into the creek, or burnt and blistered feet from innapropriate footwear. Cellular service in the area is spotty at best and it can take quite some time for rescuers to make their way into the canyon, so it is imperative to take appropriate precautions when hiking in this area. This trail is not recommended for small children or dogs, even athletic ones who are used to long hikes. 

As an example, we took our dogs many years ago, the first time we hiked this trail. Several people who knew me and my dogs told me they would be fine, and at the time, trail information I had read made mention that dogs were allowed on leash, and even suggested that this was a good hike for dogs. They lied! My two dogs, a Rottweiler and a Labrador Retriever Mix, were avid hikers and routinely hiked 8+ mile trails with us so we truly thought they would be okay. But they weren’t. What started out as a family fun day, with our teen-age kids and a couple of their friends ended with us struggling to carry our 90 pound lab Dozer out the last mile or so on a makeshift stretcher fashioned from t-shirts and tree branches. We had brought plenty of water and snacks for all of us and the two dogs, and started our day early to avoid the heat, but that wasn’t enough. Dozer was fine after a day or two of rest, and still enjoyed going on shorter, less strenuous hikes with me, but it was definitely not the way we wanted the day to end, and he certainly didn’t have any fun there. 

Our pup Dozer having to be carried out from Fossil Creek on a makeshift stretcher of tree branches and t-shirts

Oh, and did I mention that this trail does not directly access the spring or the waterfall.

Just when you think you’ve made it, you find out there is more hiking to do. 😉

Just when you think you’ve reached the end of the trail,  you realize you need to connect to other trails to get to the spring or the waterfall.  So the hike to the falls is actually much longer. Overall, Andrew and I ended up hiking a total of approximately 12 miles to play around at the springs, get to the waterfall and go downstream a bit further to just beyond the cave, before heading back up the hill. We knew this and were well prepared for it, but many people have no idea. If you are going, please plan for a full day and be prepared to put on several miles in the heat, with the last four being mostly uphill. 

Our sunset view as we made the uphill trek out of the canyon.

Before heading to Strawberry make sure to go online to check availability and purchase a parking permit. Permits are required from April 1st through October 1st. As of the time of this writing,  permits are $6.00 and good for one vehicle with a maximum length of 22 feet. Multiple people may be listed on the permit,  but each person listed is required to be accommodated inside the vehicle with a legal seatbelt. Permits are made available on the 1st day of the month for the following month. For example, permits for the month of April are available beginning March 1st.

To secure a permit click here

There is a maximum of one permit per person per month and permits are for day use only from 8am to 8pm. Backpackers used to be able to hike down and camp along the Creek, but as of the time if this writing there is no longer camping in this area.  

If you go, please have some respect for the environment and others that may come to visit. Be prepared to pack out whatever you pack in. There are primitive restrooms and bear safe trash cans at the trailhead, but there are no restrooms or trash service in the canyon, at the springs or the waterfall. Andrew and collected quite a bit of trash that we found on our way out of the canyon, including plastic bags, discarded food wrappers, beer cans, part of a styrofoam cooler, a plastic dental floss container, a microphone box (why?) and a knife. We also saw a lot of stuff along the trail that we weren’t prepared to pick up like human feces and discarded toilet paper left right on the trail. This is a very big no-no!

A beer can left behind by a visitor on the pack it out sign.

Whatever you do, make sure to bring plenty of sunblock and reapply often. You don’t want to get burned in the sizzling Arizona summer heat!

If you do choose to traverse this trail into the Fossil Creek Wilderness, be prepared, stay safe and most of all have fun.

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