Fossil Creek: A No Joke Hike

At the end of October, I descend into the Grand Canyon in search of the turquoise, travertine paradise located on the remote Havasupai Indian Reservation. The backpacking trek is 26 miles round trip – give or take a few detours. In preparation for my first backpacking trip, my crew and I decided to test run our gear by hiking the 10-mile Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic River located in Coconino National Park.

Fossil Creek Kate Swavely Travel Scout
Alexis and Thor!
Fossil Creek Kate Swavely Travel Scout

Fossil Creek is a rare riparian area with a spring that bubbles out of a rare rock formation called Redwall Limestone. Due to high mineral content travertine forms and encases anything that happens to fall into the streambed – essentially fossilizing everything. Hence the name Fossil Creek, all similar to places like Plitvice National Park in Croatia and Havasupai in the Grand Canyon. It’s estimated that the spring fed waterfall pushes out 20,000 gallons of water per minute. It’s crazy that so much water seems to appear out of nowhere as an oasis in an overall high desert biome.

The hike begins in Strawberry (adorable right?), Arizona which is a little town outside of Payson. The elevation of Strawberry is 5,800ft the bottom of the canyon is 4,300ft which means that in five miles, the hike loses or gains 1,500ft. Needless to say, the hike down is easy just beware of rolled ankles. However, the hike back up is a killer. Literally. The Parks Service warns that an average of two hundred people a year have to be helicoptered out of the canyon due to heat exhaustion, improper planning, and insufficient water. Fossil Creek is no joke.

Once the creek is reached, rejoice! Wade into the icy water and cool off. There is plenty of room to cliff jump and explore flooded caves. The pools are deep and the current is strong so keep an eye on children and less experienced swimmers. The Toilet Bowl is particularly dangerous. Yes, there is a feature called the Toilet Bowl. Runoff from the powerful waterfall eroded a travertine chamber that catches and swirls like a whirlpool. The bottom of the canyon is a good ten degrees cooler than the top mostly because of the shade, so enjoy, eat lunch, and rest up!

Fossil Creek Kate Swavely Travel Scout

Fossil Creek Kate Swavely Travel Scout

Fossil Creek Kate Swavely Travel Scout

Fossil Creek Kate Swavely Travel Scout

Take a listen to the waterfall:

Okay, real talk about the hike out…

If you don’t carry enough water, electrolytes, and food you will die. No matter what time of year you go. Don’t be one of the two hundred that have to be extracted by helicopter. The desert is dry, combined with the steep elevation gain is a recipe for disaster if you don’t plan accordingly.

I carried a gallon of water, Gatorade, and a full lunch. It would also be wise to have sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses.

Do: Pack in pack out. Respect everyone’s space. Bring a hammock. Beware of rattlesnakes and javelina. Bring a swimsuit and water shoes. Bring lunch. Take a nap.

Don’t: Light a campfire. Litter. Slip on the travertine (ouch). Hike in flipflops. Hike if it’s over 95 degrees in the morning. Get caught in a flash flood – keep an eye on weather a few days out from your hike.

Good to know:


Due to high volumes of visitors, April 1st through October 1st REQUIRES a permit. Permits are approximately $10 per car. A friendly park ranger will be stationed to check your permits upon arrival. They will accept printed copies only. No phone screenshots.

Also this guy, a green Mojave just laying across the trail, known for neuro and hemotoxins:

DSCN2832 (2).JPG


Fossil Creek Kate Swavely Travel Scout


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