For our anniversary a few months back, Paul and I went up to Payson and hiked Bob Bear Trail down to the Old Fossil Creek Dam in the Fossil Springs Wilderness. Neither of us had been there before, and both of us would gladly go back!
The Fossil Springs Recreation Area is a permit area; due to its popularity, it had been completely closed down several years ago, and reopened in limited capacity following a time of rehabilitation. Bob Bear Trailhead is one of the less popular parking spots in the area, and it was early in the summer, so we were still able to reserve a parking pass just a few days before our trip. While a portion of the parking lots can only be accessed from Camp Verde, the Bob Bear Trailhead can only be reached from Strawberry, which worked out well for us!
As we began, we were greeted by multiple warning signs. Combined with the trailhead map letting us know this was an 8 mile round trip with a 1500 foot elevation change… and the brochure from the forest service telling us this was one of the most strenuous hikes in all of Tonto National Forest… this was a bit alarming. But we’d both done longer hikes before, so we weren’t too concerned. In retrospect, however, I do recommend taking the warnings seriously. If you are not an experienced hiker, start with something else and work up to this one.
The majority of the hike is through a region of arid high desert – there is very little shade, the air is thin, the sun is hot, and the grade is steep. The views, however, are gorgeous.
When you finally get to the first crossing over Fossil Creek, at a shallow ford, you’ve finished the hardest part of the descent and have about a mile of cool, lush, riverside hiking left.
The trail is well-marked, from the cattle fence up in the mountains, to the rocky river crossing, through the undergrowth, and down to the dam itself. At some point along the river there will be option to continue to the spring or to the dam; while neither will take you to the famous Fossil Creek Waterfall, hiking to the dam will take you to a waterfall that is still quite spectacular.
We could hear the waterfall roaring down over the old dam before we reached it; the trail led us around a blackberry thicket to the top of the falls, and we clambered down the rocky canyon sides to the deep pool at its base. The river here was far wider than I’d imagined, and the sheer volume of water cascading over the dam was a stark contrast to the miles of desert we’d walked through to get here.
It had taken us about an hour and a half to hike the four miles down (I think it is really more than four, as the dam is a bit further down river from the spring where the trail map ends), and we spent about an hour just enjoying the water. I tried to swim close enough to the falls to touch the rock through the falling water, but it was far too deep to stand in and the current was strong – I had to swim as hard as I could just to make a small amount of headway, and was pushed about six feet back as soon as I stopped fighting against it. Paul got closer than I did, but even he had trouble dealing with the current.
Outside of that area of turbulence, however, the pool was calm, clear, and cold. I was content to just sit and relax, enjoying the beauty (and the company!), and I could have stayed even longer there than we did. Of all the places I’ve been in Arizona, this is one of the more special and unique – and the cold water is a good reward for the long hike in the heat!
Hiking back out again, however, is when the trail really shows its difficulty. The steep grade of the trail, nothing more than an inconvenience for the knees on the way down, makes the hike up incredibly strenuous. As I didn’t yet have my POTS diagnosis, I wasn’t wearing a heart rate tracker – but there were quite a few times when I had to stop and rest because my heart felt like it was racing so fast it was almost fluttering. Paul wasn’t any better off, the elevation and exertion combining to completely exhaust him. We wore off the chill of the creek by the end of the first mile, and I ran out of water with at least a mile to go (fortunately Paul had extra, since his pack was bigger).
Despite the difficulty, I highly recommend this hike and would go back in a heartbeat if I had the chance. The waterfall at the bottom makes everything worth it. I would, however, carry more water…
How to get there: from Payson, drive 18 miles north on the US-87 to Strawberry, then turn left on to Fossil Creek Road. The Bob Bear Trail parking area will be on the right in about 5 miles.
Permits: Parking permits must be purchased in advance from the Bob Bear Trailhead page on Recreation.gov, April-September. The trails have had limited availability through the pandemic but were still open when I last checked.