Friday, October 25, 2013

Flume Trail, Fossil Springs Wilderness, Coconino NF, AZ

Distance: 8.1 miles roundtrip (13.1 km)
Elevation: 3,765 - 4,350 feet (1,148 - 1,326 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: September - May (avoid heat and crowds of summer)

Fossil Creek is one of the true gems of Central Arizona. At its source, at the base of the Mogollon Rim emerges from the ground some 20,000 gallons of water per minute. Instantly, the arid pinyon-juniper forest gives way to a lush riparian stand of deciduous trees including cottonwoods, box-elder, Arizona walnut, Arizona ash, and Arizona sycamores. The water is rich in calcium carbonate, which gives the water a turquoise hue and encases whatever falls into it in travertine, thus giving the name Fossil Springs. In the heat of the summer, or even fall for that matter, these cool waters invite one to take a dip after a hot 4 mile hike to the springs. It isn't easy to get here and the crowds can be thick in summer with swimmers at the easy-access pools. But, in October and November it offers a spectacular array of fall colors for the eye to behold.

A view of the Fossil Creek Wilderness and Mogollon Rim from near Strawberry

This area once had a 100-year old flume that transported water from the springs to an APS hydroelectric powerplant. This meant that most of the creekbed was dry, with scattered pools emerging from ground water that escaped the pumps of the flume. However, in 2008, APS decided that the small amount of electricity did not justify the environmental damage of redirecting the flow and disassembled the powerplant and flume, allowing the creek to flow free once more. In addition, all non-native fish were removed from the creek and native fish like headwater chubs were reintroduced. In 2009, Fossil Creek became a National Wild and Scenic River.

The crossing at the trailhead

The old way to access Fossil Creek was from the town of Strawberry, but that road washed out and probably won't reopen until 2015 at the earliest. Currently, the only way to go is to take Fossil Creek Road (FR708) from AZ-260 just east of Camp Verde. The road is 15 bumpy miles long to reach the creek, but it offers beautiful views of the Verde Rim. Watch out for hunters driving too fast and leaving you with clouds of dust in the fall. After crossing the Fossil Creek bridge, continue for another mile until arriving at the parking area of the trailhead just before the closed gate.

The trail starts off by crossing the creek on a wide-shallow section that used to be the road to the old housing area when this was a powerplant and housing area. The trail then follows the old flume road up the slope paralleling the creek, gradually gaining about 600 feet in elevation. From high up on the arid slopes, you can see the lush green riparian strip below and patches of open water or waterfalls are visible between the trees.

Looking down into the canyon

With this route being on a south-facing slope and temperatures at this elevation routinely rising above 90 degrees in summer, I would not recommend doing this trail in summer. In addition, they often close the access road to the trailhead due to the huge numbers of people arriving to swim in the pools further downstream. However, it is plenty warm in spring and fall for this hike.

This is what the old flume looked like when we visited 10 years ago.
It's gone now!

In places you can see where the old flume ran, as old post-supports and eroded slopes are visible. But, for the most part, the signs it was ever there are gone. Along the way, there are a number of side canyons that have beautiful old sycamores and box-elder coming down the slopes and some much needed shade on a hot day. As you approach the final 1 mile, you will definitely be looking forward to the 72 degree waters and shade of the riparian forest when you reach the bottom.

A sycamore along the edge of the riparian forest

Upon reaching the headwaters, there is an old diversion dam that had completely filled with sediment such that it is now a waterfall. Then, just a few hundred feet further upsteam, you reach the springs and then the bare rocky intermittent stretches of the creek above that. Look on the edges of the creek and you will see "fossilized" leaves that have been coated in calcium carbonate, and small travertine dams and falls anyplace a branch or log fell into the creek and minerals began depositing on it.

The springs with its numerous little travertine dams

At many of the open pools, you will see schools of headwater and roundtailed chub swimming around where you once would see non-native predatory fish like trout before. You may also get to see endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs and canyon treefrogs leaping into the water.

The native chubs are back

Watch for a myriad of butterfly species coating the banks of the river, plus numerous damselflies and dragonflies doing their dance across the water looking for prey or mates. You will want to stay for hours at this marvel of nature, swimming, relaxing, enjoying the soothing sounds of the riffles, or listening to the dozens of bird species that make this desert oasis their home.

In fact, the worst part of this hike is the 4 mile hike back in the heat of the sun, looking down on those inviting waters 400 feet below and wishing you did not have to trek back. But, there is one last saving grace. You have to cross the creek again at the trailhead, which will give you once last chance to splash around and cool off before you begin the bumpy drive back to civilization.

One last look down onto the waters before trekking back

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