Some of the Verde Valley’s swimming holes are more popular than others, but Fossil Creek might take the cake.
If the number of cars and visitors was not any indication, then the difficulty in getting a permit for a one-day visit surely is.
Fossil Creek offers a variety of environments along the water’s edge, from tranquil and relaxing to busy and adventure-inspiring.
Some are shaded while others completely exposed to the searing Arizona sun. The one with the most notoriety is at the end of about a one-mile hike on the Waterfall Trailhead.
Its name leaves nothing to the imagination — this is the spot many have heard of or seen photos of with a large, rushing waterfall. It is attractive enough to lure even a resident of Sedona, where there are already myriad places along Oak Creek to cool down.
“It’s probably the water quality,” said aforementioned Sedona resident Brian DeWulf, who was visiting for the fifth time. “It’s so fresh, so blue and clear .... I mean, what’s there not to love about the waterfall?”
Upon arrival visitors are greeted with a shallow entrance into the clear and refreshing water. A few trees sit in the middle of the water that, in addition to some space on the shoreline and a bit more adjacent to the waterfall, provide a proper spot to leave belongings.
Flanking the waterfall and the rest of the creek are two large cliff faces. The more courageous and daring patrons jump from either side of the waterfall into the deep water, which according to DeWulf is about 25 to 30 feet deep.
The water itself is clear and cool, appealing for hot and sweaty hikers on a typical Arizona summer day. Shade is somewhat limited, and most everyone present is in and around the water.
Fish litter the area, too.
“It’s a lot more active, you see a lot more fish than in the creeks in Sedona,” DeWulf said.
Just a few yards from the aqua landing zone, at the foot of the waterfall, is a large rock shelf where swimmers can sit, stand or even lay in the water while not needing to work against the current. The current’s force should not be underestimated; it can provide a tough challenge for those who are not strong swimmers.
If cliff jumping is not appealing, there is space behind the waterfall where anyone can pass through and experience the force of the falling water.
And if sharing a slice of Verde Valley paradise with a large crowd is not appealing, there are options.
The last place to park before reaching the Waterfall Trailhead parking area is the Irving/Flume Trailhead. Reaching the creek below is a small fraction of the hike to reach the waterfall.
Once at the bottom of the hill visitors are met by a small, shaded area. Along the creek there is more space to spread out, but hardly any to leave personal and non-waterproof items. There is more on the other side of the creek, but not shaded.
Overall, the limited space makes it a more peaceful and smaller-feeling spot to hang out.
“We like it because we get to be by ourselves,” said Phoenix resident Yajaire Hernandez, who was spending the day with family complete with a large spread of food and music. “We’ll swim here then later on go to the waterfall.”
Much like at the waterfall, there is a flat table of rock on which swimmers can sit or stand—others were even dancing together on it. The current is weaker than at the waterfall, too.
The next stop along the dirt road is Tonto Bench, which is even more relaxing than Irving. Despite a full parking lot, no one was at the swimming spot below, an indication many more had resorted to an extra long hike to the waterfall.
Behind the bathrooms is the creek access point. The clear blue water was the calmest of the three, and small fish were in abundance.
Tall cliffs on either side of the whispering creek give the area a feeling of quiet seclusion.
In contrast with Irving, there is plenty of space to ditch the towels and bags before hopping into the water. But there is also little to no shade.
The drive to Fossil Creek is simple, but according to the Coconino National Forest website, a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended. Traveling east on State Route 260 past Camp Verde, turn right at Forest Road 708, also posted as Fossil Creek Road.
The dirt road runs 14 miles before reaching the front gate. Once inside, road conditions worsen but must be traversed in order to reach any of the aforementioned spots.
Between April 1 and Oct. 1 a Fossil Creek parking permit is required [$10 per vehicle]. Reservations must be made at recreation.gov well in advance due to the high amount of traffic that the site sees on a daily basis.
The parking lots are open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the access gate closes at 4 p.m.