Fossil Creek Wilderness: The Best Hidden Gem Waterfall & Swimming Hole In Arizona

Fossil Creek Wilderness Area, nestled in the heart of Arizona, offers a stunning escape into nature. 

Known for its crystal-clear waters, beautiful waterfalls, and lush surroundings, it’s a paradise for hikers, swimmers, and anyone looking to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of daily life. 

Credit: Cali Diamond

In this guide, we’ll show you an overview of Fossil Creek Wilderness in both photos and words, how to get there, what you need to know before visiting, and the four must-visit areas:

  • Fossil Creek Dam Waterfall (AKA The Toilet Bowl)
  • Fossil Creek Falls
  • Preacher Canyon Cave
  • Fossil Creek Springs

About The Fossil Creek Wilderness

Fossil Creek Wilderness is an incredibly unique place located among the Coconino National Forest and Tonto National Forest in central Arizona.

It’s known as one of the two “Wild And Scenic” rivers found in the state and is home to a number of stunning waterfalls, ground springs, swimming holes, wildlife and never-ending natural beauty.

Credit: Instagram: @99sundevil

Fossil Creek is unique in that it’s fed by ground springs that release very warm water of around 70 (F) degrees.  

These ground springs release over 30 million gallons of water flow per day, which is plenty to keep it flowing year-round without depending on seasonal snow-melt or rain.

The warm water here not only makes for excellent swimming most of the year, but also makes the river favorable for lots of plants, animals and aquatic life.

Credit: S. Cassell

And the water flowing through this river is highly saturated with calcium carbonate, which makes it clear and gives it a beautiful turquoise color.

The entire Fossil Creek Wilderness is stunning, but there are four main attractions.

Fossil Creek Dam Waterfall (AKA The Toilet Bowl)

Credit: Nathaniel Bush

The Fossil Creek Dam is actually no longer a dam which can be confusing, but it was done away with years ago.

What remains is a beautiful waterfall that flows into some deep pools underneath.

Even though it’s got a weird nickname, this place is stunning. Right below the waterfall, to the right, is the Toilet Bowl. 

Credit: Mariano Apacado

Here, the water spins into a hole in the rock, kind of like a flushing toilet.

But watch out near the Toilet Bowl. The pull of the water is strong, and the sides are slippery. 

If you slip in, the only way out is swimming under the water through a hole in the rock. That’s why wearing shoes with good grip is a must.

Credit: Justin C.

Getting Here:  You can get here by walking the Bob Bear Trail which is eight miles long. Not far after you get to the creek, you’ll see a split in the path. Take the right turn where a sign says “The Dam”. You can also come by the Flume Trail – that way is around ten miles. This trail starts at the Irving Day Use Area across the creek.

Fossil Creek Waterfall

Credit: Cali Diamond

The Fossil Creek Waterfall (or Fossil Creek Falls) is the most popular stop in the Fossil Creek Wilderness area.

It consists of a waterfall and a spacious swimming hole area surrounded by rock walls.  The walls are high enough and the swimming hole deep enough that you can jump into the water near where the falls empty into the pool.

Credit: Kara Sagi

Here, the water is clear and usually a beautiful turquoise color and there are many small fish.

And the water is just as warm here too, so you can take a dip just about year-round.

Getting Here:  The hike to this spot is only two miles, which adds to its popularity.  To reach it, start from the Fossil Creek Waterfall Trailhead coming from the West on Fossil Creek Road #708.  At the end of the Fossil Creek Waterfall trail, you’ll find this magical spot.

Preacher Canyon Cave

Credit: Zach Ramsey

One of the best features the Fossil Creek Wilderness area hides is the Preacher Canyon Cave.

You’ll find it from the water close to the Fossil Creek Dam Waterfall and Toilet Bowl.

You’ll need to wade into the clear waters of the creek to access the cave, and as you wade into it you’ll be amazed.

Credit: Darrell Nabers

Depending on the water levels, you should have plenty of room to look around and view the inside of the cave walls and ceiling.

And you can even climb up onto the cave walls to get out of the water for a cool view into the clear water below.

You’ll almost feel like you’re in some hidden place in Hawaii or the Caribbean, and jumping from the cave walls into the water below adds to the thrill.

Fossil Creek Springs

Along Fossil Creek, there are numerous other waterfalls and natural pools to discover. 

One of these is Fossil Springs, which is one of the first signs you’ll see as you hike in.

There’s room to cool off in the clear, blue water here…but the real magic happens at the swimming holes beyond this location.

Credit: Jodi Ohnick

But on days when the swimming holes attract other visitors, Fossil Creek Springs and the other various falls and small pools along Fossil Creek make for a good spot to cool off in solitude.

Getting To Fossil Creek Wilderness

Fossil Creek Wilderness is situated between the towns of Camp Verde and Strawberry in Arizona. 

Access to the area requires a bit of planning, as it’s remote. The most common entry points are from Camp Verde via Fossil Creek Road or from Strawberry via the Fossil Springs Trail. 

Both routes are scenic but can be challenging, with narrow, winding roads. 

It’s essential to check road conditions before you set out, especially after weather events, as the roads can be affected.

Before You Go

Before heading to Fossil Creek Wilderness, there are a few crucial things you need to know:

  • Permits: From April 1 to October 1, visitors need to obtain a permit to enter the area. These permits are in high demand, so plan to get yours well in advance through the official reservation system.
  • Preparation: Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks. The area is remote, with few amenities, so come prepared.
  • Leave No Trace: The beauty of Fossil Creek is preserved through the efforts of its visitors. Pack out what you bring in, stay on marked trails, and respect wildlife.

Exploring Fossil Creek

The beauty of Fossil Creek Wilderness lies in its diverse landscapes and activities. Here are some tips for making the most of your visit:

  • Hiking: There are several trails in the area, ranging from easy walks to more strenuous hikes. The Fossil Springs Trail is a popular choice, offering stunning views and access to several swimming spots.
  • Swimming and Snorkeling: The clear waters of Fossil Creek are ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Bring your gear to explore underwater or simply enjoy floating in the natural pools.
  • Photography: The scenic beauty of Fossil Creek is a photographer’s dream. Whether you’re capturing the waterfalls, the wildlife, or the lush landscapes, there’s no shortage of breathtaking shots.

Conservation Efforts

Fossil Creek is not only a recreational treasure but also an ecological one. 

It’s one of only two Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona, recognized for its biodiversity and unique ecosystem. 

Conservation efforts are ongoing to preserve its natural beauty and ensure its health for future generations. 

Visitors play a crucial role in these efforts by respecting the area’s regulations and natural habitats.

Final Word

Fossil Creek Wilderness Area is a testament to nature’s beauty and resilience. 

Whether you’re seeking adventure, tranquility, or simply a break from the digital world, Fossil Creek offers a haven of natural wonders. 

By planning ahead, respecting the environment, and exploring its many treasures, your visit can be a memorable journey into the heart of Arizona’s wilderness.

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