Hike Review: Fossil Creek in Pine, AZ

Hike Review: Fossil Creek in Pine, AZ

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On June 14th I went on a nice hike to a “hidden” gem in Arizona with some good friends of mine. Fossil Creek in Pine, AZ is about a 2-hour drive north-east of Phoenix. It’s the kind of hike where you want to get there early, bring lots of water, and be a semi-experienced hiker (in other words, you do stuff like this often, or are at least pretty physically fit) as some of the trail on the return hike can be a bit demanding. For those of you who don’t fit the definition of an experienced hiker, or if you just want an easy trek down to a cool swimming hole, Fossil Creek also offers a 1-mile trail down to another part of the creek with a waterfall, which you can learn more about here.

My husband and I got up at 4am to meet up with our friend Sina so we could carpool up together with a goal of arriving by 8am. Due to both Fossil Creek’s popularity and the Forest Service’s goal to maintain the area by minimizing the foot traffic, it is recommended that you be punctual. After a certain time/number of vehicles, they will close the road off to further traffic.

We arrived just after 8:00 am armed with snacks, packs, water & sunscreen (and hard cider, beer and Sina’s awesome homemade whoopie pies for our return). There were a number of gentlemen volunteering from the local fire department to “screen” would-be hikers before they embarked on their hikes. We were each asked if we had enough water on us (a gallon per person was recommended) and how experienced we were as hikers, as the round-trip hike is around 8 miles and takes approximately 4-6 hours to complete (assuming you hike in and right back out). Some of the trail on the hike back up is no joke, and the narrow trail surrounded by wilderness is not conducive to easy or quick rescue, so these efforts are made to deter those who are unprepared from entering into a situation that could be dire.

Unfortunately, not everyone eager to venture down toward Fossil Creek has their head on straight, as we encountered numerous people on our hike back up in the heat of the afternoon who either missed being questioned before heading down, or who simply don’t understand the necessities of a summer hike (more on this later).

The hike down was easy, with the top-most part of the trail gently sloping into the canyon. Oh, and it was beautiful, too. But you don’t really want to hear about the hike down – you want to know how totally awesome the creek was (it was totally awesome) and what to expect on the return hike.
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When we got to the bottom, we still had about a mile or more of hiking to do along the bottom of the canyon as we made our way to the swimming hole and waterfall. At one point we crossed a dry creek bed, and further up the creek bed we reached the water. It was like a tiny little oasis in the middle of the woods. The water was cool, and the foliage was a shade of green you forget exists when you live in Arizona. After crossing there, we came across some campground area with a number of people camping out, and then we ran into a few forest service personnel and stopped to talk to them. They were walking the trail collecting TRASH.

trash

Why have I emphasized the word trash? Because I am certain the majority of people hiking into and out of the canyon every day are of an age where they know better than to toss their trash on the ground instead of carrying it back out – children included! These forest service employees should be walking the trail to assess it for erosion damage, safety hazards, etc…, not for trash pickup for the lazy ulcers of the earth who throw their garbage wherever they feel like it because they are too lazy to pack it out. I was so frustrated not only to see the trash myself but to talk to those who have been tasked with cleaning up after people.

We got into a discussion about how much planning is necessary just to ensure you can even get the opportunity to hike Fossil Creek, and we suggested that a reservation system, with some small cost associated, might alleviate the scheduling, foot traffic AND trash issues, and that the money collected could support maintaining the trail, and cleaning up after the losers who leave their crap behind. We were happy to hear that it was already being considered. A story was also relayed to us of a family that came down ill-prepared with their small children. One child suffered heat exhaustion due to overexposure of the sun and inadequate water supply, and one of the forest service employees had luckily been nearby to assist, holding the child in the cool stream to bring down her temperature, and offering some of his own water. You’ll see now why I am also heavily emphasizing water in this little review; being unprepared can have dire consequences.

A little further down the trail from the forest service was the gorgeous waterfall and deep pools of crystal clear, cold (but not ice cold) water. Many of the hikers already there were climbing up a small cliff area and jumping into the water, but I’m not that kind of risk taker. There’s a neat little alcove/cave area that has a small boulder jutting out which you cam climb onto and jump off of however, and it seems much safer. The water there is deep, and literally so clear you can see the bottom, but not touch it. I fully intend on bringing a waterproof camera the next time we hike here. We stayed for a couple of hours, enjoyed the cool water, ate some snacks, and then got started on our hike back up. The highs were just under 90 degrees, but in the full sun it felt much warmer. Plus, the bottom third of the trail is very steep, meaning much more exertion to get up. Sina loaned me one of her two hiking poles (Thanks Sina!) which made getting back out of the canyon significantly easier, but still tough. We stopped regularly to get some shade, re-apply sunscreen, and cool down. This is where we were passed by people foolishly carrying in large coolers and 12 packs of soda (in the box), people carrying little (16oz bottles) to no water, and two families walking dogs that were obviously exhausted and overheated as they panted heavily and tried desperately to just stop in the shade.. People, when your dog is panting heavily – the only way dogs can cool off – and tries to lay down in the shade on the way down, stop and let them rest, and stop thinking about only yourselves! It is TOO HOT for these poor dogs to be pulled 4 miles down into a canyon than they’ll have to trudge back up later in the heat of the day!. #rantover

Ok, back on topic…. When we got to the top I was hot and tired, and a little confused about which way to go, but thankfully there is no “wrong-way” to go to back to the trail head and we eventually made it. Sina’s car was ready for us with ice cold water and adult beverages (in moderation, we needed water more than anything) and some delicious snacks to refuel us. The parking lot was still pretty full and some people were still coming in, which surprised us as we thought they would have closed the trail to visitors by that point.

What to bring:

To be clear, I mean what to bring INTO the canyon, not just up to the trail.

  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Water shoes (recommended)
  • WATER – at least 2 liters per person (hydration pack recommended in lieu of bottles – nothing to leave behind, and nothing to carry in your hands!)
  • Camera/Waterproof camera (recommended)
  • Snacks
  • Energy Chews and/or electrolytes (the hike up is tough!)
  • Change of socks
  • Blister pads
  • Hiking poles
  • Swimsuit
  • Cooler with water and ice to leave in your vehicle
  • Cooling towel (recommended)

What To Do:

  • Check the weather ahead of time
  • Get there early to ensure access to the trail
  • Pack Lightly
    Don’t carry down lots of stuff. It might seem like a piece of cake to hike it into the canyon, but coming back up is no joke and you don’t want to have to carry it!
  • Be a good citizen and pack out your stuff
    Trash and non-trash alike need to be bagged and hiked out. We saw lots of abandoned coolers and lunch bags along the trail, and as mentioned ran into two forest service employees who were picking up other people’s crap. If you can’t be a good citizen of the earth and pack out what you pack in, you should refrain from enjoying nature’s wonders.
  • Leave your dog home on a hot day
    If you insist on hiking your dog down into the canyon in the summer when the highs are in the 90’s (or higher), you need to plan accordingly:
    Start by hiking in as EARLY as possible to limit heat exposure.
    Be cognizant of their condition and rest as often as needed. If they are panting heavily, slowing down, seeking out shade – stop and let them rest!
    Provide PLENTY of water and bring some treats for energy. Remember where I mentioned above how much water to bring with you? You need to bring that for your dog too – he can’t share yours and be hydrated
    enough.
    Bring a small towel or shirt that you can wet and have the dog wear to help keep him cool, especially on the hike back up.
    Plan your return hike strategically. The hike back up is going to be HOT, especially depending on what time you decide to hike back up. This trail offers little in the way of shade on the hike back up and NONE of it is
    on the trail (in other words, you have to stop and step off the trail to get to the shade). The hottest time of day tends to be between 12-3 pm. If you can delay your return hike to later in the afternoon when the sun is
    starting to set your dog will thank you!

Now that the AZ temps are cooling down, and the city highs are starting to drop below 100, it would be a good time to go check out Fossil Creek!

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