CAMP VERDE, Ariz. – The crowds and clutter that marred the pristine oasis of Fossil Creek in northern Arizona has apparently decreased under a month-old permit system to protect the area for wildlife, campers and hikers.
Scores of visitors who were drawn by social media photos of green springs, waterfalls, and lush vegetation had left behind piles of trash, leading the U.S. Forest Service to launch a permit system on May 1. More than 111,000 people visited the wilderness last year, according to the forest service.
Visitors are no longer able to enter Fossil Creek without paying for the $6-per vehicle parking permit on the forest service website and bringing a print copy of the permit.
“What it’s basically doing is what we wanted. The capacity is limited and there’s less trash in the area,” said Dexter Allen, a forest-service ranger the Verde River and Fossil Creek.
The permits are meant to make sure the area is not overused and visitors have adequate parking.
The popular hiking location is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; camping will no longer be allowed during the summer. Wilderness officials had gates and road spikes installed to ensure that no new visitors arrive after the rangers leave for the day.
“On the weekends we are completely booked,” Allen said. The area has nine parking lots.
Permits are required May 1 through Oct. 1, with a maximum of six permits allowed per person during the season. Next year the permit system will start April 1.
Ryan Heintzman, a leader in Arizona State University’s Outdoors Club, said the group visits the area several times a year. He is pleased with the permit system because it is better for everyone in the long run, but also notes that people may be confused at first with the new system.
“Not a lot of people will know to check the website so some people may have to learn the hard way,” Heintzman said.
How to get a permit
Visitors can access Fossil Creek through two entrances – Campe Verde and Strawberry – managed by rangers who will turn away people who don’t have a permit. Fortunately, visitors who arrive without a permit have several nearby options to get one. A Walgreens in Camp Verde and the Camp Verde Library provide printing services.
Hikers can also reach the area through Strawberry, where permits can be printed at the Pine Library.
However, Allen said visitors should note that the Strawberry entrance was flooded in recent years, which has damaged the trails leading to Fossil Creek. To reach the main waterfall, travelers now need to hike eight miles.
The Camp Verde entrance is easier to access, but travelers need to drive down a rough dirt road to reach the trailhead. On busy days, rangers will be at an education point two miles in so they can speak to visitors and check for permits before they make a long drive down to reach the falls. On weekdays however, rangers are only available at the main parking lot, about 14 miles from the entrance. Travelers who arrive unprepared will need to turn back to Camp Verde, about an 80-minute drive.
Where to camp
Camping is no longer allowed in the Fossil Creek area during summer, but visitors have a few options if they want to camp nearby, including Child’s Dispersed Campground about six miles from the access gate to Fossil Creek.
Trash has piled up at the child’s campground but it’s monitored and cleaned twice a week, Allen said.
Volunteers also clean the area. Last year, the Sierra club conducted a clean up and they are planning to return this year, Allen said.
“With the reservation system, the trash is not as bad as it was in the past,” Allen said.
Protecting Fossil Creek’s future
The reservation system was the first step to protecting Fossil Creek’s wildlife and vegetation. The forest service is conducting a comprehensive river wildlife plan.
Allen said a biologist, archeologist and hydrologist are working with a recreation specialist team on the management plan.
The water sustains about 200 different species, including prevalent species such as javelinas, black hawks and native fish like the headwater chub and roundtail chub.
Allen said three proposals will be brought before the public.
“Everyone will get the chance to say what they like and don’t like about the plans. Then, one is picked and that’s what is implemented,” Allen said.
The goal is to allow people to enjoy the area but preserve the rich environment.
“There’s so many people using that area,” said Shaula Hedwall, a fish and wildlife biologist. The final plan, she said, will help officials balance the natural habitat for animals with the recreational habitat of humans.