Located just north of Payson near the small town of Strawberry, the Fossil Springs Trail is commonly listed among Arizona’s best summer hikes. However, with higher July temperatures (85+) and little shade along the way, the Fossil Springs Trail can be a brutal experience better saved for late spring or fall…
The trail begins with a study descent, which grows more and more steep as the trail progresses. Although the distant views of the Mogollon Rim are somewhat impressive, the immediate trail surroundings leave a lot to be desired. The first three miles of this trail offers little more than scrawny trees and cactus. The one interesting aspect was the numerous plants in bloom; excellent examples of both agave and prickly-pears were standing in full bloom!
However, after the first three-miles, the trail reaches the basin's floor, and the true beauty begins. Following along the dry stream bed, the trail continues west for about a ½-mile before one actually encounters the spring water. Beginning with a series of shallow pools, the water-level gradually grows the further one continues along. (When the "river" first begins, the trail crosses the stream and continues along the right bank. While you can continue scrambling along the stream bed, the official trail leads away from the water and continues for the final ½-mile.)
Eventually, the trail will lead to a magnificent waterfall, which marks the end of the trail. Climbing down the rather steep riverbanks, allows one an excellent resting place beside an interesting grotto just downstream from the falls. Although views of the waterfall are blocked from the grotto, one can scramble along the north bank for an amazing view at the foot of the falls.
After a well-earned break/swim, you must now retrace your steps for the difficult climb back to the trailhead. While the original descent made the trail seem extremely easy, the return can prove quite difficult due to the trail's steepness; general fatigue from the trip down; and the afternoon heat, which can be quite oppressive.
To view more photos of the Fossil Springs Trail, click here.