Visit Arizona's Hidden Waterfall Paradise With Caves And Turquoise Swimming Holes

Two of the most rewarding experiences you can have in Arizona are exhilarating hikes and refreshing dips in incredible swimming holes. And when these two things converge —and you throw in a few surreal water caves, too — you know you've hit the outdoor adventure jackpot. One of the most well-known hike and water hole combinations in the state can be found at Fossil Springs, near the tiny town of Strawberry. The springs are incredibly popular for good reason — the refreshing rapids and turquoise pools make it a true oasis in the desert. I have spent many glorious summer days here, splashing around in the remarkably clear water and picnicking on the rocks with friends. Sheer bliss! 

The springs can be reached via the Bob Bear Trail No. 18, which used to be called the Fossil Springs Trail. To get to the trailhead, drive approximately 6 miles west of Strawberry on Fossil Creek Road. If you're using Google Maps, enter Bob Bear Trailhead as your destination, not Fossil Creek, or you'll be guided to a location 11 miles further west on Fossil Creek Road. Heads up, the 8.4-mile round-trip hike descends about 1,500 feet to the creek, and you'll need to ascend on the way back. 

Directions to the trailhead and springs

Start the hike down around noon so that you're ascending the steep hill in late afternoon or early evening when it's cooler. A danger of this breathtakingly beautiful trail is that it's steep and exposed to the elements. Wear sturdy footwear (not flip flops) and bring sun protection, snacks, and way more water than you think you need. 

The trail makes its way through the high desert as it approaches the springs. When it reaches the bottom of the canyon, it intersects with the Mail Trail at a point marked by a sign. Keep left at this junction and head toward Fossil Springs. At another junction, you'll see a sign indicating paths to the spring and the dam. Keep right here, heading toward the dam.

When you finally reach your jaw-dropping destination, you'll see an enormous cascade of water spilling over the dam into a brilliant blue pool. This is one of many spots along the river that's divine for swimming. There's also a small grotto-like cave on the left side of the falls (if you're facing them) that you can swim to if you're feeling adventurous. A short distance downstream from the dam is yet another incredible water cave to explore. A chilly out-and-back swim to this partially submerged cave is a must-do before heading back up the hot trail. Please note that the current may be strong near and inside both caves. Be careful!

Permits and other important information

When planning your hike on the Bob Bear Trail, please visit the Coconino National Forest website for detailed information on directions, parking, permits, and road closures. The website even lists a Fossil Springs hotline you can call if you have any last-minute questions. It's especially important to understand the permit and parking pass requirements to avoid getting a ticket or having to cancel your trip. 

First, you need to secure a parking pass/permit in advance if you're hiking between April 1 and October 1. Permits aren't required the rest of the year, but keep in mind that in the winter, it may be too cold to play in the pools, unless you enjoy extremely cold plunges. Purchase your parking pass/permit online, print two copies, and remember to bring them with you. It would be such a bummer to drive all the way to Fossil Springs and then have to turn back because you forgot them. 

Forest service officials may stop you as you approach the area to verify your permit and ID. After you arrive at the trailhead, put one copy of the parking pass/permit on your car's dashboard. Carry the other on your person or in your pack, preferably in a waterproof container or plastic bag to prevent it from getting wet and soggy.