Deep in Arizona's Mazatzal Mountains, there's a 16-mile-long undulating channel of emerald-green travertine. Clear 75-degree water bubbles from the ground and flows down it at a steady 45 cubic feet per second. It's home to a thriving native fish population, rare and endangered aquatic and terrestrial creatures, and towering canopies of cottonwood, ash and sycamore trees. Nearly 13 tons of travertine -- calcium carbonate in solution -- are deposited daily along its length, making it the fourth-largest such formation in North America. The place resembles a gigantic glass sculpture by Chihuly: magic in the desert.
This is Fossil Creek. For most of the 20th century, the stream barely existed: All but a trickle was diverted in 1908 to feed Arizona's first hydroelectric plants, which powered mining in nearby Jerome and the Bradshaw Mountains. In 2005, under pressure from a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, Arizona Public Service decommissioned the dam and restored the creek. The utility "gave it up for the better public good. That's never happened in Arizona or the Southwest. It's really a miracle," says Robin Silver, one of the group's founders.
But that miracle has come at a price. The restored creek is less than two hours away from Phoenix, Flagstaff and Prescott, and it's quickly become a mecca for weekend warriors seeking a respite from the Arizona heat. "It can approach a thousand people on a Saturday along four miles of waterway (that parallel the road). If you do the math, that's one person in the creek every 20 feet," says Aaron Rotert, one of the four Forest Service officers who patrol Fossil Creek. Fresh out of Northern Arizona University, Rotert tries to educate visitors and make sure current rules are followed: no campfires, camp only in designated area s, pack out all refuse, no offroad travel, no fishing during the summer. From behind Terminator-style sunglasses, he monitors traffic and picks up a never-ending stream of litter, most of it beer cans.
On a sweltering Saturday in September, the newly expanded parking lot at the Fossil Springs Wilderness trailhead overflows by 8 a.m. Several miles farther down, cars line both sides of the narrow road along the creek, choking off even one-way traffic by noon. By 3 p.m., people are parking on the desert itself, flattening young mesquite trees and barrel cactus, crushing rodent and reptile dens. Along the creek's easily accessible stretches, banks are eroded and trampled into a web of bare dirt trails that shed sediment during every rainstorm, degrading water quality and aquatic habitat. At the end of one of these trails, a dozen boys, part of a large Boy Scout gathering, take turns cannon-balling into the creek from a rope tied to a massive ash tree. Farther along at a popular grotto, alcohol- and adrenaline-fueled daredevils do back flips into a cerulean pool 30 feet below, with 50 spectators cheering and jeering each jump. Several swimmers snorkel just below the surface. Forgotten swimsuits, candy wrappers and potato chip bags litter the nearby grasses and shrubs.