Beaver Creek Watershed


Wet Beaver Creek MapThe Beaver Creek watershed, like much of Arizona, is a land of stark contrasts. Streams fed by perennial springs meander through steep-walled canyons carved into the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Forests of sycamore, cottonwood, and willow shade cool, deep pools amid spectacular sandstone and shale cliffs. Surrounding this lush, riparian habitat lie vast expanses of upper Sonoran desert, characterized by bare rock, sparse cactus, and yucca to the south, and forests of alligator juniper and ponderosa pine to the north. This patchwork of desert, forest, and riparian habitat supports an extraordinary array of wildlife and unique natural beauty that lures fishermen, hikers, swimmers, and birders throughout the year.

The Beaver Creek Watershed is located in the Transition Zone between the Basin and Range and Colorado Plateau physiographic regions, centered approximately 80 miles south of Flagstaff. Three major streams define the watershed: Beaver Creek proper, Wet Beaver Creek to the south, and Dry Beaver Creek to the north. Combined, they form one of several Mogollon Rim drainages supplying surface flow to the Verde River. Human communities have depended on this water for more than a thousand years, dating back to the Sinagua, who settled the area late in the tenth century and disappeared five hundred years later. Critical water resources, classic hydrology, rich biodiversity, and an ancient history of human settlement make this watershed an irreplaceable resource for education and conservation.

Ecological Importance

The Beaver Creek Watershed ranges 1,625 meters in elevation and supports starkly different vegetation types ponderosa pine montane forest, pinyon-juniper woodlands, desert shrubland, desert grasslands, and riparian vegetation.  More than 300 native species make their homes in this diverse landscape. About one third are nesting birds, including such iconic characters as roadrunners and the federally endangered bald eagle.  A number of endemic species—creatures like the tiny amphipod, Hyalella montezuma that is endemic to Montezuma Well, have evolved separately in isolated springs.

For much of the year, Dry Beaver Creek lives up to its name. Periods of heavy rain or snowmelt transform it into a torrent. The perennial stream of Wet Beaver Creek is fed by springs that originate on the Colorado Plateau. This exceptional water provides habitat for Arizona’s dwindling native fish populations. Longfin dace, desert sucker and roundtail chub are abundant. Intermittent stretches of both drainages provide islands of woody riparian vegetation that supports rich hunting for large carnivores including cougar and black bear. Like many southwestern hydrologic systems, surface flow and groundwater are inextricably linked. Ultimately, the Verde and Salt Rivers depend on streams like Beaver Creek and the aquifers that sustain them.

Beaver Creek’s story is one of fire as well as water.  Cycles of fire and drought once thinned the ponderosa pine and pinion juniper woodlands.  These periods conditioned the soil and made way for a wider array of plant species.  Paradoxically, fire suppression has led to thicker stands of these trees, more intense and longer burning fires, and a decrease in biodiversity. Soil erosion and sedimentation also threaten water quality and aquatic life.

Human History

Beaver Creek’s first human settlers, the Sinagua, vanished mysteriously in the fifteenth century.  What they left behind remains a monument to their ingenuity and creativity. Montezuma Castle looks out across Beaver Creek from a pocket of limestone high in the cliff wall.  This 20-room dwelling is mistakenly named for an Aztec ruler separated from the location by both time and space. The Sinagua who did live and farm here subsisted for nearly five hundred years, carefully managing their resources for water and irrigated cropland. Montezuma Castle National Monument is located off of Interstate 17 heading north to the Grand Canyon from Phoenix. It includes this site as well as the lesser-known Montezuma Well. The creek and well provided much of the Sinagua’s water, distributed by canals that carry water to this day.

The Sinagua in this area also left behind petroglyphs—rock carvings so distinct that they differ even from Sinaguan designs found elsewhere. This “Beaver Creek style” is seen at several locations within the watershed, along the Bell Trail following Wet Beaver Creek, and at V-Bar-V ranch, where more than 1,000 petroglyphs have been discovered.

Europeans may have visited the area as early as 1583 with the Spanish explorer, Antonio de Espejo. Several hundred years later white settlers began to alter the landscape by grazing livestock, logging timber, and diverting water to nearby settlements. Today the watershed continues to support people and livestock in Sedona, Camp Verde, Lake Montezuma, Oak Creek, Rimrock, and surrounding communities.


In 1960, the Beaver Creek Experimental Watershed was established to address ranchers’ concerns that vegetative growth was crowding out grazing lands and depleting water resources.  Since that time, the Beaver Creek Watershed has become a “natural ecological laboratory” that has bettered our understanding of hydrology, forestry, and land management.

In 1976, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the biological and educational importance of Beaver Creek by designating the Beaver Creek Biosphere Reserve. This designation puts an emphasis on balance, meeting the water needs of surrounding communities, while maintaining the area's rich biodiversity. 

Two areas within the Beaver Creek watershed are protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System, designated by Congress to "secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." The Wet Beaver Wilderness offers some of the most challenging hikes in Arizona, requiring swimming or wading through pools within the narrow, twisting canyons. The 18,850-acre Munds Mountain Wilderness protects the pristine character surrounding Dry Beaver Creek. Both areas are managed by Coconino National Forest. 

Perennial streams off the Mogollon Rim provide the primary source of surface water flow to the Verde River, yet many are spring-fed and highly susceptible to drought and groundwater pumping.

Contributing Writers
Kim Whittley and Abe Springer.

Photo © Kim Whittley



Wet Beaver Wilderness, US Forest Service
Munds Mountain Wilderness, US Forest Service

Water Resources

NAU Beaver Creek Watershed Website
Wet Beaver Creek USGS Real-Time Water Data


Birding in Upstate Arizona—Northern Arizona Audubon Society

Historical Information

NPS - Montezuma Castle
V-Bar-V Heritage Site


NAU Beaver Creek Environmental Atlas - Geology  


NAU Beaver Creek Environmental Atlas – Conservation
NAU Center for Sustainable Environments – Water and Drought

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Arizona Heritage Waters

Dr. Larry Stevens
Museum of Northern Arizona
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Flagstaff, AZ 86001
(928) 523-5211 ext.204
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Dr. Abe Springer
NAU Department of Geology
Box 4099
Flagstaff, AZ 86011
(928) 523-7198
Email Dr. Springer

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