The Apache Trail is 45 miles of history, great scenery and exciting driving. The trail is also 45 miles of mountain roads, with a good chunk in the middle that is a one lane dirt road (and eroded dirt road at that). The road is over 100 years old and much of it hasn’t changed since the 1920’s.
First aside: We’ve seen lots of cars and a few motorcycles going all the way across, so the Apache Trail is certainly passable by car. However, if you are nervous or if the weather might be a problem, use caution. We have a Jeep Liberty and there are times that I appreciate being able to shift into 4-wheel drive.
Second aside: Writing this, I’ll try to tell you both a description of the Apache Trail loop and our experiences along the way. I’m also going to use approximate distances because detours can change the mileage and none of the route is difficult to navigate.
The Apache Trail runs between Apache Junction and the junction with AZ-188 at Roosevelt Lake.
Some history first
According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Apache Trail started out as a 1904 wagon route called the Roosevelt Road, built specifically to service the construction of the Roosevelt Dam. Once the dam was completed, the ride over the wagon road became a popular and thrilling ride for early cars, so this was one of the earliest Arizona trips.
The name “Apache Trail” was bestowed not because it followed an old native trail (which it kind of does), but because a Southern Pacific Railroad publicist came up with it in an attempt to increase Arizona tourists. The name has validity because of the number of Apache laborers who helped create the road. The road was also designated for a short time as a part of the Ocean to Ocean Highway.
A large part of the Apache Trail as it exists today includes the historical construction and bridges from the 20’s and 30’s. The highway was re-routed to avoid the filling of Canyon and Apache lake, but, as AZDOT says, “The road also retains integrity of design, materials, and workmanship, and is sufficiently long to convey the feeling of a 1920s highway.”
Making the loop
To make it a loop trip, start in Apache Junction at the point where the Old West Highway joins Apache Trail (the junction that gave the town its name). (For those coming from Phoenix, take US-60 east to Idaho and follow AZ-88 north about two miles to meet Old West Highway.)
Follow AZ-88 (Apache Trail) northeast to start the loop.
About four miles from the junction you’ll see the Goldfield Ghost Town with the Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon.
They feature a narrow-gauge railroad, a mine tour, and staged gunfights. Another mile or so down the road is the entrance to the Lost Dutchman State Park and then the road starts to wind up into the Superstitions. Looking south, you can see Weaver’s Needle before the 15 MPH curves and switchbacks take you up and over into the Salt River’s drainage. As you go up and over, there are a few places to pull off and admire the views, but with the heavy traffic that you may encounter, particularly going to and from Canyon Lake on the weekends, please be careful!
I should mention here that Lost Dutchman State Park and the Apache Trail offer some great Arizona trails to hike. There are a number of them in the Superstitions that start from the park or along the trail. Another access point into the Superstitions is at the Peralta trailhead, which is almost at the end of this loop. Other trails leave from trailheads around Canyon Lake and the Arizona Trail crosses over the Salt River at the junction of AZ-88 and 188.
Depending on whether you stop at any of the sights, you can get to the Canyon Lake overlook in about 20 minutes from the AJ junction – or it can take you a lot longer. We’ve been over this part of the Apache Trail a number of times, but we always take a minute to enjoy this view.
A word of caution here: On our last trip across the Apache Trail, we saw several pickups and one RV hauling boats along this road. We also saw motorcycles riding in groups. Both are reasons to drive with extra caution on the Apache Trail. With only one lane, grades of as high as 10% and steep drop-offs of several hundred feet in places, this is a place to relax and slow down. If you want to go fast, don’t go this way. At least not when we’re on it!
From the overlook, the road dives down steeply to level out near the water. As it passes along the side of the lake the Apache Trail crosses two one-lane bridges over arms of the lake.
Leaving the lake, the road goes up and over another ridge into the “bustling” town of Tortilla Flat. In spite of the fact that only a handful of people live in Tortilla Flat, lots of people make the drive to come eat there and see the place.
Beyond Tortilla Flat, and after crossing a low-water bridge, the road continues on, climbing again up the side of a canyon and, about five miles later (a mere 23 miles or so from the start), the pavement ends. From here on over to the junction with AZ-188, the road is graded dirt. Most of the way it’s wash-boarded, so don’t plan on going fast unless you want to jar your teeth loose!
As another aside, the country is very rough through here and the power lines were laid along the same route as the road. As a result, you do have to work to dodge them in the pictures you take.
The Fish Creek Overlook comes up on the left a couple of miles from the end of the pavement. We got there about an hour after we started the trip (25 miles an hour! Woo-hoo!). This is a good place to get out, stretch your legs and go out to the end of the overlook. In other states, this would rate a park of its own, but here it’s just a nice view. For those who find the washboard bouncing to be stimulating in the wrong way, there are toilets available (soap and water not included). This is also a good turnaround for those who don’t want to go the whole way.
From the overlook, you head into the most challenging section of the trip. The road, at least when we drove it, was narrow, with trees overhanging it in places, and was eroded from the monsoons. Add to that a 10% grade, one lane and some blind curves and it makes the descent to the bridge over Fish Creek downright thrilling. The views are spectacular, but the driver probably shouldn’t take time to look. We’re fairly sure that we saw a car about halfway down the slope, wedged into some rocks. We were just down off this section when we passed an RV towing a boat heading west toward the climb up that hill. Pity anyone coming around the blind turn just then!
Along the creek beds in this area are plants that you don’t see very often in this part of Arizona, including some pretty big cottonwoods. It’s a little higher elevation here and a little wetter than in the Valley, so in the creek-bottom land the cottonwoods can get enough water to grow. We expect that come the middle of October or so the trip will include the bright yellow of the cottonwoods changing color. Our experience with Kansas cottonwoods suggests that it’ll be pretty festive.
After crossing Fish Creek the road improves somewhat and the tough part is behind. At about 31 miles into the journey you get the first view of Apache Lake. The washboard roads continue, but the views are stupendous, with the blue lake surrounded by and reflecting the desert mountains. The road is a little wider and straighter than previously, but it’s still climbing and diving and swooping around hills, so it’s not time to stop focusing on the driving just yet.
At 44 miles from the start, pavement resumes and Roosevelt Dam comes into view. This, by the way, is named for Teddy, not Franklin. There’s a Roosevelt Lake in Washington that bears FDR’s name, but when this dam was built, Teddy was the man with the plan. The original dam was built from 1903 to 1911, and when it was done, the resulting reservoir (largest in the world at the time) was contained behind the largest stone dam in the world. After some re-calculation, it was found that the dam could not contain some floods, so the dam was rebuilt, 1989-96, to add an additional 77’ of height to it.
There’s a viewpoint just before the dam which provides a good place to take pictures and make another pit stop if needed. By the time we stopped for pictures along the Trail and at the dam, we’d spent another two hours finishing that portion of the trip.
The Apache Trail meets AZ-188 just past the dam. Another overlook gives a chance to see the lake side of the dam and a wonderful view of the beautiful bridge across the lake. To back up just a bit, the dam is positioned where the Salt River starts its canyon cutting from the Tonto Basin over to the Phoenix area. The lake spreads out up the Salt River and up Tonto Creek to the north and fills the basin for several miles in each direction. If you think of the lake as having the shape of a popsicle stick (very, very roughly, but work with me here!), then the Salt River feeds the bottom end, Tonto Creek feeds the north end and the dam is about halfway up the left side. US-188 comes south along the west side of the lake and crosses the now-underwater beginning of the canyon.
It makes for a really nice view, anyway. One of the best anywhere in the state, we think.
We detoured north on 188 just long enough to enjoy the bridge from that view (if you look under the bridge you can see that the old road that used to go across the top of the old dam) and then we headed south about five miles to the Tonto National Monument . From the highway, the visitor’s center is about a mile up the side of the mountain. It’s an easy road after the Apache Trail!
The monument was created in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the cliff dwellings here from vandals after the dam construction brought attention to them.
From the visitor’s center on up to the Lower Cliff Dwellings, there’s a paved path of about a half mile, but the path climbs 350’. We opted, since it was a hot day, to pass on the hike, but there is a nice view from the terrace at the center and a telescope is provided for a closer look. A nice slide presentation runs there, too. The tiny museum in the center has a number of artifacts, including some sandals woven of yucca or agave. The village was part of the Salado culture and some of the basic research on the Salado was done here.
There’s another cliff dwelling farther along, but it requires a reservation for a ranger to guide you in order to get there, and the 3-mile tours are only available from November to April.
Since we didn’t make the hike, we just took our time at the center and we spent about an hour there. Given the climb, plan on at least 90 minutes if you want to visit the site.
We arrived at the junction with US-60 near Globe, about 78 miles from the start, five hours after we left. As you approach the junction, you pass the massive tailings from the copper mines in the area. Until you’ve seen them, it’s hard to imagine just how much material has been moved to get to the copper.
Turning west on 60, the route passes through Miami, still running along the mine tailings, and heads for home. On our last trip, we reached this point in late afternoon. Dropping through Devil’s Canyon, the rocks were starting to glow with the afternoon sun. We stopped in Superior at Los Hermanos (99 miles and counting) for green chili beef combo plates (fast and tasty) and then went on past Boyce Thompson Arboretum (at 102 miles).
At about 107 miles you come out of the mountains to one of the nicer views of the Valley. From that point on a good day you can see all the way to the White Tanks on the far west, with the San Tans, Estrellas and South Mountain closer in. At night, the same view is of the lights of the whole Valley, twinkling like a carpet of light. Descending into the Valley, a couple of miles further on Weavers Needle comes into view again, but it’s to the north this time.
The turn-off to go to the Peralta trailhead comes at about 121 miles from the start, just before the town of Gold Canyon.
The exit for the Old West Highway comes about 126 miles into the trip, and a couple miles more into Apache Junction wraps up the Apache Trail loop. Given our stops and detours, the trip took us about six and a half hours last time and just shy of 130 miles total, and we took 90-some pictures (and this wasn’t our first time through!). You can probably do the drive itself faster than we did, but if you want to really see the sights, plan to take most of a day and enjoy this Arizona tour!