Apache Trail AZ

Driving the Apache Trail near Phoenix, Arizona

One of the roads that left me in awe in our early days of living in Arizona was the Apache Trail. Passing through the mysterious and gorgeous Superstition Mountains, driving the narrow and twisty-turny road was one of the most amazing things we did in those days.

Close enough to Phoenix for a quick day trip, we drove it often over the years. During our earliest visits I remember driving with no other car in site. We used to feel like explorers finding a new road. We also drove it last weekend, when it was busier than I would ever have expected. Of course, over time, the cities grew closer to it. While years ago we drove miles to reach Apache Junction, now it seems as part of Greater Phoenix.

However, the road itself and the scenery it passes through hasn’t lost its magic.

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The Apache Trail – History

One of the oldest and most scenic drives in Arizona, the historic route known as the Apache Trail starts in Apache Junction. Officially Arizona State Route 88, it winds through the Superstition Mountains, following the trail once used by the Apache who lived in the area.

But people used his route even before the Apache.

Starting in 900 AD, the Salado people used the same trail to get to the Salt River Valley. Later, other native tribes used it as a route between their summer and winter homes, traveling to and from the Mogollon Rim and the desert lowlands.

The Apache and Yavapai migrated to the area later, around 1100. Nomadic tribes, they also used the trail to move through the wilderness of the Superstitions. They traded with, and often raided the more settled agricultural communities of the Pima living along the Salt and Gila Rivers near the Superstitions.

The trail through the mountain was well-traveled by the time white settlers first saw it.

Bringing water to the growing Phoenix area. Roosevelt Dam

After the Civil War, as settlement of the Western Territories began, the Arizona territory realized the potential of a town in Phoenix, near he Sal River that offered irrigation opportunities. And, of course, the town grew, and soon others, like Mesa and Tempe, joined it.

Of course, when settling in the middle of the desert, even near a water source, you have to deal with droughts and floods. Living in and around phoenix, we all know it – now. But instead of realizing it and build smaller settlements, we keep expanding, trying to tame the desert. Instead of adapting to the our surroundings, we try to adapt the environment around us to our needs – and wants.

Droughts and floods posed a challenge to the valley’s continued growth. So, people were trying to find ways to tame and use the river. Building a dam seemed the logical answer. After the extreme drought in the 1890s, the government made it a priority. So, in 1903, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, they built the Roosevelt Dam, to provide enough water – and power – to make the continued growth of Phoenix possible.

The dam was far from Phoenix, but a shorter route to it could go through the Superstitions. he rail already existed, at the time known as the onto Wagon Road. On the sie of the wagon road they built the Apache Trail to serve as a supply road for the materials to build the dam.

They started building the road in 1903, and ironically, most of the workers were Apache, who lived in the area. Originally connecting Mesa to the dam site, the Apache Trail was completed in 1905.

The road as a tourist attraction

After the dam was completed, the road no longer served only as a supply road, but they opened it up for public use. When they recognized its unique beauty, a few entrepreneurs started to provide stagecoach and automobile sight seeing tours along the road.

Southern Pacific Railroad was one of the first companies that benefited from the scenic beauty of this road. They added a side-trip on car along this road to their famous “Sunset Route”, a site-seeing excursion through the Southwest. In fact, they came up with the name “Apache Trail” in their advertising campaign for this side-trip.

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Driving the Apache Trail in 2022

As much as I realize the environmental impact of the reason of its existence, I have enjoyed driving the Apache Trail often over the years. The gorgeous scenery, so close to the city, offers a respite from the sprawling urban jungle.

As years go by, and more and more people us it, it seems to be losing some of its magic. Years ago, one of the major things I liked about it was its desolation; at any given time we felt absolutely alone in the wilderness. Now, not so much. Still, the scenery has not changed and I still enjoy the drive – to Tortilla Flat.

Past Tortilla Flat, the road has been damaged during a fire followed by flooding, and it’s been closed for almost two years. You can check the ADOT website for updates if you plan on driving the whole route. The road between Apache Junction and Tortilla Flat is open, paved, and showcases some of the best of this wilderness.


Goldfield and the Superstition Mountains

Soon after the turnoff for AZ-88, as the Apache Trail is designated on the highways, you’ll see Goldfield Ghost Town, a major tourist destination. Far from looking like a true “ghost town” with all the visitors, especially on weekends, the town nonetheless showcases an old mining town. Its buildings, while not the original, are historically correct, reconstructed in the same spot they once stood.

The buildings alone would not make it such a popular destination though. They are all open, as different businesses or museums, the restaurants/saloons offering traditional western fare. The stables offer horseback rides through he Superstitions, the museum showcases old memorabilia, a narrow-gauge railroad takes you around the old own, while the conductor talks about its history.

As an old mining town, Goldfield grew up around a gold mine you can take a tour of. And if you don’t find gold in the mine, you can always pan for gold nearby, in town. Of course, since you are in the Wild West, a gun fight is inevitable; if you visit on a weekend, you can witness one, with its protagonists dressed up in old Western clothes.

Yes, a tourist trap, for sure. But entertaining and fun for most. Besides, it brings part of the Old Western history to life.

The Lost Dutchman State Park

Superstition Mountains

Named after the legend of the Dutchman – who was not Dutch at all, but German – and the story of his legendary lost gold mine, the state park showcases the best of the Superstition mountains. Extremely popular (we could not find a parking spot last weekend when we tried stopping by), it offers miles of trails into the wilderness, from easy paths to long, strenuous trails to the mountaintop.

Years ago, we shared the park with only another couple, and after they left, we were alone in the park. In later years, we camped in the park, often ours being the only tent in the camping site. While I miss those days, I understand the popularity of the area. Still, visiting the park is worth it, especially in spring, when it is one of the best places to enjoy wild flowers in the vicinity of Phoenix.

Weaver’s Needle Vista Viewpoint

Weaver's Needle Vista

A trailhead along the road, we stopped at Waver’s Needle Vista Viewpoint on our last drive along the scenic road. I didn’t remember the stop, and I thought it was just a viewpoint. So, we weren’t prepared to hike too long, but still took a short stroll on the trail.

Paved for a short time, to a viewpoint, we stopped at the end of the pavement and set on the bench overlooking he Superstition Wilderness, with Weaver’s Needle in the distance. Though not marked, the trail continues from there, and we followed it for a while, enjoying the winter desert environment. The full trail is four miles, though as we only followed it for a few feet, I can’t tell how strenuous it might get. Seems pretty flat, though.

Canyon Lake

Canyon Lake

A few miles later the road descends towards Canyon Lake., the stretch I remember as my favorite. It still is. now, they have set up a viewpoint just above the lake, where we stopped to see it from above. Then drove down into the canyon near the lake.

This is another great spot to stop and enjoy water in the desert. It is a peaceful spot – until some loud speedboat rushes by and its engine echoes in the canyon. Motorized boats should be banned from this lake (and I’m sure they were at some point, if they no longer are). Besides that, the lake is gorgeous, surrounded by the canyon rocks.

The smallest of the four lakes – reservoirs, really – on the Slat River, Canyon lake was formed in 1924 by the Mormon Flat Dam. Close to Phoenix, it is popular for boating, fishing, and swimming (in the summer months). The marina on this lake is past the narrow, one-lane bridge, and has a campground, and restaurant. However, we didn’t stop there; instead we enjoyed a few quiet moments along he lake in a secluded beach area.

Tortilla Flat

The end of the road at this point, Tortilla Flat is a tiny settlement, proudly claiming its “population 6”. Once resembling a ghost town – we used to be the only car stopping there – last time we were there, it was so crowded, we decided against stopping. Not only the parking lots were full, but cars were parked along the road in both directions from the only building along the road, housing the Superstition Saloon/Restaurant and a gift shop.

Those who like it the scene, would absolutely love this place though. Though we didn’t stop now, we’ve been there plenty of times to understand why people like it so much.

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