When my husband and I wintered in the Greater Phoenix area, the scenic Apache Trail drive was our favorite thing to do when we entertained out-of-town visitors.
Officially known as State Route 88, Apache Trail begins in Apache Junction east of Phoenix and winds for 40 miles through the Superstition Mountains to Roosevelt Dam. The road was originally built in the early 1900s to transport materials for the construction of the dam.
The Trail offers impressive views of canyons, rock formations, saguaro-covered hills, and desert landscapes with multiple hues of green and ocher. Each time we drove the trail, I marvelled at the back-breaking feats it must have required to carve a road out of the jagged cliffs and desert wilderness in the early 1900s.
I never tired of the views; passengers are in a better position to appreciate them than drivers. Twists, climbs, and steep drop-offs require your utmost attention behind the wheel. Fortunately, there are a number of pull-outs along the way to stop and enjoy the vistas.
Canyon Lake is a good place to stop and enjoy the scenery. It is one of four lakes formed by the damming of the Salt River. The lake offers fishing and water sports, plus a marina, a campground, and a restaurant. The Dolly Steamboat will take you for a one-and-a-half-hour scenic nature cruise, on which you can view mountainside flora and look for wildlife while the captain tells stories about the legends and lore of the Superstition Mountains.
After driving approximately seventeen miles, you’ll reach Tortilla Flat, where you will find the remnants of an old west town. A wooden boardwalk runs in front of a restaurant, an ice cream parlor, a country store, a 1930s tiny one-room school house now turned into a museum, a rusty stagecoach and assorted other pieces of abandoned equipment. Tortilla Flat was once a thriving stage coach stop. Signs now say “Population 6.” The owners of the establishments are the sole residents of the “town.”
Lunch at Superstition Restaurant and Saloon is a tradition on our Apache Trail outings. The restaurant serves Sonoran-style Mexican food, burgers, chili and sandwiches amid rustic decor where the bar stools are saddles and the walls are papered with dollar bills from around the world. Check out the restrooms. Your head and neck poke above the top of stall doors which contain painted bodies of old West ladies and gents. The outdoor BBQ patio is open during the winter and features live afternoon music.
Beyond Tortilla Flat
After lunch, we, like many other visitors, usually turn around and drive back the way we came. But the Apache Trail itself continues beyond Tortilla Flat. Although we’ve driven the Apache Trail to Tortilla Flat many times, we’ve only traveled the full road once. The section beyond is not for the faint of heart.
Much of this stretch of the road is unpaved. It is very narrow with steep drops and few safety barriers. It is not recommended for RVs and trailers. The lonely road takes you past Apache Lake and through stunning but desolate scenery that will make you appreciate how difficult and dangerous the construction of the original road must have been.
Once you reach Roosevelt Dam, an alternate route back to Phoenix along major paved highways is available. Take Highway 188 to Globe and Highway 60 from Globe to Phoenix.
Fish Creek Hill
Fish Creek Hill, seven miles beyond Tortilla Flat, is another possible turn-around spot. You have to drive on unpaved road to get there, but you’ll reach it before the most terrifying part of the drive beyond Tortilla Flat. There is a pull-off area with walking paths and viewpoints. The incredible views are worth the drive.
Goldfield Ghost Town
You might want to consider adding a visit to Goldfield Ghost Town, located near the start of the Apache Trail in Apache Junction, to your Apache Trail outing. Stop here at the beginning of your day if you intend to drive the full Apache Trail and circle back to Phoenix on Highways 188 and 60. If you plan to turn back at Tortilla Flat or Fish Creek Hill, a stroll through Goldfield Ghost Town is a nice way to end your day trip.
Goldfield was a thriving mining town in 1890s that went into decline when the vein of gold ore ran out. It has since been reconstructed as a tourist attraction. Authentic-looking wood buildings house shops, restaurants, a museum, and a bakery. People in period costume walk the main street. Staged gunfighter presentations are scheduled on weekends. You can pan for gold, test your aim at a shooting gallery, take an underground mine tour, or ride a narrow gauge railroad. Entrance is free, but there are charges for some of the attractions.
The section of Apache Trail between Apache Junction and Tortilla Flat is well-traveled. It is a two lane undivided highway that narrows to a single lane in a couple of spots to cross bridges only wide enough for one vehicle. The highest speed limit along the trail is 45 mile per hours, with many sections having a speed limit of 25 miles per hour or less.
Note that highway enhancements on parts of the road between Apache Junction and Tortilla Flat may cause some delays. Highway work is expected to complete in late summer 2018.
If you’re looking for a day trip that you can take from Phoenix, consider driving the Apache Trail, and taking a leap into the old west.