With the spiky Superstition Mountains looming in the distance and quirky gold-mining lore virtually everywhere you look, Apache Junction manages to set itself apart in the sprawling metropolitan area of Phoenix.
At a population of less than 45,000, Apache Junction is among the smallest of the communities that make up the metro area known as the Valley of the Sun. For many visitors -- especially those who arrive in the winter months to escape the ice and snow of the northern United States and Canada -- the smaller size is part of the town’s appeal.
Stellar winter weather that features average high temperatures in the 60-to-70-degree range has made Arizona a favorite among visitors who typically spend November through April in warmer southern locales.
Apache Junction capitalizes on its sunny skies and shirtsleeve winter weather with its wealth of RV rental parks and easy access to the great outdoors. Snowbirds looking for a slightly less urban experience seek out the community located in the Valley’s far eastern reaches.
Here are seven of the best things to do -- along with places to shop, dine, and stay -- in Apache Junction during the winter.
Things To Do In Apache Junction
Located just minutes from the mountain range affectionately called “the Supes,” Apache Junction is known as the Valley of the Sun’s desert playground. A string of jewel-like desert lakes and fun mining experiences add to the scene. Here are some of the best experiences to check out.
Explore Lost Dutchman State Park
A drive of less than 10 minutes will get you from the streets of Apache Junction to one of Arizona’s most scenic state parks, Lost Dutchman State Park, named for the fabled lost mine of the Superstitions.
The row of rocky peaks seems close enough to touch as you drive into the park located off Apache Junction’s Apache Trail. While the Superstitions are visible from all over the East Valley, Lost Dutchman State Park offers excellent access for those who want to get an even closer look. (Entrance to the park comes with a fee.)
I suggest taking a stroll along one of the park’s hiking trails, such as the easy Native Plant Trail or the Siphon Draw Trail, which is easy in its lower stretches but difficult as the trail climbs toward the top of the challenging Flatiron. Plan to spend 2 or 3 hours exploring the park.
Pro Tip: Keep an eye on the Arizona State Parks website for reports on the status of the wildflowers. After a wet winter, wildflowers often erupt in the early spring, making for a magical scene of yellow poppies and purple lupines nestled amidst towering saguaro cacti. Check out this article for more information on Arizona wildflower hikes.
Drive The Apache Trail
History runs deep along the Apache Trail, the 40-mile scenic route that snakes its way through the Superstition Mountains. Not only has the route been a popular tourist attraction since the early 1900s, but it was a stagecoach route prior to that and originally served as a trail for the Apache people as they moved through the Superstition Mountains.
The scenic route, which begins at the intersection of Arizona Highway 88 and Idaho Road in Apache Junction, traverses the rugged mountain terrain of the Tonto National Forest and passes by the pretty Canyon Lake and Apache Lake before eventually connecting with Roosevelt Lake.
Drivers are advised to take care navigating the road’s hairpin turns and steep dropoffs. While the first portion is paved, the road transitions to dirt soon after it passes through the old mining town of Tortilla Flat. Depending on your pace, the drive could be a morning or afternoon excursion or an all-day trip.
There are numerous scenic overlooks along the Apache Trail, making it convenient to stop often to take in the vistas.
Explore Tortilla Flat
Many people choose to drive just the first 17 miles or so of the Apache Trail to the fun town of Tortilla Flat. When I visited in early December, motorcycles and cars lined the road, visitors strolled along the wood-plank boardwalk, and a country-rock band was playing in the open-air BBQ Patio at the Superstition Saloon.
Tortilla Flat started out as a stagecoach stop in 1904, and it has been an Arizona classic ever since. Plan to spend 2 to 3 hours browsing the shops, taking in the little museum, and lunching at one of the outdoor picnic tables.
Soak Up The Scenery At Canyon Lake
Desert lakes are always a pleasure, and they don’t get much prettier than Canyon Lake, a 950-acre cobalt-blue oasis located along the Apache Trail.
The smallest of the Salt River Project lakes, Canyon Lake offers a range of recreational opportunities, including boating, fishing, hiking, picnicking, and cruising on a cool steamboat.
Learn About Mining History At The Superstition Mountain Museum
Located near the Lost Dutchman State Park along the Apache Trail are a number of mining attractions, including the Superstition Mountain Museum.
The museum, which is run by the local historical society, collects, preserves, and displays the artifacts and histories of the area, including the legend of the Lost Dutchman Mine and the prospector Jacob Walz.
Pan For Gold At The Goldfield Ghost Town
Just down the Apache Trail from the museum is the Goldfield Ghost Town, an entertaining tourist attraction with activities such as panning for gold, mine tours, zip-lining, and train rides on a narrow-gauge railroad.
Back in the 1890s, Goldfield is said to have boasted three saloons, a boarding house, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a brewery, a meat market, and a schoolhouse. But when the mining vein faulted, the grade of ore dropped, and the town “died a slow, painful death,” says the attraction’s website. For decades, tourists have visited to take in the site of the old mining town.
Hike The Superstitions
For a combination of mountain terrain, classic desert vistas, and spectacular rock formations, there are few better spots than the Peralta Trail in the Tonto National Forest.
From a trailhead located about 16 miles southeast of Apache Junction, hikers can make the 5.8-mile round-trip hike to the Fremont Saddle for an unbeatable view of Weavers Needle -- arguably the Superstitions’ most distinctive rock formation. While the rock spire at the trail’s summit is the main payoff, the views are spectacular all along the way.
The elevation gain totals more than 1,300 feet, and the trail is rated as moderate. It takes about 3 hours to complete. Even in the cooler winter months, hikers should remember to carry plenty of water and wear a hat to guard against the bright sunlight.
Best Restaurants In Apache Junction
With an eye toward its mining past, many of Apache Junction’s restaurants feature rustic ambience and hearty cowboy food. Here are some of the best places to dine.
Dirtwater Springs is known for its Western decor featuring plank floors and brass bar fixtures as well as its homestyle food. For breakfast, try the signature biscuits and gravy or the Spanish omelet with chorizo, onion, and Cheddar. For lunch, check out Dirtwater’s selection of burger favorites, such as the spicy Southwest jalapeno burger.
The Handlebar Pub And Grill
For a beer and burger, The Handlebar Pub and Grill located along the Apache Trail is a local favorite. The pub features craft beers with 29 handles, along with a range of burgers, sandwiches, and smoked brisket options. Try the peppercorn burger with braised onions, bleu cheese, and peppercorn aioli, or the house-smoked brisket on a bun.
Well Done Grill At Canyon Lake
For lunch with a view, head to the Well Done Grill overlooking the blue waters of Canyon Lake. The menu includes lakeside fare such as calamari, clam strip, and shrimp baskets, along with a selection of burgers and sandwiches.
Where To Shop In Apache Junction
From rocks to collectibles to Western art, the shopping choices are varied and unique in Apache Junction. Here are some of the most distinctive places to shop.
Tortilla Flat Country Store
Housed in one of Tortilla Flat’s original historic buildings, the Tortilla Flat Country Store and Ice Cream Shop offers a range of desert-inspired products such as prickly pear cactus barbecue sauce and “Killer Chili” packets. Don’t miss the ice cream shop’s signature flavor: prickly pear gelato.
Mammoth Mine Rock Shop
Located in the foothills of the Superstitions, the Mammoth Mine Rock Shop draws on its mining surroundings with an array of rocks, minerals, crystals, and fossils.
Mall Of Peddlers
If dozens of booths peddling antiques, collectibles, and clothing items is your shopping style, Apache Junction and nearby Mesa will not disappoint. Among Apache Junction’s choices is the Mall of Peddlers, an indoor swap meet along the Apache Trail that offers more than 130 booths.
Best Hotels In Apache Junction
From a classic guest ranch to a range of RV parks and chain hotels, Apache Junction offers a variety of accommodations and prices. Here are some of the best.
Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch
Billed as one of Arizona’s hidden treasures, the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch capitalizes on its lovely setting amidst the Superstition Mountains. The guest ranch offers 20 rustic cabins with panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness. The ranch also offers outdoor activities such as trail riding, kayaking, and tubing. Saguaro Lake is located about 20 miles northeast of Apache Junction.
For those who prefer a more rugged accommodation, the Tortilla Campground located near Tortilla Flat offers scenic spaces for RVs and tents. The campground is open from October through April each year and offers close proximity to boating, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, and scenic driving.
Residence Inn Phoenix Mesa East
Short- or long-term accommodations are available in a number of chain hotels in the Apache Junction area, including the Residence Inn Phoenix Mesa East. The hotel features rooms with fully equipped kitchens and complimentary grocery delivery service. The Residence Inn Phoenix Mesa East is located about 5 miles southwest of Apache Junction near the Highway 60 Superstition Freeway.
When To Visit
Apache Junction is at its finest in the winter and early spring, when the average high temperatures range from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. The fall months of October and November are also comfortable, with highs in the 70s and 80s. The summer tends to be hot, with average highs topping 100 degrees in June, July, and August.