I have taken this drive several times and each time I see something new. It is a drive that I highly recommend for several reasons. One is its proximity to Phoenix. It doesn’t take long to be out on the road. Another is its scenery, passing by three blue lakes set against spectacular rock formations. The third and most important reason is how exciting it is to drive. It is exciting because at times the road literally clings to the mountain’s edge.
The drive I am describing is the Apache Trail. The adventure begins in the town of Apache Junction in the East Valley just off of U.S. Highway 60. The trail covers 44 miles of which half is paved and half is gravel. It can take about six hours to complete depending on how many stops you make. There are no services available along the way, so you will want to make sure to start out with a full tank of gas and water.
Apache Junction sits at the base of the Superstition Mountains. These mountains hold many legends. One popular story is about Jacob Waltz, a German miner. Waltz was in search of the famous Peralta Mine. The Peralta family came to this area from Mexico in 1840. The family developed a rich gold mine in The superstition Mountains on the eastern edge of Apache Junction.
In the 1870s Jacob Waltz, known as “the Dutchman” found a descendant of the Peralta family. The Dutchman supposedly located the mine. He claimed that the gold in the mine could be cut away with a knife it was so rich. However, in 1891 the Dutchman died without revealing the mine’s exact location. Today the legend continues, along with the search for the Lost Dutchman’s Mine in the Superstition Mountains.
You can learn more about the mine and the Superstition Mountains by going to the Lost Dutchman State Park. The park is just north of town on State Route 88. This is the beginning of the Apache Trail. The road travels by the majestic Superstition Mountains. If you look closely you will see Weaver’s Needle, a prominent rock formation on the side of the mountain.
While heading up to the first lake, Canyon Lake, I remembered what I had once read about the first passageway through this area. The Salado Indians used a path along the Salt River a thousand years ago. Soon the pathway became known as the Tonto Trail and both Indians and white settlers used it.
In the 1900s a problem arose. It was evident that if the water in the Salt River was not managed, the future of the Valley was black. So plans were made to build water reservoirs to control the flooding and drought situations. The key to the project was the construction of the Roosevelt Dam. A road was developed alongside Tonto Trail to help get men and supplies to the dam’s construction site. Throughout the construction period from 1905 through 1911 the road was used continuously.
The road received its name in 1986 when the State Transportation Board designated the Apache Trail as the state’s first historic road. This designation placed it on the map and has made it a popular driving tour.
As I continued my drive, I marveled at those individuals who had crossed on foot or by horse. It must have been quite a feat. Then I notice up ahead a vivid blue patch. It was Canyon Lake. The road edges the lake for several miles. The view is exceptional and is one I won’t soon forget.
After passing the lake, I came upon the small town of Tortilla Flats. The word small is an understatement. There are only six residents. However, I do not want its size to scare you away. You will discover a great restaurant and bar. I love the barstools – horse saddles placed atop wooden barrels. It is a true classic western establishment. There is also gift a shop brimming with knick-knacks.
The name Tortilla Flats has two versions for how the name came to be. One refers to the rock formations located near town, which resemble a stack of tortillas. The other describes a time in which a group of travelers got stuck in the area due to the raging Salt River. While the group waited for the waters to subside their supplies depleted. Eventually, only tortillas were left to eat. The name Tortilla Flats stuck. It doesn’t matter which version is correct, this town is special and shouldn’t be skipped.
Once you have had a cool drink and a tasty treat hop back into your vehicle and continue down the trail. Just a few miles outside of Tortilla Flats the pavement ends. This is where the meek might want to turn tail and head back to Apache Junction and enjoy the numerous antique shops in town. But if you and your vehicle are up to it, press on.
The road quickly changes as you enter Fish Creek Canyon. Long ago when stagecoaches used this road, it was preferred to head upward. I quickly discovered why. The road is steep and has sharp drop-offs. One would have more control heading upward pulling than maintaining a foothold and slow steady pace when going downhill. Once again I rejoiced in the fact that I am living in the time of trucks, air conditioning and cup holders.
The rest of the road on up to Roosevelt Lake is rough and at times nerve-racking. You will pass by Apache Lake and follow the Salt River upstream to Roosevelt Lake. There are spots where the drop off is very, very steep. The word “slow” will become your friend. However, this isn’t necessarily bad because the views and scenery are amazing. There is something about clear blue water surrounded by dusty rocks that makes one's eyes dance. I enjoy stopping at the numerous scenic pullouts to see the sights and to rest my nerves. No, really it isn’t that horrendous, but you do need to take your time.
Upon arrival at Roosevelt Lake, I remember a black and white photo I once saw of then-President Theodore Roosevelt propped up in an open-air car. He was traveling up to the dedication ceremony of the dam’s opening. The trip took Roosevelt six hours to complete. Today I sit looking at the largest masonry dam in the world and wonder what the future has in store.
But enough speculating, a decision must be made. Once you are at Roosevelt Lake you have a choice. You may continue on State Highway 88 on into Globe and then drop down into the Valley or you can retrace your steps back down the Apache Trail and on into Apache Junction. Whichever way you chose, I promise you that you will remember this driving adventure.
I do want to encourage you to take this drive during the cooler seasons and with a vehicle that is in good shape. On one occasion I decided to take the drive down from Roosevelt Lake to Apache Junction. Just as I started in on the downward trek along the dirt road, I discovered my front tire was flat. In most cases, this would be an easy change, but unfortunately, several conditions proved to be inconvenient and painful. First of all, I located a pullout on the edge of the cliff to make the switch. Scary. Second, I chose to make the trip during August and the temperature had soared to 100 plus. The lug nuts that were taken off became blister material when I had to place them back onto the tire. My suggestion is to be prepared.
In spite of the unpleasantness I have experienced along with this road, I surely wouldn’t pass up this journey. I believe the mixture of history and scenery make this adventure one you will want to experience yourself.
Until next time, enjoy your Arizonan adventures!
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