THE APACHE TRAIL
There isn’t a whole lot of desert or history left in Phoenix, but only an hour’s drive to the east, you’ll find quite a bit of both. The Apache Trail, a narrow, winding, partially gravel road that snakes its way around the north side of the mysterious and beautiful Superstition Mountains, offers some of the most scenic desert driving in central Arizona. Along the way are ghost towns and ancient ruins, saguaros and century plants, reservoirs and hiking trails. You could easily spend a couple days traveling this route, though most people make it a day trip.
One thing you should know: The Apache Trail is a real trail, following the Salt River on the side of a mountain, and there aren’t guardrails. After about Canyon Lake, the paved road turns into dirt. It’s well graded—and you’ll see, particularly on weekends, a lot of folks tow pleasure boats up the thing. But be prepared to navigate cliffs on the road heading up, and be particularly mindful coming down, when you’ll be on the cliff side of the road.
To start this drive, head east on U.S. 60 to the town of Apache Junction (officially named Ariz. 88) on the eastern edge of the valley, then go north on Ariz. 88. About 4 miles out of town is Goldfield Ghost Town, a reconstructed gold-mining town. Allow plenty of time if you plan to stop here.
Not far from Goldfield is Lost Dutchman State Park, 6109 N. Apache Trail (www.azstateparks.com; tel. 480/982-4485), where you can hike into the rugged Superstition Mountains and see what the region’s gold seekers were up against. (The hike to the top of the jagged, rugged Flatiron is tough going, but a keeper.) Springtime wildflower displays here can be absolutely gorgeous. Park admission is $7 per vehicle; the campground charges $15 to $17 per site.
Continuing northeast over 10 miles of winding road, you’ll reach Canyon Lake, set in a deep canyon flanked by colorful cliffs and rugged rock formations. This is the first of three reservoirs you’ll pass on this drive; together the three lakes provide much of Phoenix’s drinking water. (The other big source of water is the Colorado River on the state’s western border.) At Canyon Lake, you can swim at the Acacia Picnic Area or the nearby Boulder Creek Picnic Area, in a pretty side cove. You can also take a 90-minute cruise on the reproduction paddle-wheeler Dolly steamboat (www.dollysteamboat.com; tel. 480/827-9144); it costs $25 for adults, $23 seniors, $15 ages 5 to 12, and $6 for kids 1 to 4. A Saturday dinner cruise ($68 adults, $40 children) is also available, and once a month, there is a twilight astronomy cruise. There’s also a lakeside restaurant at the boat landing.
But hold out for Tortilla Flat (www.tortillaflataz.com; tel. 480/984-1776), an old stagecoach stop with a restaurant, saloon, and general store, 3 miles up the road. The ceiling and interior walls of this funky old place are plastered with thousands of dollar bills left by previous customers. If it’s hot out, stop in at the general store for some prickly-pear ice cream (guaranteed spineless).
Past Tortilla Flat, the asphalt ends. Drive carefully, but check out the truly spectacular desert scenery. Among the rocky ridges, arroyos, and canyons on this stretch of road, you’ll see saguaro cacti and century plants (a type of agave that dies after sending up its flower stalk, which can be as high as 15 feet tall). After 15 miles of sometimes treacherous road you’ll come to Apache Lake, which is not nearly as spectacular as Canyon Lake, but a much bigger and busier operation, including the Apache Lake Marina and Resort (www.apachelake.com; tel. 928/467-2511), with a motel, restaurant, and general store. Rooms run $90 to $120; in summer there are 2-night minimums on weekends, 3-night minimums on holiday weekends.
Shortly before reaching pavement again, you’ll see Theodore Roosevelt Dam. This dam, built in 1911, the year before Arizona became a state, forms Roosevelt Lake; despite its concrete face, it’s the largest masonry dam in the world and was quite an achievement in its day. Roosevelt Lake is four or five times as big as the other lakes along the Salt, but I have to say it’s not as picturesque, aside from the beautiful arched bridge near the dam.
Right here you have a choice. You can go north over the bridge, if you’re in the mood for more highways winding through desert mountains. From there you’ll go northwest on Ariz. 188 for another 30 miles; there are a few restaurants to stop at along the way. Ultimately, you’ll hit Ariz. 87. Take a left, go south, and in another 35 or 40 minutes you’ll be back in the town of Fountain Hills, where you can get a cold drink and head another 10 minutes into north Scottsdale.
Going the other direction is a little more interesting. Staying on Ariz. 88, you’ll next come to Tonto National Monument (www.nps.gov/tont; tel. 928/467-2241), which preserves some of the southernmost cliff dwellings in Arizona. Occupied between about 1300 and 1450 by the Salado people, these pueblos are some of the few remaining traces of this tribe, which once cultivated lands now flooded by Roosevelt Lake. The lower ruins, open daily year-round, are a half-mile up a steep trail from the visitor center. The upper ruins are reached by a 3-mile round-trip trek, and can only be visited on a guided hike on weekends. Call the number above to make a reservation; space is limited. The park is open daily (except Christmas) from 8am to 5pm (you must begin the lower ruin trail by 4pm); admission is $7.
Thirty miles along on Ariz. 88, you’ll come to the copper-mining town of Globe. Although you can’t see the mines themselves, the tailings (remains of rock removed from the copper ore) can be seen, piled high all around the town. Be sure to visit Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park (www.globeaz.gov/visitors/besh-ba-gowah; tel. 928/425-0320), on the eastern outskirts of town, a partially reconstructed Salado Indian pueblo site with several rooms set up to reflect how they might have looked when occupied, about 700 years ago. They’re among the most fascinating ruins in the state. Besh-Ba-Gowah is open daily 9am to 4:30pm (closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas); admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors, and free for kids 12 and under. To get there, head out of Globe on South Broad St. to Jesse Hayes Rd.
From Globe, head west on U.S. 60. Three miles west of Superior, you’ll come to the 320-acre Boyce Thompson Arboretum, 37615 U.S. 60 (arboretum.ag.arizona.edu; tel. 602/287-3000). Dedicated to researching and propagating desert plants, this was the nation’s first botanical garden established in the desert; it’s set in two small, rugged canyons. From the impressive cactus gardens, you can gaze up at sunbaked cliffs before ducking into a forest of eucalyptus trees that grow along a stream. As you hike the nature trails, watch for the two bizarre boojum trees. September through April, the arboretum is open daily 8am to 4pm; May through August, it’s open 6am to 3pm. Admission is $7.50 adults, $3 for ages 5 to 12. There are regularly scheduled guided tours of the garden; call for the schedule.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.