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 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. Pick and choose the stops that appeal to you, and be sure to get an early start. The gravel section of the road is well graded and is passable for regular passenger cars.
If you'd rather leave the driving to someone else, Apache Trail Tours (tel. 480/982-7661; www.apachetrailtours.com) offers a variety of guided tours along the Apache Trail. This company also offers off-road adventures in the Superstition Mountains and Four Peaks area. Tours range in price from $45 to $165.
To start this drive, head east on U.S. 60 to the town of Apache Junction, and 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 (tel. 480/982-4485; www.azstateparks.com), where you can hike into the rugged Superstition Mountains and see what the region's gold seekers were up against. Springtime wildflower displays here can be absolutely gorgeous. Park admission is $7 per vehicle; the campground here charges $15 to $17 per site.
Continuing northeast, 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, and together the three lakes provide much of Phoenix's drinking water, without which the city would never have been able to grow as large as it is today. At Canyon Lake, you can swim at the Acacia Picnic Area or the nearby Boulder Creek Picnic Area, which is in a pretty side cove. You can also take a cruise on the Dolly steamboat (tel. 480/827-9144; www.dollysteamboat.com). A 90-minute jaunt on this reproduction paddle-wheeler costs $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $12 for children 5 to 12. Lunch ($47) and dinner ($68 for adults and $47 for children) cruises are also available, and once a month, there is even a twilight astronomy cruise. There's also a lakeside restaurant at the boat landing. But if you're at all hungry, hold out for nearby Tortilla Flat (tel. 480/984-1776; www.tortillaflataz.com), an old stagecoach stop with a restaurant, saloon, and general store. The ceiling and interior walls of this funky old place are plastered with thousands of dollar bills that have been left by previous customers. If it's hot out, be sure to stop in at the general store for some prickly-pear ice cream (guaranteed spineless). From December through April, there are staged gunfights here on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month.
A few miles past Tortilla Flat, the pavement ends and the truly spectacular desert scenery begins. Among the rocky ridges, arroyos, and canyons of 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 much as 15 ft. tall). Next you'll come to Apache Lake, which is not nearly as spectacular as Canyon Lake, though it does have the Apache Lake Marina and Resort (tel. 928/467-2511; www.apachelake.com), with a motel, restaurant, and general store. If you're inclined to turn this drive into an overnight trip, this would be a good place to spend the night. Room rates are $80 to $105; boat rentals are available.
Shortly before reaching pavement again, you'll see Theodore Roosevelt Dam. This dam, built in 1911, forms Roosevelt Lake and, despite its concrete face, is the largest masonry dam in the world.
Continuing on Ariz. 88, you'll next come to Tonto National Monument (tel. 928/467-2241; www.nps.gov/tont), which preserves some of the southernmost cliff dwellings in Arizona. These pueblos were occupied between about 1300 and 1450 by the Salado people and 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 hike, and can only be visited on a guided hike. The upper ruins are open November through April with tours offered three or four times each week at 10am. In May and October, there are tours on Saturday mornings at 8am. Tour reservations are required (reserve at least 2 weeks in advance). The park is open daily (except Christmas) from 8am to 5pm (you must begin the lower ruin trail by 4pm); admission is $3.
Keep going on Ariz. 88 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 (tel. 928/425-0320; www.globeaz.gov/visitors/besh-ba-gowah), on the eastern outskirts of town. This Salado Indian pueblo site has been partially reconstructed, and several rooms are set up to reflect the way they might have looked when they were first occupied about 700 years ago. For this reason, they're among the most fascinating ruins in the state. Besh-Ba-Gowah is open daily from 9am to 5pm (closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas); admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, and free for children 11 and under. To get here, head out of Globe on South Broad Street to Jesse Hayes Road.
From Globe, head west on U.S. 60. Three miles west of Superior, you'll come to Boyce Thompson Arboretum, 37615 U.S. 60 (tel. 520/689-2811; http://arboretum.ag.arizona.edu), dedicated to researching and propagating desert plants. This was the nation's first botanical garden established in the desert and is 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 of this 320-acre arboretum, watch for the two bizarre boojum trees. September through April, the arboretum is open daily from 8am to 5pm, and May through August, it's open 6am to 3pm. Admission is $7.50 for adults and $3 for children 5 to 12. There are regularly scheduled guided tours of the garden; call for the schedule.
If after a long day on the road you're looking for a place to eat, stop in at Gold Canyon Golf Resort, 6100 S. Kings Ranch Rd., Gold Canyon (tel. 800/827-5281 or 480/982-9090; www.gcgr.com), which has a good formal dining room and a more casual bar and grill.
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.