Are you an adventurous traveler? Are you looking for a scenic memorable drive? Well, I’ve got just the day trip for you. Al and I first drove this 80 mile scenic loop three years ago and it still ranks as one of our favorite day excursions.
On the far southeast side of the greater Phoenix area lies Arizona’s oldest highway. This former stagecoach trail which runs through the Superstition Mountains was originally used by the Apache Indians thus aptly named The Apache Trail.
The Apache Trail is officially known as State Route 88 and links the town of Apache Junction with Theodore Roosevelt Lake. The trail was developed into more of a road in the 1930’s to support the development of dam’s along the Salt River creating some beautiful lakes in the process.
There’s a bunch of interesting sights and views along the way which necessitate lots of stopping. Photo-op anyone? Thus, the Apache Trail Circle Loop requires an entire day for the excursion. It’s also not for the faint of heart, which I’ll explain in a minute.
We’ll start our journey from the town of Apache Junction and head north on State Road 88, aka The Apache Trail. Our first stop is the Superstition Mountain Museum.
The museum collects, preserves, and displays the artifacts, history, and folklore of the Superstition Mountains. Even though we knew we had a long day in front of us, this picturesque place is worthy of a photo-op and stroll around the historic buildings. We’ll tour the museum another day.
Moving on; our next stop is the Goldfield Ghost Town. Goldfield was once a happening gold mining town back in the 1890’s. I found myself on more than one occasion visiting this little tourist attraction. There’s free parking and free strolling around, but there is a fee for each attraction. You can click on this link for more info on attractions. We don’t usually do the ‘tourist’ thing so I can’t vouch for any of the paid attractions.
The quaint little shops offer unique trinkets as well as the usual tourist stuff. The grounds are loaded with original mining equipment. It’s obvious these are the original buildings and have been standing for a very long time. As a matter of fact, a museum building was closed while construction workers were busy shoring up a second floor balcony.
As I strolled around Goldfield Ghost Town, I could almost visualize the harsh realities of life over 100 years ago. These were hardy folks living in an unforgiving and harsh environment. I also found it funny that the Bordello was located near the church.
For those unable to secure a campsite at the Lost Dutchman State Park, Goldfield Ghost Town does have a campground. It’s a bit rough, but at least it’s a place to park in a pinch.
And speaking of Lost Dutchman State Park, which is just a little further up the road; we discovered some of the best hiking trails at this park. We take full advantage of these trails anytime we’re in the area. There is a day use fee unless you are already camped in the park. Lost Dutchman State Park requires it’s own day to explore and it’s own blog post. And I highly recommend camping here.
Continuing on our journey the road starts to climb, twist, and bend. Shortly after passing the state park we enter the Tonto National Forest. The scenery becomes more rugged and stunning with each mile. March is particularly beautiful as the road is lined on both sides with yellow blooms from the brittle bush and desert marigolds.
Twenty miles north of the town of Apache Junction, we round a bend and are graced with the sight of an oasis in the desert. Canyon Lake with it’s deep blue waters surrounded by rugged cliffs and rocky terrain is a pleasant and unexpected surprise.Definitely worth a few photo-ops around here. Canyon Lake in itself is a great day excursion; perfect for a picnic, kayak adventure, or even a cruise aboard the Dolly Steamboat.A few more miles up the road is the cute little town of Tortilla Flat – population 6. This is the perfect place to stop for lunch. The restaurant serves up great burgers and has a fun décor.
We recently revisited with friends and in the photo you can see dollar bills stapled to the walls along with old mining tools and historical photos. The bar stools are saddles and the little general store serves up some of the best ice cream and fudge around.
With tummies full, it’s time to brace ourselves for the truly adventurous part of the drive. Just past the town of Tortilla Flat the pavement ends. Most rental car companies will not want you driving this road and it’s not recommended for any vehicle over 25 feet in length…. Definitely no RV’s!
The gravel road is wide and in pretty good condition up to the scenic view parking lot. Obviously the vista is worth a view and for those less adventurous this would be a good place to turn around and retrace your journey home.
For us? Al and I are used to driving unpaved mountain back roads with steep cliff drop-offs with no safety barriers or guardrails. In other words, the stretch of road between Tortilla Flat and the Roosevelt Dam is not for the faint of heart.
As we continue past the scenic overlook the road narrows and winds. This two way traffic road narrows down to about a one to one and a half lane wide road. Those going down hill supposedly have the right of way and it’s not uncommon for the need for someone to back up to a wider spot in the road so vehicles can pass by each other. Fish Creek Hill/Pass is the worst part of the journey with sheer drop offs, very narrow, lots of turns, and a steep elevation change.One lane bridges and a washboard gravel road add to the overall adventure. Once we reach Apache Lake, another beauty, the road becomes a little easier to traverse. Due to the washboard condition of the road and our extra long wheel base on the F-250, it’s slow going. Two and a half hours after leaving Tortilla Flat we finally arrive at the Theodore Roosevelt Damn and Lake.
We tour the campgrounds and the boondocking opportunities and are pleasantly surprised. We will definitely be keeping Roosevelt Lake as a possible place to camp in the future. It’s pretty. It’s remote. It’s inexpensive. It’s located within the Tonto National Forest, although the word ‘forest’ is a relative term. You won’t find any of the usual trees around here. This is still the desert.
The majestic scenery continues from Roosevelt Lake to the active mining towns of Miami and Superior and onto the Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
By this point in the journey, I’m photoed out, tired, and just ready to get home. We make notes for things to see and do in the future.
Whether one is looking for solitude or a host of activities, this part of Arizona seems to offer it all. I remain in awe by it’s raw beauty and fascinated by the plants and animals that survive in this harsh land.