Visit Phoenix and Step Back in Time

Are you an adventurous traveler?  Are you looking for a scenic memorable day trip near Phoenix, Arizona?  Well, I’ve got just the day excursion for you.  Al and I first drove this 80 mile scenic loop several years ago and it still ranks as one of our top favorite day trips in Arizona.Salt River AZ

Arizona History

On the far southeast side of the greater Phoenix valley lies Arizona’s oldest highway. This former stagecoach trail which runs through the Superstition Mountains was Lost Dutchmanoriginally 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 oodles of interesting sights and beautiful views along the way which necessitate lots of stopping.  Photo-op anyone?  Thus, the Apache Trail Circle Loop requires an entire day.  It’s also not for the faint of heart, which I’ll explain in a minute.

Be sure and pack a lunch, snacks, and plenty of water because you’ll be exploring some desert backcountry during this scenic day trip drive. It helps if you have a high-clearance vehicle, but we saw plenty of regular cars on the dirt portion of the road from Tortilla Flat to Roosevelt Lake. That doesn’t mean I’m saying a basic car is a good fit for the terrain. It means, I saw regular cars navigating without apparent issue.

My recommendation; be sure it didn’t rain the day before, take your time, watch for bumps, and be prepared for washboard road conditions. When in doubt, check with a Tonto National Forest Ranger for further clarification and up to date road conditions. 
Apache Trail

We’ll start our journey from the town of Apache Junction, Arizona, and head north on State Road 88, aka The Apache Trail.  Our first stop is the Superstition Mountain Museum.Superstition Mountain Museum

A picturesque museum

The Superstition Mountain 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 museum is worthy of a photo-op and stroll around the historic buildings. We made a note to tour the museum another day.

Exploring a Ghost Town

Just a short drive north of the Superstition Mountain museum is our next stop; the Goldfield Ghost Town.  Goldfield was once a happening gold mining town back in the 1890’s. It’s now a popular tourist attraction which is rooted in Arizona history. It’s a fun and interesting stop. They still actually mine gold here, but that’s blocked from public view.  Guess they don’t want to share them there gold, huh!

Goldfield Ghost Town offers free parking and free walking around, but there is a fee for each attraction.  You can click on this link for more information on those attractions. We don’t usually do the tourist type of thing, so I can’t vouch for any of the paid attractions.

Superstition Mountains

The quaint little shops at the Goldfield Ghost Town offer unique trinkets specific to the area along with the typical tourist stuff … T-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs, postcards, etc.  The grounds are loaded with original mining equipment, and it’s obvious, these are the original buildings and have stood for a very long time.  As a matter of fact, during our visit, a museum building was closed while construction workers were busy shoring up a second floor balcony.

Goldfield Apache Junction Arizona

As I strolled around Goldfield Ghost Town, I could envision the harsh realities of life over 100 years ago. These were hardy folks living in an unforgiving and harsh environment. However did they survive living in the desert without air conditioning? And no A/C in that covered wagon either 😱

I found it funny that the Bordello was located near the church. How convenient is that? Play hard …. pray even harder. Sow your wild oats on Saturday, and pray for crop failure on Sunday!

During this particular visit to the east side of the Phoenix area, we happened to be camped just up the road from the Goldfield Ghost Town at one of our favorite campgrounds; the Lost Dutchman State Park. For those unable to secure a campsite at the Lost Dutchman State Park, Goldfield Ghost Town does have a campground.  It’s a bit rustic, but at least it’s a place to park the RV in a pinch.

A favorite state park

Lost Dutchman State ParkSpeaking of Lost Dutchman State Park, this is one of our favorite places to camp while visiting the Phoenix valley.

The hiking trails are amazing and the campsites are comfortably spaced. And the views are absolutely stunning!

For those interested in visiting the Lost Dutchman State Park but not interested in camping, there is a day use area. For a small fee, you can enjoy the trails all day. The day use area offers plenty of shaded picnic tables, restrooms, and easy access to all the trails. Seriously, this is a “must see” place during any visit to Phoenix, Arizona, especially in March when the wildflowers are blooming.

A beautiful body of water in the desert

As we continue our scenic drive north of the state park, the road starts to climb, twist, and bend. I highly recommend driving this stretch of road without an RV for the first time due to potential length and height issues.

Shortly after passing the Lost Dutchman State Park we enter the Tonto National Forest.  The scenery becomes more rugged and stunning with each new mile.  March is particularly beautiful as the road is lined on both sides with yellow blooms from the brittlebush and desert marigolds.Canyon Lake AZ

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, wouldn’t you agree?  Canyon Lake itself is a great day excursion; perfect for a picnic, kayak adventure, or even a cruise aboard the Dolly Steamboat.

Canyon Lake, Phoenix, Arizona, kayaking in Phoenix

Canyon Lake, Arizona. Located on the far east side of the Phoenix valley.

Canyon Lake offers a marina for daily boat rentals; powerboat, kayak, and even SUP’s (stand up paddle board). There’s also a campground, but it is rather pricey for what you get, in my opinion anyway. The last time I checked, it was over $50 a night. With that said, the drive is also something to consider. It could be quite challenging for larger RV’s due to length and height. Considering we all travel with different types of RV equipment and have our own comfort level, I recommend checking it out first without the RV.Canyon Lake

A town with the population of 6

A few more miles up the road, past Canyon Lake, is the cute little town of Tortilla Flat – population 6.  This is the perfect place to stop for a bite to eat, especially if you forgot to pack a meal, like we did.  The restaurant serves up great burgers and has a fun décor.

(to enlarge photos in a gallery, simply click on any image)

The walls are covered with dollar bills stapled all over, as well as old mining tools and historical photos. The bar stools are saddles and the ladies restroom has entertaining painted stall doors. I think this is the one and only time that my daughter allowed me to photograph her in a restroom. I had to bribe her with ice cream. The little general store serves up some of the best ice cream around and the fudge was pretty good also.

The adventure begins

The Apache Trail, Phoenix, ArizonaWith 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. Although, we did notice some guys pulling their boats 😮

The gravel road is wide and in pretty good condition up to the scenic view parking lot.  The vista and scenery is worth the dusty, bumpy gravel road to get to it. For those less adventurous, this would be the perfect place to turn around and retrace your journey home. In my experience, the gravel road from the town of Tortilla Flat up to the scenic overlook is usually in good condition for any vehicle to navigate, but beyond that point, it can get dicey and very interesting.

Tortilla Flat, Arizona, Century Plants

My daughter fascinated by the Century Plant located at the scenic overlook.

Al and I are used to driving unpaved mountain backcountry roads with steep cliff drop-offs with no safety barriers or guard rails.  In other words, this next stretch of road between the scenic overlook and Apache Lake is not for the faint of heart. (Tip: if you’re interested in visiting Apache Lake, but don’t want to drive over Fish Creek Hill, access from Roosevelt Lake. The road between Roosevelt Lake and Apache Lake is much easier to navigate and without the high drop-offs.)

Fish Creek Pass, the Apache Trail, a scenic drive near Phoenix

Fish Creek Pass is the most challenging stretch of the Apache Trail and not recommended for folks with a fear of heights. It’s a one lane gravel road, intended for two-way traffic with  drop-offs and no guard rails. Check out the portion of road on the far right side of the photo… a little ledge of road with no room for error.

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. There isn’t enough room in most spots for two vehicles to pass each other. Those going down hill supposedly have the right of way and it’s not uncommon for someone needing to back up to a wider spot in the road so vehicles can pass by each other.

Fish Creek Pass, aka Fish Creek Hill, is the worst part of the journey with sheer drop offs,  a very narrow road, lots of turns, and a steep elevation change. Fish Creek is the most stressful and challenging part of the drive and not for the faint of heart. Once we navigate Fish Creek Hill, one lane bridges and washboard road conditions continue to add to our adventurous day.

Apache Lake

Apache Lake

Once we reach Apache Lake, another beautiful oasis in the desert, 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 was very slow going for us. This is when my Tacoma or a Jeep would be perfect, but my Tacoma was back in Colorado during this excursion. Even a Honda CRV would’ve been a better choice for this road than the long wheel base of our Ford truck.

Two and a half hours after leaving Tortilla Flat and 22 miles of gravel road later, we finally arrived at the Theodore Roosevelt Damn and Lake. We averaged about 10 miles per hour with lots of photo-op stopping along the way.

Roosevelt Lake, Phoenix, Arizona

Roosevelt Lake

We leisurely tour the campgrounds and the boondocking opportunities along the lake shore. We are pleasantly surprised and make notes.  We will definitely keep Roosevelt Lake as a possible place to camp in the future. It’s pretty. It’s remote. It’s inexpensive, and located within the Tonto National Forest.

I’m entertained by using the term “forest” around this barren looking land. You won’t find any of the usual trees that most folks would expect in a National Forest.This is still the desert and you’ll find a forest of saguaro cactus and their cousins in lieu of any oak or aspen trees.

spring wildflowers, poppies, Superstitions Mountains, Phoenix, Arizona

Spring wildflowers

This unusual forest may look barren at first glance, but upon closer inspection, you’ll discover an amazing ecosystem with the ability to survive and flourish in some of the harshest weather and terrain.

The beautiful scenery continues

poppiesThe fascinating and majestic scenery continues from Roosevelt Lake to the active mining towns of Miami and Superior and onto the Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Oh, how I wanted to stop at the Arboretum, but by this point in our journey, we were tired, photo outed, and ready to just get home. Besides, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum would require its own day.

There are so many interesting sights along this scenic loop that we wanted to stop and explore further, but we realized we couldn’t see and do it all in one day.

We took notes for future day excursions, as well as future overnight RVing spots and promised ourselves to return again and again. I always look forward to spending time in the Phoenix valley. Whether one is looking for solitude or a host of activities, this part of Arizona seems to have it all, and it rarely disappoints.

I remain in awe by Arizona’s raw beauty and fascinated by the plants and animals that survive in this harsh land. What an adventurous day we had!

discover beautiful lake in the desert surrounded by rugged terrain, road twists and turns lined with yellow flowers, ghost town with old historical buildings

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71 thoughts on “Visit Phoenix and Step Back in Time

  1. We’ve made this trip twice – once in a friend’s SUV and once in a rental car. Made it in both vehicles with no problems, though we sure didn’t tell the rental company that we planned on driving that route!

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  2. Just discovered your blog. And this was the first post I read! Very informative and entertaining- just frustrating right now because I cant walk or drive while a stupidly earned ( my stupidity) leg heals. I have an 06 Winnebago View which has decent ground clearance 7+ inches and is 24′ long. No fear of heights and very experienced with backcountry “roads” and true 4wd trails ( there have been a few times I’ve had to back up 1/2 mile 😦 )— just not in the RV ( its a purchase from early last year that we only made a few highway trips in before I got “stupid”. In the right weather, no rain or recent rain, do you think this would be doable in the View?
    Off to read more of your posts and daydream!

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    • If you’re adventurous, you could probably do it, but I wouldn’t attempt on a busy weekend. It’s best to travel from Tortilla Flat to Apache Lake so you’ll have the inside lane and go downhill. Please let me know when and if you drive this loop. Love the idea of the Winnie View and it’s size. If we were part-time, I’d want something that size. Hope that leg heals soon and thanks for stopping by.

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      • Will Do when we make the trip! Our daughter starts college at CU Boulder in the fall so when the leg heals it will be easier to get my wife to leave the house! However daughter has said under no circumstances are we allowed to visit Boulder in RV!!
        Thanks for the quick answer!

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        • My son graduated from CU Boulder and my daughter CSU Fort Collins. The Elks Lodge in Boulder and the one in Westminster both allow RV parking with some hookups, but you do have to be an Elks member.

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  3. We stayed at Lost Dutchman SP for the first time in December and loved it! We only drove as far as Canyon Lake for a gorgeous hike in the Superstition Mountains, but next time, we’ll explore further. Your photos are wonderful!
    We did spend most of a day at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, and it was gorgeous. You’ll love it!

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    • I love that part of the valley. I do remember your post on the Arboretum and one day I’ll make it there. We should have a great showing of wildflowers this year. Now if only I could keep my little red truck out of the shop 😣

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  4. Wow! I’m so jealous of your adventures and photos too! I love the map with its “Every Mile, A Scene Worthwhile” Who knows … I’ll be retiring in 2 years – then we might come and stalk you guys! I wouldn’t need to bring my camera b/c you’ve already captured anything worth shooting!

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  5. And that is what the doctor just ordered, an Arizona fix for me.Thank you Ingrid. Seems like there are still places to be explored in the Phoenix area.
    Missed the desert this time even if we are having a great time here in FL.

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    • It has been a cool and wet winter in the desert, but the wildflowers are already starting. I’m glad I could provide a AZ fix for you and stay tuned for pics of those blooms.

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  6. Ingrid,
    Can’t thank you enough for this. We’ll be there in late March and your pics had us charged up and ready. Hoping for a day or two of dry weather so we can make this day trip, although I don’t know if I’m up for the whole route in my F-250 (long bed). I may hit you up for a few more details before we go. Again, thanks.

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  7. What an adventure indeed! Your photos (and the scenery) are amazing, Ingrid! I don’t think we could do the entire 80-mile loop in one day, or even in a few with Zesty, but you’ve inspired me to check out which parts of this itinerary we can do. This is a nice compilation of the variety Arizona offers and I’m looking forward to the wildflowers in March. Looking at the photos, that month might (finally) be warm enough for shorts and t-shirts as well! 🙂

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  8. That is quite a drive! We made that long drive last year, and I have to admit that I was nervous when we reached the narrow, bumpy, high part. We have a large Toyota Tundra. I kept telling my hubby to NOT look at the scenery, and keep his eyes on the road. Lol So nice to meet you in the past couple of weeks. And, thanks for showing me one of the places that you love to hike in! This is a great, informative blog!

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    • Thank you Karen. Yeah, that road can get dicey in spots. I enjoyed hiking with you and wish I could’ve shown you some of the really cool spots on that trail. That rushing water was crazy! I just sent you a friend request on FB.

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  9. Ingrid, thanks for such a detailed post on a delightful adventure. I can’t tell you how much it helps with travel planning when folks like you who have gone before us provide this type of information that makes it easy to decide whether or not a particular place would be to our liking. Your pics of Canyon and Apache Lakes are especially enticing and it looks like we’ll be adding a couple more items to our bucket list . . .

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    • Hi Mary, I know this area with the picturesque lakes would be right up your alley. Water in the desert is always a special treat. Hopefully you’ll make it out west one of these winters.

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    • I’ve made that drive a couple of times now where we didn’t go beyond the view point. Makes for too long a day AND too stressful to go all the way to Roosevelt Lake. Glad you made it over there.

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  10. Good to see you back among the blogging…. Both Phoenix and Tucson have so much to offer to the FT RV’er; hiking, biking, photography and history. The Black Hills of SD is very similar (although a little colder) which is why we chose that area. I don’t think you could go wrong in any of those places!

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    • Yes, so much beautiful outdoor activity throughout Arizona. We love the Black Hills and hope to visit this June when the weather warms. We aren’t fans of winter any more. Too much time in the desert has turned us into reptiles 😆

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  11. The one time we tried the Apache Trail, when we still had the Ridgeline, we got stopped about 1/2 way through because of a rock slide. When we have another vehicle or friends with a good vehicle we’ll try it again. Love and miss AZ, next winter we plan to come for the month of January.

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    • Thank you and I totally agree, the desert is amazing when she’s in full bloom. With all the moisture we’ve received, we should have a great showing of wildflowers this year.

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  12. One of my favorite blogs Ingrid…..Really just shows a glympse into what Arizona has to offer and such a relatively small piece of the state as well. I look forward to hearing what you and Al write about a journey up the Eastern stretch…Highway 191 from the massive mines in Morenci/Clifton up to Hannigan Meadows and into the Alpine country of the White Mountains. Truly is a magnificent state and your pics were BEAUTIFUL!!!! WE MISS YOU!!!! David & Heather

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    • Thanks Dave. Wow, that sounds like a great scenic AZ drive. I’ll need to map that one out. We love the diversity of this state. Can’t wait to be parked next to you guys and catch up over coffee or cocktails or both 😁

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  13. Great post and pictures Ingrid. Brian and I are volunteering at Tonto National Monument this winter and are thoroughly enjoying the entire Tonto Basin area. Next time you will have to take in the Cliff Dwellings. You would love the guided hike to the Upper Dwelling (reservation only.) It’s beginning to look like it’s going to be an amazing wildflower year after all our winter rains.

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  14. Love this drive…its spectacular, wild and as you well covered so full of history. Amazing to have wild flowers so soon, guess all the rain has its benefits! Lovely post and pictures Ingrid!!

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  15. If I had been drinking water when I read the following sentence, it probably would have shot out my nose. That’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time.
    “Sow your wild oats on Saturday, and pray for crop failure on Sunday!”

    Great read. I’m one of those people with a severe fear and dislike of roads on cliffsides with no guardrails. That’s probably because as a child I had many, many nightmares of going off cliffs in cars. I never stayed asleep to find out if I survived, so I figure it’s a message from the universe that I could die that way.

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  16. Oh my gosh, love this post. We try to get out to Canyon Lake at least once a year for a picnic. I can’t wait to get out there this Spring. As a child I lived out near Canyon Lake and we went every weekend. We had camp outs and bar-b-ques, it was so much fun.

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    • Since this is located on the far eastside of the valley, it won’t be too far for your friends to visit (I think you said they were moving to the Gilbert or Chandler area). BTW… I went to Jewel of the Creek the other day after a heavy rainfall. The creek was running high and fast with no way to cross and the little boardwalks washed away. It was crazy to see!

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  17. We always try to do this trip when we’re in the area. I have serious height problems and that Fish Creek Pass section always tries my endurance but, so far, we haven’t met anyone coming the other way so I’m brave! Boyce Thompson Arboretum is on my “next time” list…..it’s just far enough away that we never seem to get there. Thanks for taking us along on one of my favorite drives.

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    • You have the perfect vehicle for this excursion. Next time we try it, we’ll make sure it isn’t on a weekend. The Arboretum remains on my list. Maybe this spring I can make it happen!

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    • I’ve been to the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden several times, but I’m not aware of a garden on that far east side of the valley other than the arboretum. It is fascinating land that never ceases to amaze me.

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