The Apache Trail through the mysterious Superstition Mountains of Arizona was named for the Apache Indians who traveled that route. The trail was used by cowboys and miners and then by stagecoaches and freight wagons traveling between Mesa and Globe. Today, the trail affords a wonderfully scenic means of accessing spectacular canyons, desert lakes and a unique ecosystem. Along the way you will find rich deposits of historical information and extensive folklore. For the really adventurous, especially those who tend to stray off the beaten path in search of new experiences, remember that the Lost Dutchman Mine still hasn’t been found.
Before heading up into the mountains, the trail passes through the town of Apache Junction. Many snowbirds winter there, and so there is no shortage of RV parks. My wife, Gayle, and I found a home base for our 35-foot motorhome; then used the dinghy for exploring.
We stopped at a very modern and efficiently run Chamber of Commerce, which is conveniently located near where the trail begins its ascent. Wonderful volunteers provided us with important information, including maps and handouts. Anyone thinking about traveling the Apache Trail (State Route 88) with an RV should know that it is a steep and tortuous route of nearly 50 miles through rugged desert mountains. The section from just east of Tortilla Flat to Roosevelt Dam is unpaved. Though there are some campgrounds along the way, and at Roosevelt Lake, they do not accommodate large RVs, and some RV rental companies do not allow their vehicles to be taken there.
We were told that the entire Apache Trail, plus an optional return route via Old West Highway 60—from Globe back to Apache Junction, can be driven in about half a day. But to do it that way hardly seems worthwhile. There is easily enough to see and do along the way that most (kids and adults alike) should find plenty to hold their interest for at least two full days.
An important stop is encountered a little more than three miles outside of Apache Junction. That is the Superstition Mountain Museum. Open year-round, the 12.5-acre site at the foot of the western face, offers both indoor and outdoor exhibits revealing the history and folklore of the region, including the ongoing search for the Lost Dutchman Mine. A stop here makes it easier to understand the significance of other points of interest in the 160,000-acre Superstition mountain range, which is part of the Tonto National Forest.
Another attraction not far off the Apache Trail is the Goldfield Ghost Town. There is a museum, the Mystery Shack, a narrow-gauge railroad, gold panning, reptile exhibit, Lu-Lu’s Bordello and even staged gunfights (on weekends). Frequent special events are scheduled throughout the year too—such as chili cook offs. Of course the town depends on tourists for its survival, so nothing is free. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
If your visit is between October and May, we highly recommend checking out the seasonally operated Mining Camp Restaurant. Lunch and dinner shows with an Old West theme were being offered while we were there, but even if you just come for a meal in the restaurant, the food is excellent and reasonably priced. If you only have enough time for a cup of coffee or soda, the variety of historical artifacts and information displayed makes it a worthwhile stop.
Farther along the trail is the entry to the Lost Dutchman State Park. Several nature trails begin at the park, with varying degrees of difficulty. Interpretive information can be seen on signs along the way. There is also a wildlife pond and all sorts of flora and fauna to interest photographers. From November to March, interpretive programs are offered by park rangers, including nature films, talks and walks. The park has a campground that includes 35 sites with electrical hookups.
Higher up in the mountains is scenic Canyon Lake. A dam on the Salt River created a 10-mile long lake of cool, clear, deep water that winds through picturesque ravines and canyons with steep cliff walls. Boating, fishing, nature hikes, camping, and photography are among the many activities that can be pursued. A marina offers boat rentals, and there is a restaurant. A steamboat named Dolly offers daily one and a half hour trips through this natural wonderland. The views and photo ops are well worth the price. There are also twilight dinner cruises of two and a half hours in the evenings.
A couple of miles beyond Canyon Lake is Tortilla Flat, which you will recognize by what appears to be a body hanging from a noose. It is too small to be classified as a town, or even a village, but there is a post office. The advertised population is six. Located about 18 miles northeast of Apache Junction, this was the last surviving stagecoach stop on the Apache Trail. We found it to be a fun place to visit, though it won’t take more than an hour or so—unless you find something more interesting than we did. They have good ice cream at the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Shop. During part of the year, wonderful displays of desert wildflowers can be found close by.
Beyond Tortilla Flat is beautiful Apache Lake. The road deteriorates as it traverses Fish Creek Canyon, but the views are stunning. Apache Lake is one of four reservoirs that were formed by damming the Salt River. Canyon Lake, Saguaro Lake, and Theodore Roosevelt Lake are the other three. The surface area of Apache Lake is 2,568 acres. Boating, fishing, hiking and camping are among the attractions. The road hugs canyon walls as it follows the contours of the lake. Views are magnificent from the car, but even more awe-inspiring from a hiking trail.
The Theodore Roosevelt Lake is the next major point of interest along the Apache Trail. Created with completion of the Roosevelt Dam in 1911, it was dedicated by and named after President Roosevelt. The dam is unique in its construction: the world’s largest “cyclopean masonry” dam, using huge, irregular blocks like those from a Greco-Roman building. The dam now has a covering of concrete. At 22.4 miles long and almost two miles wide, this oldest manmade lake in Arizona is open to boating and fishing. A marina offers boat rentals. There are several trailheads in the area, including one for the 800-mile trail that runs from the border with Mexico all the way to Utah. The trail actually crosses over part of the lake—just north of the dam, via a bridge that was built to carry traffic from State Route 188 across the Salt River.
Nearby is the Tonto National Monument, which includes well-preserved Sinagua Indian cliff dwellings. A visitor center and picnic areas offer views of the lake. A trail leads to the two-story ruins, where visitors are permitted to walk inside.
Beyond Roosevelt Dam, there isn’t much to do except enjoy the scenery along the remainder of the route to Globe. So for most, it is time to make a decision: whether to go back along the Apache Trail, or continue on to Globe. From there you can take Highway 60 back to Apache Junction.
Four campgrounds are scattered along the shore at Theodore Roosevelt Lake. The innovative Cholla campground, with flush toilets and hot showers, is the largest all-solar powered campground operated by the U.S. Forest Service. The nearby Windy Hill campground, with 339 sites, is the largest in the Tonto National Forest. The other campgrounds are Indian Point and Schoolhouse.
If you take this wonderfully scenic route through the legendary Superstition Mountains, you won’t be disappointed. We just wish that we had allowed more time for our visit.
Ken Reid, an RVer for more than 40 years lives in Modesta, California.
IF YOU GO:
Apache Junction Chamber of Commerce
567 W. Apache Trail
Apache Junction, AZ 85117
Superstition Mountain Museum
4087 N. Apache Trail
Apache Junction, AZ 85119
Goldfield Ghost Town
4650 N. Mammoth Mine Rd.
Goldfield, AZ 85119
Lost Dutchman State Park
6109 N. Apache Trail
Apache Junction, AZ 85219
Dolly Steamboat at Canyon Lake