If you’re into scenic drives and in the Phoenix area you have got to take a day to head out on the Apache Trail…preferably in a convertible with the top down. The views are amazing and what a ride! And the rental car companies don’t even seem to mind the dust you’ll bring home with you which is good because it’ll be a lot!
We found the Apache Trail in our research about Phoenix and knew it was a must-see to add to our itinerary. Named for the Apache Indians who once used the route, the trail is about a 65 km stretch of road that winds through the Superstition Mountains and Tonto National Forest. Leaving Phoenix we took US 60 East to Apache Junction to the cut-off for AZ State Route 88, which is the official highway number for the Apache Trail. We followed the stunning scenery all the way through to the Theodore Roosevelt Dam where the route ends.Check out all the neat things we saw along the way!
Just outside of Apache Junction you’ll come to Goldfield Ghost Town which is an 1890s reconstructed mining town with a museum, Old West gun fights, and gold mine tours. It looked pretty commercialized but gets good reviews on TripAdvisor and would likely make for a fun day out, especially with the kiddos. We didn’t stop here but very nearby is the Lost Dutchman State Park which we made our first stop on the drive.
Legend has it that in this area was a very rich gold mine, called Lost Dutchman, but the location was lost when its lone prospector died. While we didn’t find any gold on our little walk on the trails we did find lots of cacti and our first of the many, many stunning views we’d see over the day.
We’d read before our trip that the roads on the trail could be quite treacherous, especially in rainy weather but for this first part of the trail they are two lane paved roads in fine condition. With that said though it is a good idea to give yourself plenty of time to take this drive (like several hours), not only to make several stops, but also because you will likely encounter some slow moving vehicles along the way, especially when you get on the dirt roads. There are lots of hairpin turns, switch-backs, and single lane bridges and the speed limit is about 15 mph on the dirt roads, but that’s OK -you won’t want to go much faster anyway as you’ll be taking in all the scenery around you.
After several kilometres you’ll come to Canyon Lake, which is one of four lakes formed by the damming of the Salt River that runs through Phoenix. The land in this area has lots of steep cliffs, ravines, and not much ground cover, just a lot of cacti. There is an official scenic stopping point here along with a restaurant, marina, store, and the Dolly Steamboat ride. We would have liked to have done this but there weren’t any cruises scheduled on Thanksgiving Day when we took this drive. I bet it would be really enjoyable and a chance to see more of the lakes and get some great photos. We satisfied ourselves with these views instead. Definitely worth the stop.
The next stopping point along the way, besides any impromptu stops along the side of the road you want to make (just be sure to pull way over and make sure your car can be seen for enough distance), was the very small town of Tortilla Flat. How small is it? Population is SIX. Six people! Honestly I wouldn’t have even guessed it was an actual town but there are some old-west style buildings including a little curio shop with mementos from visitors over the years, a restaurant, and some ancient mining and agricultural equipment. On Thanksgiving Day it was ghost town though so there wasn’t any lunch to be had. That’s OK though, we had planned ahead and brought a picnic lunch and our next stop was the perfect place to enjoy it.
Before our lunch stop though there were several more kilometres to drive, and now we were getting in to the really fun bit! It’s not long after Tortilla Flat that the pavement gives way to dusty, single-lane dirt roads and the mountains started to really rise up above us. This is really where you want that convertible as it is so neat to look way up the sides that shoot straight up, and then way over the sides of the road that go way down into the ravines below.
After a few hairy turns, and a bit of sliding on the dirt, it was time to make our stop for lunch. We chose the stop off at Apache Lake which had a walking path leading down the side of the hill away from the road to a nice little look-off place all to ourselves for our picnic with a view. The lake is a 25 km long man-made reservoir that is just perfect for boating,fishing, camping, and hiking.
All full from lunch, we got back on the road to finish the drive along Fish Creek Canyon along the Apache Lake to the Theodore Roosevelt Dam. This dam harnesses the Salt River to create the Theodore Roosevelt Lake and allow for irrigation for farming.
At the dam there is a parking lot with toilet facilities and scenic look-off points with information placards. The dam was built in 1911 of bricks and remains the world’s largest masonry dame at 91 metres tall.
The dam marks the end of the Apache Trail but it wasn’t the end for us. We drove on a little further to visit the Tonto National Monument (which I’ll share in my next post about Phoenix) and then had planned to take the highway back in to Phoenix. But did we? Nah! We liked the Apache Trail so much we turned around and drove back to Phoenix on it! I’m so glad we did as the sun came out and we got to catch it setting and shining on the sides of the cliffs and mountains on our way back.
Tips for enjoying your drive on the Apache Trail:
- Give yourself lots of time to take it all in. Pack a picnic and make a whole day of it.
- Rent a convertible to really get the best views all around and over you. Plus you’ll get great photos since you won’t have car windows in the way of all the awesome scenery.
- The roads can be steep and narrow in places and much of it is unpaved, so while a 4×4 isn’t necessary on a nice dry day like we were there, it also isn’t recommended for large RVs and caravans. We did meet one on the road and I’m glad we saw it coming from several bends away which gave us time to pick as wide a spot as possible for it to pass by.
- There are several scenic stops along the way and some have parking lots, paths, visitor info and, well, let’s just call them “rustic” restrooms.
- When is the best time to go? My vote would be any time it’s cool enough to put the top down and enjoy little hikes at the scenic stops. On Thanksgiving Day the road was very quiet and we felt many times like we were the only ones on it, and in spring the wildflowers would be in bloom. Summer would be busy with people going to the lakes, and just too hot to really get out of the car. The roads can also be dangerous during flash floods so best to leave the drive for another day if it is raining.
- Bring your patience for slower moving vehicles, and your camera to capture the wonderful scenes and memories.
Have you ever driven the Apache Trail? What other great scenic drives have you done? We are always looking for recommendations for more to add to our future trips map.
To follow along on our adventures on our Phoenix, AZ Getaway, please feel free to check out these posts: