The scenic and historic Apache Trail can turn the trip from the Rim Country to the Valley into an adventure that perhaps helps modern travelers get at least a sense of how remote this breezy land of ponderosa pines once seemed at the end of days of hard riding on dirt roads.
The 44-mile-long Apache Trail descends through splendor and hairpins through history, along the way revealing the damp secret to a millennium of Sonoran survival.
Highway 88 offers a bumpy, back door, Salt River route along Highway 188, some 50 miles southeast of Payson. The drive starts out along a wash-boarded dirt road at Roosevelt Dam, runs along the upper extension of Apache Lake, with a wealth of lakeside camp spots, leads through the Sonoran uplands bristling with yucca and saguaro, hairpins past a spot once popular for stagecoach robberies, rolls on by one of the most popular recreational lakes in the state, and winds up in Apache Junction on the front slope of the famed Superstition Mountains.
Patient drivers with no fear of heights are rewarded with three spectacular desert lakes and the solution to the riddle of thousands of years of human adaptation to a volcanic landscape of drought, shard and thorn.
The road was built in 1906 along the previous Tonto Trail to aid in the construction of Roosevelt Dam, but now serves boaters and desert lovers.
The river that created those three lakes first nourished a thousand years of Hohokam civilization, with the gathered waters of the White Mountains and the Mogollon Rim country. Faced with the floods and droughts that had doomed the Hohokam, early Phoenix farmers pressed the federal government to build the dam that launched the replumbing of the West.
The Apache Trail offers vivid scenery, refreshing lakes and the key to the settlement of the West.
And all of that in exchange for roughly doubling the travel time from Phoenix to Payson. While the drive on the Beeline takes between 90 minutes and two hours at highway speeds, the 25 mph speed on the 22 miles of dirt road — and the nearly irresistible urge to stop often to gawk at the view — stretches the travel time to three or four hours.
Perhaps the easiest way to enjoy the road is to start out early in the morning at the Phoenix end and take the long, leisurely way home.
If you start at the Apache Junction end of the journey on the way home, head out Highway 60 toward the Superstitions and take the Idaho Road turnoff labeled for Canyon Lake. Turn onto Route 88, the Apache Trail, and head past the ghost town tourist trap of Goldfield and right next to the scenic Lost Dutchman State Park and head on into the Superstitions.
The most famous denizen of the Superstitions remains Jacob Waltz the “Lost Dutchman.” A shrewd, avaricious, extravagant drunk, miner and opportunist, Waltz worked for a time in the Vulture Mine near Wickenburg in the 1870s. He then wandered into the Superstitions, along a path of myth and legend. He and his partner, Jacob Weiser, emerged from the mountains with nuggets and vague hints of a secret mine — although the Superstitions’ volcanic terrain made the tale unlikely. Many followed him into the mountains seeking his treasure — not all made it back out. The legend of a supposed deathbed confession inspired generations of treasure hunters and assorted murders and rumors.
The twisting, paved road delivers the explorer to Canyon Lake, one of four reservoirs along the Salt River. Canyon Lake Marina (www.westrec.com/canyonlake.html) offers rental boats, which offer the best method of exploring the lake.
Just past Canyon Lake, the road runs past Tortilla Flats, once a town of 120 when crews were building Roosevelt Dam. Now it offers a campground, restaurant and a small store — a tourist pit stop. The restaurant, with thousands of dollar bills thumb-tacked to the wooden walls, attractions ranging from tourist trinkets to live rattlesnakes, offers a fun pause in the journey. The store sits alongside a creek crossing — which in 1942 generated a flood that destroyed every building in its path and ended Tortilla Flats’ days as an actual town.
The road climbs up onto a high, canyon-edged plateau, graced by yucca, ocotillo and saguaro. The pavement ends several miles past Tortilla Flats for the next 22 miles. The well-graded road can accommodate passenger cars, but a high clearance vehicle — especially with four wheel drive — is always better on the dirt.
The single roughest spot on the road is the one-lane, white-knuckle descent down Fish Creek Hill.
The road plunges 1,500 feet in just three miles, with choke points barely wide enough for two cars to squeeze past one another. Unfortunately, RVs and trucks hauling boats often show up braiding the hairpins. Nonetheless, the dizzying descent provides thrills and views for the stout of heart.
Fish Creek awaits at the bottom of the hill — a narrow gash of a canyon, nurturing cottonwoods and sycamores and a mostly reliable, year-round stream. Canyoneering upstream offers a marvelous desert adventure, with secret pools, miles of boulder hopping — and even an outlaw hideout.
A polite and resourceful bandit named Hacksaw Tom once waited patiently for the stagecoach to struggle to the bottom of the hill, which made them easy to stop. He would take the strongbox and passengers’ valuables and then disappear up Fish Creek Canyon.
He netted about $40 per robbery, but never hurt anybody and showed an uncanny ability to avoid traps set by the sheriff and the best efforts of several posses.
A few miles farther, Apache Lake comes into view from a striking vista point. Protected by the harrowing drive and the minimal facilities, Apache Lake offers excellent fishing and some of the best lakeside camping opportunities in central Arizona.
When full, Apache stretches for 17 miles and stands 266 feet deep. Isolated stands of cottonwoods along the shoreline, easily accessible only by boat, provide good camping spots. The lake provides a water source even in the midst of drought, although it also complicates the ecological dynamics.
Beyond Apache Lake, the road hugs the river, backed up by the dam into the narrow canyon. Tributary washes cut into the river all along the way, providing ideal, isolated camp spots at the water’s edge, accessible by the boatless.
Finally, the road leads to Roosevelt Dam — the reason for its creation.
After a succession of floods and droughts repeatedly debilitated a string of farming communities along the Salt River in Maricopa County, a coalition of politicians, farmers and real estate speculators convinced the federal government to build a massive dam on the Salt River to control floods, store water and generate power.
Made entirely of mortared blocks of stone and brick, Roosevelt Dam created what was then the world’s largest artificial lake — Roosevelt Lake — with a million-acre-foot capacity, a depth of up to 190 feet and 89 miles of shoreline. Difficulties in diverting the water and building the dam ballooned the cost from the originally bid $1.1 million to $10 million. Tragically, 42 men died during construction.
Wrestling the 344,000 cubic yards of masonry into place in the remote, flood-prone canyon proved unexpectedly dangerous. Construction relied on an innovative 1,200-foot-long cable line with iron scoops that could hold 10 tons of rock and mortar.
Decades later, an analysis of the growth rings on ancient trees in cliff dwellings scattered throughout the Salt River watershed showed the Salt River could generate much larger floods than the dam engineers had estimated.
The discovery triggered a $430-million upgrade of the dam, boosting its height 77 feet to 357 feet. The work included a $21-million bridge that now stands as the longest, two-lane, single-span, steel-arch bridge in North America.
The bridge soars across Roosevelt Lake, to take traffic off the top of the dam — which was originally barely wide enough to accommodate two Model T Fords abreast.
All of which, perfectly rounds out a fascinating drive that twists, turns, hairpins and switchbacks through the history, ecology and scenery of the Sonoran Desert.
The river and the canyons have sheltered everyone who sought them. So Salado priests awaiting the summer solstice, Spaniards seeking gold, Apaches clinging to their lifeway, a shrewd Dutchman with a frayed pocket full of gold, hay-growing entrepreneurs with dreams of fortune, clever outlaws awaiting the next stage, ambitious engineers, boat-hauling urbanites and curious wanderers have all studied the lessons of the Apache Trail.
And like any modern traveler who opts for the long way to Rim Country, they all found that the journey often matters as much as the destination.