Phoenix is a great city with so much to see and do and combined with sunny days (sizzling hot in the summertime) and cooler evenings, it’s a big destination for tourists. It’s also often a launching point for excursions to popular places like The Grand Canyon and Sedona. But just about an hour out-of-town you can leave the cosmopolitan life behind and savor a taste of what the Old West was like along 120 mile Apache Trail that surrounds the beautiful Superstition Mountains.
Along the way the trip shows off remarkable scenery from desert to mountains to lakes to canyons to ancient Indian cliff dwellings and so much in between. The entire drive takes about 5 to 6 hours to complete and if you add in all the stops you’ll want to make to take pictures and explore, plan on making it a full day excursion. Of course you can always opt for a much shorter excursion if you choose. Many people turn around at Tortilla Flat because shortly afterwards the road is unpaved and can be steep at various points. That journey can be done in 3 to 4 hours.
To get to there drive on Hwy # 60 East. Exit on Idaho Road and turn left (north). In about 2 miles you will see signs for the Apache Trail and go northeast on Hwy #88.
We took a dusty step back in time at our first stop– the Goldfield Ghost Town.
GOLDFIELD GHOST TOWN
Full disclosure: This stop is a wee bit touristy, but is a fun and interesting experience for both kids and adults. There’s a mine tour, a museum, restaurants, shops and even a zip line, but this recreated site was also once the home of the Mammoth Mine that produced almost 3 million in gold bullion from 1892 to 1896. Thanks to the dirt streets, random cowboys and old wooden buildings its easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
LOST DUTCHMAN STATE PARK
In 1840 a Dutch immigrant name Jacob Waltz supposedly found a prosperous gold mine in the area but alas left no records of its location. Lots of people have looked for it without success and hence the “Lost Dutchman” got its name. Today its a great spot for hiking and camping (camping is not allowed in many places further into the trail). Some of the easier trails still allow visitors to take in plants and wildlife of the Sonoran Desert.
CANYON LAKE AND DOLLY STEAMBOAT
Canyon Lake was formed in 1925 after damming the Salt River. There are marinas and an RV site. There are lots of places to enjoy a picturesque lunch along the shoreline and there is a 90 minute narrated boat ride tour on the Dolly Steamboat. You can also explore the surrounding Tonto National Forrest through lots of easy to difficult trails.
It’s easy to imagine a stage-coach pulling up to the General Store to stop for refreshments while driving through the wilderness. Inside there’s a bar complete with saddle bar stools and an old-fashioned ice cream and candy store. There’s also a shop with mementos from visitors who have passed through. If you aren’t inclined to drive on unpaved roads, this also might be the best place to turn your car around and head back to Phoenix you city slicker!
FISH CREEK HILL
The pavement ends but the road is also wider here so there are plenty of places to pull over and check out the view or head inland for hiking. There is a 10-degree grade which is a little more than a hill if you ask me, so take it slow. In the event of rain and mud be prepared that the road could be closed.
This lake was filled in 1927 and has a beautiful marina where you can rent a boat or grab a meal. To get there you have to leave the main road and go down a gravel path. From above or below the view is breathtaking.
ROOSEVELT DAM AND ROOSEVELT LAKE
The Theodore Roosevelt Dam was built with bricks in 1911 and is the world’s largest masonry dam at almost 300 feet tall. The lake is also the largest in Arizona (Lake Powell is actually bigger but extends into Utah). Just like Apache Lake, the views are remarkable so don’t forget your camera or make sure the phone is charged!
TONTO NATIONAL MONUMENT
Just four miles past the dam you will see signs for the Tonto National Monument and the ruins left behind by the ancient Salado Indians. Allow at least an hour to climb the trails to these amazing cliff dwellings that archeologists believe date back to 1300 AD. It was established as a national monument by Theodore Roosevelt in December 1907. Why the still well-preserved structures were abandoned by its residents is still unknown but there is an interpretive center that has plenty of information to learn about the culture.
About 25 miles after the monument the road will lead you to the old copper mining town of Miami that has buildings dating back to 1915. Be sure to check out the renovated downtown and the Bullion Plaza Museum to explore the cultural, mining and ranching history of the area.
After leaving Miami you will pass through Devil’s and Queen Creek Canyons. The area is famous for its silver mines and was a booming place in the late 1800’s. Movie buffs will recognize the town of Superior as the place where movies like Eight Legged Freaks, How the West Was Won, Blind Justice, The Prophecy, and The Gauntlet were filmed among many others. One of our favorite stops bills itself as “The World’s Smallest Museum” but it’s filled to the brim with historic artifacts.
BOYCE THOMPSON SOUTHWESTERN ARBORETUM
If you are mesmerized by the variety of cactus and other desert plants you see along the Apache Trail then Arizona’s largest botanical garden is a must stop. It’s over 323 acres of trees, plants, nature trails and even a lake. You absolutely won’t regret stopping in for a visit and from here its about an hour drive back to Phoenix. Happy trails!
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