Apache Trail and Tonto National Monument, Arizona

This was not a boogievan trip, which due to the day we chose to drive it, we are glad it was not. The Apache Trail runs along AZ 88 between Apache Junction in the Greater-Phoenix area and the Theodore Roosevelt Dam and lake, about 40 miles to the north. The trail was apparently long a trade and travel route used by the native populations through the Superstition Mountains, but was turned into a road in the early 1900’s during a period of water reclamation when the Roosevelt Dam was being built. It served as a stagecoach and tour route out of Tortilla Flats and today it still offers access to the rugged beauty of the area and the lakes created along the Salt River from reclamation. It is well worth the trip to see this amazing area, but perhaps not at the end of a holiday weekend when the traffic is thick like we did. Perhaps pick a day when the kids are in school, or get an early jump on it to beat the crowds.

In the map below it is the grey line that snakes from lower left to just right of center at Roosevelt Lake. Tonto National Monument is the adjoining green boxes directly below the center of Roosevelt Lake, just east of where Apache Trail meets the lake.

Canyon Lake is the first point of interest along the route, which seems to be one of several lakes created by the reclamation project of the early 1900’s. There were numerous boats moving around this area and the lake seems busy with these and throngs of people. Parking was full when we passed by and folks were up on the roadside with their vehicles. There was a camp site here also, but due to the congestion we did not investigate further.

Tortilla Flats, population 6, is just east of Canyon Lake. Now primarily a souvenir, lunch and ice cream stop with a few buildings that showcase it’s gold mining and stagecoach history, it used to be an important stop on this route when the local railway ran tours up the trail. There is a museum located at the east end of the hamlet, rather small, but quite interesting. Although not far from Apache Junction, there seemed to be plenty of people stopping at Tortilla Flats. We tried Prickly Pear Cactus ice cream and chocolate … quite tasty stuff.

From Apache Junction AZ 88 is paved until just after Tortilla Flats, from there it is gravel – often one lane – until the dam. At the dam it returns to pavement but remains one lane until closer to the lake. Part of the adventure is dodging traffic going in the opposite direction.

The rugged beauty of the Trail is very appealing, certainly to people like us who are from the boreal forest. We found out that the Saguaro Cactus only grows in the Sonoran Desert, which we did not know; they are amazing plants to say the least. It seems they only start to grow their famous arms after about 75 years of age, and can live over 150 years. The older ones can be 40 feet tall and weigh 4800 lbs. Internally, they hold water and expand/contract with the rainy/dry season. When you see a dead one you note the woody ribs that give them their shape; these were used as building materials by the inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert in their adobe structures – or so we understand. They differ greatly from our pine and poplar forests, but still form their own kind of prickly forest. When birds make holes in them to nest, the Saguaro secretes a retain that seals the wound and stops moisture loss: only after the resin dries is the space useful to nest in. Nothing says the American south-western desert like a Saguaro. The views always made us feel like we were in an old western.

We stopped along the road just beyond Tortilla Flats to enjoy the look of the desert vegetation.

Not much farther we stopped again at the Fish Creek Lookout that had a cement trail with historical information. It looks over a very expansive canyon area that we were very interested in. The dirt road carries on down into the bottom of the canyon and you can see a green strip indicating water in the distance, which is the Fish Creek. From what we were reading there were several kinds of trees down there including mesquite and cottonwood.

We had a couple of tight traffic situations on the gravel stretch of the trail. The first was with a truck pulling a pontoon boat in the opposite direction to our travel, which was a tight squeeze on the near one lane road. The second was not long after the first when we noticed up ahead a truck stopped. He was trying to back up and seemed to be looking to pull in tight to the edge, so we stopped about 100 yards back to see what was going on; very quickly another vehicle stopped a distance behind us. The truck was at a corner that we could not see around but we surmised something was coming up our direction that was large. It turned out to be a truck pulling a holiday trailer which passed us with little clearance (we had to pull in our drivers mirror to avoid contact), and a few other passenger vehicles following close behind. We were able to move forward after this, around a couple of corners, across a one lane bridge over the creek.

We stopped on the other side of the bridge out of traffic to admire the larger, green trees of the wet area. You see spots like this in pockets in the Superstition Mountains, anywhere there is water it is green and quite lush. The height of the trees was perhaps what set it apart from other areas.

The dirt road is actually in quite good shape for most of its length, the worst of it being towards the high points where vehicles towing trailers have to pull harder and make washboard. It does, however, turn into one-lane width, or best a tight two-lane width all over the place, generally without warning and especially on the corners, of which there are many. There are few guard rails along it’s length. It is worth noting that every bridge on the dirt road is a one-lane bridge. Be ready to wait and take your turn.

Farther on is Apache Lake, which we decided to drive into. This is largely a boat launch with some cabins and a camping area. There were numerous people here enjoying the sunny day, like any other body of water on a long weekend. There was no place for us to sit, or to hang out so we kept moving down the trail.

The road is at its worst between Apache Lake and the Dam as it goes up over the high point in the route where the worst of the washboard is. Several one lane bridges later you arrive at the dam, which is of course impressive. There is a toilet building at a turnout by the dam which is convenient. From the story boards it seems they added onto the height of the Dam in the not so distant past in order to retain more water, which of course has created a bigger lake. At this point we were back on pavement, and the historic Apache trail is largely at an end. This was not a drive you make quickly, nor should you. Expect delays due to traffic and expect to stop and smell the Prickly Pear Cactus.

Roosevelt lake is a good size and there are more boats and camp sites. We explored one that was just east of the Apache Trail junction with AZ 188. For us, so used to being in the Canadian Rocky Mountains with the tall trees, the camp sites seemed very open and sunny. Some of the camp loops were nearer to the water, others in the center of the area away from the lake, as you see everywhere. Unlike the Canadian Rockies, there would be no issue getting a full solar charge. We did not see any power hook ups in the sites we drove through, so for our boogievan, it would mean traveling here when we didn’t need air-conditioning. Rather than return on Apache Trail, we headed east on AZ 188 back towards Mesa. Tonto National Monument is off this route.

The Monument is centered on two sets of adobe cliff dwellings, upper and lower, of which only the lower is available for walk up. The upper dwellings, the larger and better preserved of the two, is available by guided tour only. The dwellings are believed to be at least 800 years old and while little is known about the people who lived there, indigenous histories speak of droughts and migrations that both brought people there, then forced them away. Settlers to the area did not value the dwelling sites, and some destruction of the lower site took place before the national parks people took over in 1932. The upper dwellings survived in better shape as they are harder to access and not readily apparent from the road below. You will need the national park pass to get into the monument, not the daily Tonto Forest pass, or you will have to pay the access fee at the visitors center. It isn’t expensive and it supports preservation efforts.

Desert life and the pueblo people were a part of the school curriculum many years ago, it was amazing to finally get that grade 3 field trip! These structures were apparently at least two-story, with common areas behind the sleeping areas. Part of the original roofing is still in place, complete with the 800 year-old support poles. Sited under a large rock outcropping, the temperature was very pleasant in the heat of the day when we visited. Given they were believed to use irrigation from the nearby spring, one can imagine terraced farming below the structures. These were a people that apparently grew cotton and had advanced weaving knowledge.

The trail up to the lower dwellings is paved, and while there is some incline to it, there are also rest points along the way and plenty of signage speaking to desert flora. We learned quite a bit about the plants that inhabit the area, which made our later hiking more interesting.

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