Driving the Apache Trail
A road trip on the Apache Trail is one of the most scenic drives near the Phoenix area. This well-traveled road affords visitors an incredible view of canyons, geologic formations, desert plants and trees, desert and lake views, and wildflowers in season.
The road is in much better condition that it was in the 1990s. Treacherous is the adjective that comes to mind when those days of driving the Apache Trail are recalled. Wider lanes, more pavement, and significant grading help make the trip a bit less harrowing. Still, this drive is not for nervous drivers and definitely not for nervous passengers.
The Apache Trail, Arizona Route 88, covers just less than 50 miles. The northern 22 miles of that road are unpaved. Because the road is well-maintained and graded, 4-wheel-drive is not a requirement for this drive.
Getting to the Apache Trail
For some people, getting to the Apache Trail takes just a few minutes (east Mesa, Apache Junction), but for some, this will be a day trip. No matter how you get there, you need to take U.S. 60 east all the way to Apache Junction to the cutoff for Arizona Route 88-Idaho Road. Although Arizona Route 88 is the Apache Trail, you have to drive through a bit of Apache Junction to get to the fun part.
There are many stops that you can make along the way. Your trip might take two hours, or it might take seven hours or longer. It just depends on the route you take and how many stops you make. You are driving in the Superstition Wilderness area, home of the Lost Dutchman State Park, and a part of Arizona known historically for mining. Shortly after turning onto Arizona 88, you'll come upon Goldfield Ghost Town.
There are scenic stops all along the Apache Trail, and some have paved parking lots, visitor information, paths, and restrooms. There are places along the road where there is enough room to pull to the side and take photos if you'd like, but don't do it unless there's an obvious pullout. You don't want to try to get a tow truck out to the Apache Trail.
Approaching Canyon Lake there is an official scenic view stop, and at Canyon Lake, you'll find a restaurant, store, marina, campground, and the Dolly Steamboat, a 90-minute narrated boat trip. Canyon Lake is one of three man-made reservoir lakes that were formed on the Salt River south of Roosevelt Dam.
Canyon Lake is about 15 miles from where Arizona 88, the Apache Trail, begins. The road is winding but fully paved. Drive slowly. There will be slow-moving vehicles and people stopped on the road, so you'll have to be patient.
Tortilla Flat is only a few miles on the Apache Trail from Canyon Lake. Tortilla Flat is a real town with six inhabitants. The restaurant and store are popular stops. From the time you got to the Apache Trail, stopped for some photos, got some water at Canyon Lake's store, and had a restroom break, it will be less than an hour spent to get to Tortilla Flat. You can have lunch, turn around and go home, stop on the way back and picnic at Canyon Lake, or stop at Goldfield Ghost Town on the way back.
This makes a nice afternoon drive with beautiful desert vistas. The road to this point requires attention, but for most, there's been no serious nail-biting.
While in Tortilla Flat, get some ice cream and walk around this little town. The restaurant serves killer chili and a great burger.
What to Bring on the Apache Trail
If you are brave enough, don't turn around and go home after your stop at Tortilla Flat. Keep going on this magnificent drive toward Fish Creek Hill. You'll still have pavement on the Apache Trail for a few more miles past Tortilla Flat until you get to mile marker No. 220. The dirt road is much better than it used to be, and it's well-graded to accommodate the traffic it bears. But there are plenty of hairpin turns and switchbacks to keep you on your toes.
Make sure you have plenty of water, a cellphone (although you might not get any service), sunglasses, and a hat if you intend to get out of the car at various scenic view stops. A full tank of gas is a good idea.
A Challenging Drive
The Apache Trail was built in the 1930s to support the development of dams along the Salt River. Most of the roads have a maximum speed limit of 15 mph. Little-known tidbit: Test drivers from General Motors Proving Grounds used to use the Apache Trail to test tires and vehicle maneuverability.
Some passengers might think that the drive up is a bit easier than the drive back. On the way up, although the turns are tight and the road is narrow, at least you have the mountain on your side, not the cliff. Obviously, if you turn around and go back the way you came, your return trip might be a bit more harrowing.
Fish Creek Hill
At milepost 222 you'll find a parking lot with scenic views, walking paths, and restrooms. This is the point at which Fish Creek Hill begins, the most difficult part of the Apache Trail. From this point, you'll drive down 1,500 feet in elevation in a very short distance.
Even if you don't want to drive the entire Apache Trail, go past Tortilla Flat to this point. All along the road, you will see incredible views, saguaro and ocotillo forests, and expansive desert landscape—the true beauty of Arizona. If you want to turn around, this is the place to do it.
Best Time to Drive Apache Trail
When is the best time to go? Springtime is beautiful, especially if wildflowers are in bloom. When it starts to get hot, this can be a nice day trip. Your stops to get out of the car will just be shorter. The downside to taking this scenic drive in the summer is lake traffic, camping traffic, and the possibility of breaking down in the Arizona heat.
It goes without saying that your car should be in good working order before taking this trip. This is not an area in which you want to break down. There are also restrictions on size and weight of vehicles on the Apache Trail. It is not recommended for RVs.
Apache Trail Driving Tips
There are several one-lane bridges on the Apache Trail. Courtesy is very important. Don't forget that this beautiful desert drive is a tourist attraction, so there will be people who are unfamiliar with the territory, amazed at what they are seeing out of their car windows, and nervous about the winding roads. Another word of warning: If there is rain in the forecast, save the trip for another day. These roads can be treacherous during flash floods. Although there are many switchbacks and tight curves on the Apache Trail, the road is well-marked.
You can't possibly get lost.
At the End of Apache Trail
The second half of the Apache Trail has you driving into Fish Creek Canyon on switchback roads along beautiful Apache Lake toward Roosevelt Dam. Apache Lake is a man-made reservoir that is about 17 miles long and provides more spectacular views from the road. Apache Lake has boating, fishing, water skiing, hiking, and camping. There is a restaurant there, too.
At Roosevelt Dam, you'll to have to decide whether you'll turn back and go the way you came, take Arizona Route 188 toward the Beeline Highway (Arizona 87) toward Payson or Fountain Hills, or take Arizona 188 to the Miami-Superior area and back to Apache Junction. The distance from Roosevelt Dam back to the beginning of Arizona 88 through Miami and Superior is about 79 miles. It's all paved, divided highway.