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Driving the Apache Trail
A drive 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.
Each page of this photo tour of the Apache Trail Scenic Drive includes tips for making the trip.
The road today is in much better condition that it was 25 years ago. Treacherous is the adjective that comes to mind when I recall those days of driving the Apache Trail. Now, wider lanes, more pavement, and significant grading help make the trip a bit less harrowing. Still, I have a warning for you: This drive is not for nervous drivers, and definitely not for nervous passengers.Continue to 2 of 10 below.
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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 of you, this will be a day trip. However you get there, you need to take U.S. 60 east all the way to Apache Junction to the cutoff for AZ 88/Idaho Road. AZ 88 is the Apache Trail, but first you have to drive through a bit of Apache Junction to get to the fun part.
There are many stops that can be made along the way. Your trip might take 2 hours, or it might take 7 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 AZ 88, you'll come upon Goldfield Ghost Town. It is a tourist attraction. We didn't have time today to make that stop. We were headed to Tortilla Flat.
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 please 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.Continue to 3 of 10 below.
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Approaching Canyon Lake there is an official scenic view stop, and at Canyon Lake there is a restaurant, store, marina, campground, and the Dolly Steamboat 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 AZ 88, the Apache Trail, begins. The road is winding, but fully paved. Drive slowly, and for heaven's sake, don't drink before driving this road. Courtesy and care are key. There will be slow moving vehicles and people stopped on the road. Please leave all your aggressive tendencies home. Don't leave your camera at home.Continue to 4 of 10 below.
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It's only a few more miles on the Apache Trail to get to Tortilla Flat from Canyon Lake. Tortilla Flat (not Tortilla Flats, it's singular: Tortilla Flat) is a real town, with six inhabitants. The entire town is pictured here, as seen from the road coming into town. The restaurant and store are popular stops.
In 2003 the owners tried to sell Tortilla Flat on eBay for $5.5 million, but they never made a deal.
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, or stop on the way back and picnic at Canyon Lake, or stop at Goldfield Ghost Town on the way back. That made a nice afternoon drive with beautiful desert vistas for you and you car guests. 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. Having lunch at Tortilla Flat? Be patient if it's the weekend! I recommend the Killer Chili, and the burger was good, too. Why not combine the two? Unless chili will have an impact later on the other people in your car, of course....
Yes, the restaurant at Tortilla Flat accepts credit cards.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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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 #220. The dirt road is much better than it used to be, however, being well graded to accommodate the traffic it bears. There are plenty of hairpin turns and switch-backs, so be careful.
As far as supplies go, make sure you have plenty of water, a cell phone (hope for reception if you have an emergency), 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.Continue to 6 of 10 below.
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A Challenging Drive
The Apache Trail was constructed in the 1930s to support the development of dams along the Salt River. If you enjoy driving, Apache Trail is a fun trip. If you don't like to drive, don't do it. 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 may 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. Note to the driver: keep your eyes on the road, not the scenery.Continue to 7 of 10 below.
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Fish Creek Hill - Logical Turnaround Point
At milepost 222 there is a parking lot with scenic views, walking paths, and rest rooms. 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, I recommend going past Tortilla Flat to this point. All along the road you will enjoy incredible views, saguaro and ocotillo forests, expansive desert landscape -- the true beauty of Arizona.Continue to 8 of 10 below.
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When Is the 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, if your car's air-conditioning is working well. Your stops to get out of the car will just be shorter. The down side to taking this scenic drive in the summer is lake traffic, camping traffic, and the possibility of breaking down in the Arizona heat. As I said before, make sure you have plenty of water with you.
It may seem a little late to mention this, but 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.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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More 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 -- all at the same time. 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 switch-backs and tight curves on the Apache Trail, the road is well marked. You can't possibly get lost.Continue to 10 of 10 below.
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At the End of Apache Trail
The second half of the Apache Trail has you driving into Fish Creek Canyon on switch-back 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. At Apache Lake there is 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 AZ188 towards the Beeline Highway (AZ87) toward Payson or Fountain Hills, or take AZ188 to the Miami/Superior area and back to Apache Junction. We took this route. We calculated the distance from Roosevelt Dam back to the beginning of AZ 88 through Miami and Superior to be about 79 miles. It's all paved, divided highway.
The Apache Trail, AZ 88, itself is 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.
If you enjoy a car trip, the circle route, with stops for rest rooms, photos, lunch and a soft drink or two, will pretty much take all day. Enjoy the drive!