Arizona’s Apache Trail is a veritable gold mine (no pun intended) of tourist opportunity. Whether you’re looking for a scenic desert drive, an afternoon out with the kids or a day at the lake, the Apache Trail offers options.
History of the Apache Trail
The historic trail gets its name from the Apache Indians who originally used the trail to navigate through the Superstition Mountains. It then became a stagecoach route in the early 1900s and now winds its way through both the Superstition Mountains and Tonto National Forest.
The Apache Trail, also known more officially as Arizona State Route 88, is a 40-mile drive starting in Apache Junction and ending at Theodore Roosevelt Dam. The road is very winding, with switchbacks and sharp turns, so amateur drivers should take caution. Once you reach the end of the trail, you have the option either to turn around and go back the way you came or continue onto the circle route, which takes you back through Globe.
It’s important to note that the trail is only partially paved, but well-maintained. Any reliable vehicle should be able to make the drive, but RVs are heavily discouraged beyond Tortilla Flat.
Things to Do on the Apache Trail
There are multiple scenic stops and fun activities along the 40-mile stretch of the Apache Trail. The drive could be as short as an afternoon outing or a full-day adventure, depending on the stops you choose to make. The following suggestions are in the order in which they appear along the trail.
Goldfield Ghost Town: The first main stop (4.5 miles from Apache Junction) on the Apache Trail is a reconstructed 1890s ghost town. Highlights of Goldfield Ghost Town include tours of the now-defunct gold mine, Old West gunfights, a history museum, panning for gold, a narrow-gauge train, a reptile exhibit and much more. Some attractions do charge a small fee, but access to the ghost town itself is free. Hungry? Grab a bite to eat before headin’ on down the trail at the old-timey Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon.
Lost Dutchman State Park: This 320-acre state park features several great trails into the wilderness surrounding the Superstition Mountains. There is a small entrance fee per car, so bring cash. The park is a popular spot for hiking, camping, and RVs. Lost Dutchman State Park gets its name from a longstanding legend about a lost gold mine within the mountains that was discovered, then lost to time by an infamous “Dutchman.” Even today, treasure hunters continue to scour the Superstitions looking for the lost gold.
Canyon Lake: One of three man-made lakes along the Apache Trail, Canyon Lake is by far the most scenic. It boasts a large marina, sandy beaches, an RV park, and campgrounds. The lake is surrounded by dramatic red rock cliffs and keep your eyes peeled—you just might spot bighorn sheep or bald eagles. You can rent a boat at the marina or book a ticket on the Dolly Steamboat to tour the lake.
Tortilla Flat: Founded as a stagecoach stop along the Apache Trail in 1904, Tortilla Flat is one town that’s refused to be swept away by the desert sands of time. The stop includes a saloon and restaurant, a country store, and a mercantile shop. The Country Store is known for its prickly pear gelato and the town boasts of its population—a total of six people. Inexperienced drivers or those not wanting to leave the paved road should turn around here.
Fish Creek Hill: The drive from Tortilla Flat up to the Fish Creek Hill Viewpoint is quite challenging but very scenic. You’ll likely want to stop at the viewpoint for dramatic photos of the Sonoran Desert vistas. Beyond Fish Creek Hill you’ll start a steep decline down to the canyon floor. RVs and large trailers are strongly discouraged and this portion of the Apache Trail is not for the faint of heart.
Apache Lake: Less popular than Canyon Lake due to its isolated location, Apache Lake boasts a scenic overlook, fishing, and camping grounds. Because of the difficulty in reaching it, Apache Lake is significantly less crowded than the other lakes along the Apache Trail.
Theodore Roosevelt Dam: This massive cement structure marks the end of the roughly 40-mile journey along the Apache Trail. Originally constructed between 1905 and 1911 to control the flow from the Salt River, Roosevelt Dam was expanded in 1996. It’s here you’ll either turn around and back the way you came via the Apache Trail or head east on Arizona State Route 188 toward Globe.
Tonto National Monument: If you opt to head east along AZ 188 toward Globe at the end of the Apache Trail, you’ll pass Tonto National Monument. Located in Tonto National Forest, the monument features two ancient Native American cliff dwellings dating back 700 years. The Lower Cliff Dwelling is open for viewing year-round and is accessible via a steep, 0.5-mile walk via a paved path. The Upper Cliff Dwelling is accessible only by guided tour November through April on the weekends. Tonto National Monument charges a $10 entrance fee per person and children under 16 are free.
Tips for Visiting the Apache Trail
- When to go: Arguably the best time of year to drive the Apache Trail is in the spring. This is when wildflowers will be the most prevalent (rain permitting), but the trail is open year-round.
- Watch the weather: Certain parts of the trail are susceptible to flash flooding, so if inclement weather is in the forecast, it’s recommended you reschedule your visit for another, dryer day.
- Be careful and courteous: The Apache Trail is a major tourist draw, so keep in mind there will be people driving the trail who are unused to the desert terrain and taking in the dramatic scenery perhaps for the first time. Be sure to make use of the viewing points and turn-offs, keeping the road clear. Also, drive with caution throughout the trail. Some portions are quite steep, winding and have cliff drop-offs on one side.
- Free and fun for all: There is no fee to access AZ 88 and most of the trail attractions are free.
- For lake lovers: If you want to bring your boat or other water recreational vehicle, Canyon Lake is the best bet. It has the most facilities and is easily accessible for all types of vehicles and trailers.
- Overnight options: There aren’t any hotels or traditional accommodations along the Apache Trail. There are some amazing campgrounds, however. The nearest hotels can be found in Apache Junction or Globe.
How to Get to the Apache Trail
The start of the Apache Trail is approximately 50 minutes east of downtown Phoenix and just outside the city of Apache Junction. Continuing past the end of the Apache Trail and east onto AZ 188 will take you through the city of Globe and is a 120-mile circle route.