Planes, trains, boats, buses. We’ve traveled to a lot of places in a lot of different ways, but my favorite is still the old fashioned road trip. There’s so much freedom in hopping in your own vehicle and being able to stop whenever and wherever you please. Plus, of the top five ways to get from A to B, it’s the best choice if you happen to be traveling through scenic areas.
We’ve been fortunate enough to take some pretty scenic drives over the past few years. (The Scottish Highlands and Western Cornwall are two that come to mind!) And while we were in Arizona visiting family for Christmas last year, we got the opportunity to take another – the historic Apache Trail drive.
THE APACHE TRAIL
WHAT IS IT?
Historically, the Apache Trail was used as a migration route by the Apaches (hence the name) to travel from their winter homes in the desert lowlands to their summer homes in the mountains. Later, after Anglo-American soldiers and gold-seekers arrived, it became a popular stagecoach route. Today, it is one of Arizona’s most dramatic scenic drives weaving through rugged mountains and alongside sparkling desert lakes and terrifying cliff drop-offs.
HOW LONG IS IT?
The official Apache Trail route begins east of Phoenix in Apache Junction and ends at Theodore Roosevelt Lake for a total length of 40 miles.
HOW LONG DOES THE DRIVE TAKE?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a quick drive. Despite its relatively short length, the Apache Trail can take quite a while to complete thanks to its unpaved roads, narrow turns around sharp cliffs, and, of course, the scenery which inspires more than a couple stop-offs along the way. From beginning to end, it took us four hours to make the drive (one-way) and that was with very little traffic on the road. During busier seasons (specifically summer), I’d expect it to take a little longer.
WHERE TO STOP ON THE APACHE TRAIL
There are numerous stop-off points along the trail, some with parking lots, pavilions, and bathrooms, others with just a section of dirt cleared off the road for parking. You don’t need to stop at every single one of these, but I recommend driving slow and paying attention to what the scenery looks like around them in case you want to stop. It’s really hard to back up once you’ve passed something you want to see! Other than that, here are a few spots you won’t want to miss:
LOST DUTCHMAN STATE PARK
The Lost Dutchman State Park is one of the first scenic areas you’ll come to along the Apache Trail. It’s here you’ll find the Superstition Mountains and a number of excellent hiking trails. If you’ve got time, I recommend pulling off for a short hike. (The Treasure Loop Trail is an excellent quick one!)
Canyon Lake is the first of three man-made reservoir lakes you’ll pass along the trail. There is an official scenic viewpoint here that you can stop at if you don’t want to drive all the way down to the lake itself. If you do decide to drive down to the lake, you’ll find areas for fishing, hiking, camping, and a couple places to eat.
FISH CREEK HILL
Around the halfway point, you’ll reach Fish Creek Hill. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful part of the entire Apache Trail drive. There is a pull-off area at the top of the hill with walking trails and viewpoints overlooking the cliffs and canyon below, but the best part is the drive down to the creek below…assuming you don’t get carsick easily, that is. From Fish Creek Hill on, the paved roads on the trail are replaced with graded dirt and as you drive the three very steep miles down to the creek, the road twists and turns along sharp cliffside drops (with very few safety barriers in place) for a total elevation loss of 1,500 ft. It’s a terrifying section of the trail, for sure, but worth it for the jaw-dropping views and the beautiful scenery down by the creek.
Apache Lake is the second of the desert lakes you’ll pass along the Apache Trail, and it offers much the same amenities as Canyon Lake. (Aka, fishing, hiking, camping, etc.) Apache Lake winds around for quite a long stretch, making it look quite a bit more like a river than a lake. The scenic viewpoints higher up along the road offer much better opportunities for photography than those down by the river. (Although you may have to walk a bit to avoid power lines.)
THEODORE ROOSEVELT DAM & LAKE
Finally, the Apache Trail ends at the Theodore Roosevelt Dam and adjoining lake. Named for President Roosevelt who dedicated the dam in 1911, the Theodore Roosevelt Dam is impressive to see, but Theodore Roosevelt Lake is far prettier. The largest of the three reservoir lakes you’ll see on the trail, Theodore Roosevelt Lake is one you’ll want to drive right down next to for the best scenic photos of the lake, the bridge, and the surrounding mountains.
*Although we did not explore them since our priority was to check out the natural landscapes, Goldfield Ghost Town (a touristy recreation of an actual old mining town) and Tortilla Flat (a stagecoach stop dating back to 1904) are also popular stops along the Apache Trail.
WHEN TO GO
When we drove the Apache Trail in late December, the roads were mostly clear (but not ‘break-down-and-not-be-found-for-days’ deserted) and the autumn colors were out in full force. (A surprising discovery for me since by this time in Tennessee, everything is usually completely dead.) The weather couldn’t have been more perfect – sunny, not too hot, not too cold. I definitely can’t recommend driving the Apache Trail this time of year highly enough. That being said, I hear March is also an excellent choice as all the spring wildflowers should be blooming by then. Summer is the most high traffic season and the most uncomfortable weather-wise, so if you can swing a visit outside of the school holiday months, you’re probably better off.
Regardless of what time of year you make the drive, if you can plan to reach the end of the trail around sunset, do it. Not realizing the drive was going to take us as long as it did to complete, our witnessing the sunset just before reaching the dam was simply by accident, albeit a very happy one. Those golden sunset hues settling over the greens and purples of the mountains were just incredible to see. Do be careful not to linger too long, though. The trail will be a lot harder to follow in the dark!
Fill up your gas tank before you start. Possibly a little too obvious to mention, but just in case you thought there were lots of gas stations along this trail, there aren’t. Definitely fill up before heading into the Lost Dutchman State Park.
Take the right vehicle. Don’t worry, you don’t need four-wheel drive to make it through the Apache Trail, but you will want to take a reliable vehicle. And one that’s not too large. Some of the turns are far too narrow for things like RVs.
Pack a lunch. Not entirely necessary since there are places to stop along the way (both by the lakes and in Tortilla Flat), but if you’ve got a time limit for the drive, bringing your own lunch will be a big time saver.
Bring plenty of water. Even in the winter, walking and hiking can be dehydrating. Plus, you’re probably going to be driving for at least 3 hours, so bring plenty of water. (There are bathrooms at regular intervals along the trail, but it might be best to bring your own TP just in case they’re out.)
Take it slow. And be patient. The speed limit is 15 through most portions of the trail. If you need to go slower than that, just pull over to the side and let people pass when they get behind you.
Don’t attempt to drive in heavy rains. Another obvious one, but since half the trail isn’t paved and at risk for flooding, a sunny day is a much better choice. (Luckily, there are lots of those in Arizona!)
You don’t have to go back the way you came. Especially if you took my advice and planned to reach the dam around sunset, the highway is a much safer and quicker way back! There is also an alternative circular route you can take if you want to make the Apache Trail an all-day affair. It follows the same route mentioned here and then from Roosevelt Dam heads towards Globe before returning to Apache Junction. You can find a map with both routes here.
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