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Tips for Driving the Apache Trail in Arizona

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.

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

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.

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

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

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

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.

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Best Time of Year to Drive the Apache Trail

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!

Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

Driving Tips for the Apache Trail

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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Tips For Driving The Apache Trail In Arizona

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  • Jim Bray
    April 5, 2019 at 9:32 AM

    I drove Apache Trail in mid-March 2019, and this blog post was the most helpful of all of the articles I read in advance of the drive. Each spring, I meet up in Arizona with two friends from childhood (going back 65+ years), and we spend a week at spring training games and seeing sights in the Phoenix region. Our trip website now includes a link to this blog post.

    Timing – Due to the heavier than normal rainfall earlier in the year, spring was a good time to go as there was a bumper crop of wildflowers. We started from Mesa at about 9:30 a.m. on a Monday – a day when most people were at work or in school. Traffic was light. Possibly because we traveled the rough section first, there weren’t many vehicles headed in the opposite direction, making this driver a little less frenzied.

    Tips – With the exception of packing a lunch, we followed all of your tips, including filling the gas tank before we left Mesa. Thanks for that. We stopped for an early lunch along the way, which was fine and didn’t take up much time. A stop for a light packed lunch at one of the trail parking lots would have been fine, too.

    Building on your tips – Because we planned in advance to drive the Apache Trail and because you and others advised against using an SUV, we rented a sedan for the week, and that proved to be a good choice. If you have a choice between using a rental and your own car, drive the rental across all of those ruts in the road. Drivers also should look at tire tracks of previous drivers. That helped smooth some of the ride. Take your time. If someone is on your bumper, pull to the side and let them pass. At the end of the drive, our car was covered in dust, but a quick car wash made it look good as new.

    • Sarah Shumate
      April 6, 2019 at 2:55 PM

      I’m thrilled to hear this post was helpful for you, and thank you so much for the shout out on your website. It sounds like you enjoyed the Apache Trail drive as much as we did – I’d love to take it again in the spring and see the wildflowers. I bet it was beautiful.

      I have to say, your tradition of making an annual trip to Phoenix with friends from childhood is incredibly inspiring. I took a peek at your website and I love that you’ve already got potential plans in the works for next year. :) You’ve taken some great photos of Arizona, as well!

  • Dierks
    March 7, 2019 at 11:33 AM

    Wife and I drove it by mistake last year. Was in Subaru Legacy w sport pkg so 50 series tires which are very poor choice for this road. We drove it opposite way and loved it just as much Maybe met 5 vehicles. Road has sections of very bad wash boards. These get put into the road by driving too fast and make road look like a Ruffles potato chip. So I had to crawl thru some sections to keep from vibrating us and car apart We had no idea what to expect My wife thought it was paved short cut to Mesa. Ha!!! We made it out and up to Tortilla Flat as darkness arrived. But I believe we spent 3 hrs in the canyon. I tell people back in Kansas it’s like driving in and out of Grand Canyon if you could do such a thing. Amazing views and it’s prerry isolating and ery feeling in some places. No cell phones service in places. Once I realized what a big mistake we had made we laughed and enjoyed the ride Being farm kids when young we wished we were in an old pick up truck with tall side wall tires. Like the locals we met. Ha. My wife said oh it’s only like 29 miles so thinking ok no big deal. So wow when we finally made the climb out and back to civilization we were looking for a gas station. So the fill up before u go is good thing. We put the windows down and stopped often to incredible views and pics and tried to figure out what wildlife had just flashed away in a split second. Would love to drive it again in a Razor or Jeep type vehicle. Next time want to drive down to lake every chance and make a day of it and picnic and hike. A road worth driving. Had to call relatives and tell them to eat supper without us Good story Great memory. Enjoy!! Just leave ur expensive car at home for this trip

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 8, 2019 at 1:52 PM

      What an awesome memory! Funny how the things we never plan for and the unexpected situations we find ourselves in while traveling often turn out to be some of our best memories. Glad you made it out without running out of gas. Although, having to hitchhike your way out of the Apache Trail might have made for a pretty good story, too. :)

  • Ken
    May 25, 2018 at 11:11 AM

    Has anyone ever traveled the route from the other direction? Is there a difference in drop offs depending on which direction you are traveling?

    • Sarah Shumate
      May 27, 2018 at 2:13 AM

      Hopefully someone else who has driven the opposite direction can chime in with specifics, but just wanted to let you know it’s a little easier to drive this route going in the direction I mentioned. Most people tend to drive in the direction of Theodore Roosevelt Dam so you’ll be riding along with the traffic instead of going against it that way. Going in the opposite direction, you’ll be driving along the cliff edge much of the way as well.

  • Jessi @2feet1world
    January 2, 2018 at 6:37 AM

    What a gorgeous route – especially winding it up at sunset! I absolutely love the landscapes along the way. Pretty sure this would take me a lot longer than four hours too!

  • Angelique VanWaarde
    December 24, 2017 at 5:36 PM

    This is the first time I heard about this route, it looks incredible! I am a big fan of roadtrips to, it is always so nice to be able to stop where you want and for how long you want to

    • Sarah Shumate
      December 25, 2017 at 11:56 PM

      Yes! It drives me crazy on train rides when we’re passing through pretty scenery and the only shots I’m able to capture are blurry ones through the window!

  • Emma @ AdventuresofaLondonKiwi
    December 20, 2017 at 4:43 PM

    This is so, so on my bucket list!

    • Sarah Shumate
      December 20, 2017 at 7:06 PM

      Oh, good! I have no doubt you guys would love it! Definitely put it on the next USA trip itinerary!

  • Stacey @ One Trip at a Time
    December 19, 2017 at 3:42 PM

    We drove the Apache Trail on Thanksgiving day 2015 and it was a wonderful way to spend the day. The colours were very much like you’ve photographed here, in fact I have photos of the same area where your header images is because the trees were so pretty right there.

    Maybe a bit crazy, but we’d still recommend it if the road is dry, we had a Mustang convertible and it was fantastic. The weather was perfect and with the roof down the view was amazing. We did apologize to Avis for bringing it back a wee bit dirty from all the dust but they said not to worry.

    It really is a great drive, and one I don’t think is well-known. You almost feel like you have it all to yourself until you see an RV coming around a curve in the distance and you wonder how you’re going to pass! Like you mention they aren’t really suitable for many parts of the drive but can be managed if need be.

    Great pics and brought back nice memories.

    • Sarah Shumate
      December 20, 2017 at 7:06 PM

      So exciting that you’ve done this drive, too. It really is something else. I’d never heard of it until we visited and family recommended it, so maybe it isn’t particularly well-known? I don’t know…USA travel isn’t really my area of expertise. How fun to make the drive in a convertible, too! Even if it was a little dusty…

      The only time I’ve ever ridden in a convertible was when I was a teenager and my family rented a convertible for a day in Hawaii. I clearly remember riding in the back seat and having tiny pieces of dirt and pebbles continuously hit me in the face as my parents enjoyed the the convenience of having the windshield protect them from debris. Changed my opinion of convertibles after that. Haha!