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Monday September 14, 2015 : Apache Trail


I feel sorry for Marie's sciatic, so I let her sleep for a while. Except that, at some point, if you don't get up, you have to skip breakfast. That would be too bad, the buffet looks plentiful.


After the daily Skype talk with the family back in France, we leave the hotel.


Yesterday's storms are but a distant memory. The weather is really great, and already quite warm. We have left Colorado Plateau and are now in Sonoran Desert, thus losing about 3,000 ft elevation and getting a few degrees warmer. More about that later.


Today's driving is moderate, about 200 mi. We take US Route 60 again, which indeed looks more like a freeway, to Apache Junction. We then take Arizona State Route 88, a.k.a. Apache Trail. This is our program for the day, with multiple stops along the way.


Apache Trail of course takes its name from the Apache Native Americans who used to live in the area, and used this route to move around. However, Apache reservations are actually more to the East.


We are going to cross Superstition Mountains. They take their name from never proved legends about lost gold mines, and a local Apache belief that located the gate of Hell in the area.


Ghost town entrance, Goldfield, AZ

Ghost town entrance, Goldfield


Our first stop is in Goldfield, a ghost town, a bit like Calico, CA, which we visited 5 years ago, though not as large, kind of less mercantile, and at least as authentic. As the name shows, Goldfield used to live off gold mines.


Goldfield's golden age, literally speaking, was very brief, from 1892 to 1897. When the mines ran out, residents left to seek fortune elsewhere. After having had up to 4,000 residents, Goldfield is now a ghost town, like a number of others in Western United States.


Parking and entry are free. The visit is not guided and can be done at your own pace. There is also a short railroad around the town, with a narration about local  and Southwestern United States history.


Goldfield, AZ main street

Goldfield main street


As many other villages in the West, Goldfield was built around a main street, with buildings on each side. About 30 houses have been rebuilt according to tradition. Among others, we can see a saloon, several shops, restaurants, a photo shop, a church, and even a bordello.


The ground is made of raw earth. Whenever it rains, it must be hard to walk. Main Street is wide enough, and moderately steep. 


Goldfield, AZ saloon

Goldfield saloon


The saloon has been extensively restored in Western style. Although it now hosts a perfectly contemporary restaurant, it still retains an obvious flavor of Wild West times.


Goldfield, AZ church

Goldfield church


At the top of Goldfield Main Street, the church has also been thoroughly restored in Wild West style. Entrance is free, the door is wide open.


Just outside the door, a small wooden panel lists the Ten Commendments, in cowboy style and vocabulary. It is nothing close to politically correct, but it's exhilarating anyway.


Old mineshaft, Goldfield, AZ

Old mineshaft, Goldfield


Goldfield was really a mining town. From this long-gone past, an old reconditionned mine remains, which we do not take time to visit.


There are a few more attractions, for other audiences : gold panning for kids, visit of the bordello, rifle shooting, and so forth.


Saguaro along Apache Trail

Saguaro along Apache Trail


Shortly after Goldfield, Apache Trail leaves the plain and crosses the northernmost part of Superstition Mountains. They are not really high. We end up spending the whole day between 1,800 ft and 2,500 ft elevation.


We are really in the middle of a desert, which we can tell from the sparse vegetation, dominated by shrub and giant saguaros.


Saguaros, Canyon Lake, Superstition Mountains, Apache Trail, AZ

Saguaros, Canyon Lake, Superstition Mountains


A few miles further, Apache Trail meets Salt River, one of the only significant rivers in the area. Its course is cut by four dams, mostly for irrigation and flood control purposes, and to supply Greater Phoenix with water.


We follow the rim of Canyon Lake, one of the four reservoirs. All the lakes are also used as recreation areas for local residents. We can see many motor- and sailboats, and at least one marina per lake.


Superstition Mountains, Tortilla Flat, AZ

Superstition Mountains, Tortilla Flat


After following the rim of Canyon Lake for a while, Apache Trail deviates a little bit. We are now in the heart of Superstition Mountains, a mostly limestone formation, whose geology is way more tormented that Colorado Plateau's.


The road winds along the mountainside, we drive slowly so we have all our time to watch the gorgeous desert landscapes and their sparse vegetation.


School turned into a museum, Tortilla Flat, AZ

School turned into a museum, Tortilla Flat


We make it to Tortilla Flat, a community with no more than 6 residents, which seems almost asleep in the early afternoon baking sun.


Originally, in the second half of 19th century, Tortilla Flat was a kind of base camp for gold prospectors who swarmed in the whole area. Starting from 1904, it was used as a staging post for convoys shipping materials to the construction site of Theodore Roosevelt Dam, which we will see a moment later. When the dam became a tourist attraction, until the 1930s, it was used as a stopping place for visitors.


When automobile took off, there was no longer a real need for a staging post between Phoenix and Roosevelt Dam. Tortilla Flat quickly declined, keeping only the activity generated by the few tourists driving Apache Trail and bothering to stop.


At the end of the village, the school has been turned into a small one-room museum. Visit is free, and we spend a few minutes there, looking at the various traces of local history, pictures, newspaper articles and a few artefacts.


Superstition Saloon, Tortilla Flat, AZ

Superstition Saloon, Tortilla Flat


The only significant business is Supersition Saloon, at the same time restaurant and general store, which is often the case in western villages. There are a few visitors, but it does not look anywhere like rush hour. We are already mid-September, I hope the shopkeepers have at least a little more activity during high season.


At the end of the day, Tortilla Flat is a faithful representation of how a western village can survive when most of its activity vanishes, only leaving tourism in its wake.


Superstition Mountains, Apache Trail, AZ

Superstition Mountains, Apache Trail


Landscapes at the heart of Superstition Mountains are really gorgeous, and we drive slowly to enjoy them as long as we can.


A little further, we stop at a viewpoint overlooking the whole scenery to take a few pictures. A sign reminds visitors of all the hazards in the area, most notably rattlesnakes.


Apache Lake, Salt River, AZ

Apache Lake


Next, we stop at a viewpoint overlooking Apache Lake, the third of the four Salt River reservoirs. I make a few steps forward, to avoid having the phone lines along Apache Trail in the pictures.


Although we have gained some elevation, desert vegetation is still prevalent : desert shrub and, of course, the ubiquitous saguaro.


Apache Trail

Apache Trail


I had not paid too much attention to this while we were preparing this trip but, a few miles after Tortilla Flat, tarmac stops. It only resumes shortly before Roosevelt Dam, which means 22 mi. of unpaved road, fortunately in very good condition. With some caution and common sense, as on any unpaved road, we have no difficulty getting thru with the Camaro.


We cross very few people on this section of road. Tourists seems to have stopped with the tarmac.


123°F, it's getting warm on Apache Trail !

123°F, it's getting warm on Apache Trail !


The road goes up and down, according to mountain lines. When we are at the bottom of a canyon, there is no single breath of wind, and temperature increases very fast. The Camaro thermometer shows temps as high as 123°F (52°C), which is becoming quite a lot.


Needless to say, to take advantage of air conditioning, we did not open the hood, today.


Apache Lake, Salt River, AZ

Apache Lake, Salt River


We are now following the rim of Apache Lake. As in other reservoirs, end-of-season water withdrawals have decreased water level, which is pretty well shown by the white stripe along the shoreline.


Theodore Roosevelt Dam

Theodore Roosevelt Dam


We are now in front of Theodore Roosevelt Dam. In 1902, under the collective name of Newlands Reclamation Act, the 26th President authorized many irrigation projects to speed up settlement of the West, including 5 on Salt River. This dam was erected between 1905 and 1911. At the time, it was the highest masonry dam in the world.


Later, between 1989 and 1996, it was expanded and raised by 77 ft, reaching a total height of 357 ft, and covered with concrete. This expansion allowed to mitigate the effects of drought affecting the whole region. However, the lake reached its maximum level only in February 2009.


Oddly enough, the dam and lake were renamed after President Theodore Roosevelt only in 1959.


In addition to its role in regional irrigation system, this dam is the only one of the four along Salt River to have a power-generation plant.


Apache Trail includes several viewpoints on Roosevelt Dam. We can see the dam from the bottom, and then from higher up, where a parking lot has been built. Next to the dam and power plant, tarmac resumes.


Theodore Roosevelt Lake

Theodore Roosevelt Lake


Apache Trail ends at the junction of Arizona State Routes 88 and 188. We are back in civilization, the road is normally paved. Arizona SR-188 is also called Apache Trail down to its junction with US Route 60 at Claypool, but it no longer has any typical or historical significance. It is a nice and well-maintained road, in a beautiful moutain region, period.


A little further, we stop at a viewpoint overlooking Theodore Roosevelt Lake, not far from the marina, and then at a visitor center, in which a movie tells the story of the dam, the lake and Apache Trail.


The afternoon is well under way, we now only have to drive the 140-odd miles to Tucson (pronounced "too-sun"), the largest city in Southern Arizona, in the heart of Sonoran Desert. We drive around the East and South sides of Superstition Mountains, and then across the desert.


As many other cities in the West where land is almost free, Tucson is a large, flat city, where the only few skyscrapers are found downtown. Our hotel, a Best Western built in the local style reminiscent of Mexican buildings, is close to the city center, which is great for our schedule tomorrow, but not so great for quietness. Indeed, it is close to a railway line and a fire station, hence kind of noisy.


We enjoy a long moment in the pool and jacuzzi, which finally heals Marie's sciatic for good. We then have dinner at the hotel restaurant, with a diverse menu that includes Mexican food, which I really enjoy.


So, at the end of this day, what should we keep in mind ? Apache Trail is a road rich in all sorts of points of interest, natural sites, flora, history, industry, recreation. Everyone can find something for themselves. We took all our time, chose what we wanted to visit, and enjoyed the beautiful weather. To say the least, that was a very nice day.

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