This article was first written on September 1, 2009
by Lu DuBois, Volunteer Interpreter
Roosevelt Lake Visitor Center

"The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies and the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have, to me, it is the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful," said President Theodore Roosevelt, 1911 at the dedication of Roosevelt Dam.

As you head up the trail from Apache Junction, the road continually twists, turns and winds around some beautiful country. It's approximately 45 miles from the junction of Arizona State Road 88 and Idaho Road to the Roosevelt Dam, of which 21 miles is dirt road. It's a grand road, however, for sightseeing the historic Upper Sonoran Desert country.

The road was originally constructed around the turn of the 20th century to bring supplies and equipment from Mesa (Apache Junction didn't exist at that time) to the construction site of what was known as the Tonto Dam. The original name of the trail was the Tonto Basin Wagon Road because it ran from Mesa to the mouth of Tonto Creek where it co-joins with the Salt River in the Tonto Basin. At that time, the road was approximately 60 miles long and took nearly 2 years to complete.

Construction on the road actually began in October 1903, which was before Congress passed a bonding bill that would allow Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe to raise money to finance the project. Over 200 Apache and Pima Indians provided much of the labor and were paid $1.50 per day. By mid-January of 1904, eight miles of road had been completed between the dam site and Fish Creek Hill. (This would be close to the present-day entrance to Apache Lake.) In July of 1904 the road was renamed the Phoenix-Roosevelt Road.

Costs of construction were estimated in segments with the two miles extending down Fish Creek Hill as the most expensive at $6,000 per mile. The original estimate for the total cost of the project was set at $78,100. However, many parts of the road had to be blasted out of solid rock, which dramatically increased the expenses of the job.

Fortunately, the road was positioned adjacent to power and telephone lines, which allowed some sharing of the costs. Even at that time, construction projects were subject to cost overruns and the road ended up costing over $350,600.

Once construction of the road was completed, it became a public thoroughfare, which would be maintained by the federal government until the dam was paid for. Travel over the road could prove difficult at times (not much has changed). It took anywhere from two (2) to four (4) days to make the trip by wagon or coach. Teams of 10 to 20 mules hauled wagon loads of cargo, freight, equipment and supplies up to the dam construction site from Mesa. A regular stage schedule was established to bring passengers and their baggage to Roosevelt from the Valley with rest stops at Tortilla Flat and Fish Creek. Even with all the obstacles present, the road provided quicker and more cost-effective transportation for both people and goods.

At some point in 1915 the road name changed again. It became known as the Apache Trail largely thanks to a Southern Pacific Sunset Limited railroad employee trying to draw the attention of the tourist industry by promoting one of the railroad's side trips. The road also caught the attention of anyone who owned an automobile. Several cars were seen using certain stretches of roadway as a racetrack (not a good idea!). Racing became so bad at one point that the government threatened to close the area to automotive traffic since the road was initially built for cargo hauling, not pleasure trips. However, auto manufacturers did use Fish Creek Hill as a test area for climbing and altitude. The hill is still considered one of the most dangerous stretches of the Apache Trail, and one of the most beautiful as the road descends for two miles into a deep gorge via a narrow, steep winding path. The scenery is breathtaking!

Sights Along the Loop
Driving the Apache Trail is an adventure everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime and more if possible. Points of interest and viewing spots are numerous. As sightseers begin the trip up the trail, one of the first attractions they come to is the Lost Dutchman State Park (on the left) and the Lost Dutchman Museum (on the right) at Goldfield. Further up the trail the Canyon Lake Overlook affords a spectacular view of this vivid mountain gorge watershed. Canyon Lake is home to the Dolly Steamboat. A leisurely ride along the lake's shore gives the visitor the opportunity to learn about the region's flora and fauna.

The next spot of interest is Tortilla Flat, an original stagecoach rest stop from the early 1900's. This is where tourists would stop for refreshments and relaxation on their way to watch construction activities at the dam. It's an interesting place to get out, stretch your legs and get a bite to eat. Be sure to check out the wallpaper in the restaurant. "It's worth a fortune."

Five miles east of Tortilla Flat the pavement ends and the true adventure begins. Fish Creek Hill Overlook (mentioned earlier) is just ahead. It provides breathtaking views of the steep canyon and near vertical cliff walls that surround the area. This is a very spiritual site where the landscape speaks volumes on the natural history in Arizona. Between the end of the pavement and the Fish Creek rest stop, there lies an area that has become a permanent depository for several vintage vehicles. Whether by accident or design, the bottom of the canyon is littered with rusted metal parts and pieces. It makes the observer wonder just how those things got down there in the first place and how long they've been lying there.

This is the spot where the trip gets exciting. Up until now, the path though narrow, has been somewhat mild. Let the descent begin! Actually once the hill is navigated the road becomes less of a challenge for a time as it meanders along a creek bed and approaches the Apache Lake Overlook. The view from the top looks down on another spectacular, deep blue mountain lake that's surrounded by painted bluffs. It's beautiful and serene, but keep the eyes open for desert mountain sheep.

Apache Lake was the third of the lakes formed on the Salt River in the early 1900's to deal with flood control. A dam was built at the base of each lake allowing water to build behind it. Eventually all this water is used in the valley to irrigation.

As the journey continues, be sure to keep an eye out for wandering cattle. Remember this is open range country and they have the right-of-way!!! If you hit one, you're responsible to its owner.

The road parallels the Salt River for several miles as mountain colors change every minute of every day depending on where the sun is located. No matter how many times one travels the trail, it's never the same.

Approximately nine miles from the main entrance to Apache Lake is the historic Theodore Roosevelt Dam and Lake, where you find a magnificent structure that makes all the other lakes on the Salt River possible. It's an awesome sight! When the dam was completed in 1911, it was the largest masonry dam in the world. After the modifications in the mid-1990's, most, but not all of the granite blocks were hidden beneath tons of concrete. It was a safety measure for stabilization purposes. There are overlooks on both sides of the dam so visitors can get a good view of the edifice.

Although the Apache Trail officially ends at the Dam where State Roads 88 and 188 junction, the trip would not be complete without visiting the Roosevelt Lake Visitor Center of the Tonto Basin Ranger District, Tonto National Forest and Tonto National Monument. The Visitor Center houses some of the tools used during the original construction of the dam as well as the artifacts from both the Salado (prehistoric) and Apache (historic) cultures. Step out onto the back patio for a spectacular view of Roosevelt Lake. It is the top most and largest of all the lakes in the Salt River chain. Each lake offers great fishing and water sport opportunities.

Just down Highway 188 a couple of miles are authentic Salado cliff dwellings within the confines of Tonto National Monument. The lower dwelling is accessible year round. The upper dwelling can be viewed by making reservations for a guided tour which is limited to 15 visitors per tour. These dwellings are over 600 years old and are well worth the time and effort. As part of the National Park System, the Visitor Center has displays and video presentations on the Salado culture.

The Apache Trail contains a myriad of historic and prehistoric sites. It is one of the best examples of the mountainous, semi-arid, upper Sonoran Desert that doesn't require a 4-wheel drive to enjoy.

As the circle continues on toward Globe, Miami, and Superior, more sites and attractions are available including several museums in Globe, the Bouillan Plaza Museum in Miami and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior. Make the trip and capture the spirit of the Old West.   back...