Driving east through Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, and Apache Junction, you might think the city will never end. But as soon as you head out on AZ 88 from Apache Junction, the shopping centers, gas stations, and hamburger stands fade away, and you're left with just the desert, lakes, and mountains. Here begins a 200-mile loop through some of the most rugged country in the West. Allow six hours to drive this circuit around the rugged Superstition Mountains, taking AZ 88, "The Apache Trail," and AZ 188 to Globe, then returning to Apache Junction via US 60/70. Besides the wild scenery, you can enjoy hiking and horseback riding in the Superstition Wilderness, boating on a chain of lakes within the Salt River Canyon, stepping inside prehistoric cliff dwellings in Tonto National Monument, seeing copper-mining operations near Globe, Miami, and Superior, and visiting the Boyce Thompson Arboretum—an amazing collection of plants from all over the world.
The Tonto National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto) offices provide recreation information for the Apache Trail and many of the places of interest along it, such as the Superstition Wilderness and Roosevelt Lake. The Supervisor's Office (2324 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85006, 602/225-5200, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.) covers the entire Tonto National Forest. You're more likely to reach people with first-hand experience at the Mesa Ranger District Office (5140 E. Ingram St., Mesa, AZ 85205, 480/610-3300, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.) for the western Apache Trail and the Superstition and Four Peaks Wilderness Areas and the Tonto Basin Ranger District Office (HC 02, Box 4800, Roosevelt, AZ 85545, 928/467-3200, 7:45 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily) for the eastern Apache Trail and Roosevelt Lake area.
Legends tell of Don Miguel Peralta discovering fantastic amounts of gold somewhere in the Superstitions in 1845. He and most of his miners, however, met their deaths at the hands of Apache and took the location of Peralta's Sombrero Mine to their graves. At least one member of Peralta's party survived the massacre, the stories go, and some 30 years later revealed the location of the mine to a German immigrant, Jacob Waltz. Locally known as The Dutchman, Waltz worked the mine without ever revealing its location. Those who tried to follow him into the Superstitions either became lost in the maze of canyons or were found murdered. The power of the Lost Dutchman legends has intensified since the prospector's death in 1891.
The stories about Jacob Waltz and his Lost Dutchman Mine may be just tall tales. Despite the efforts of thousands of gold-crazed prospectors, no major finds have ever been confirmed. Geologists studying the mountains say that they are remnants of volcanic calderas, an unlikely source of rich veins of precious metal. Perhaps the crafty Dutchman worked as a fence for gold thieves employed in the Vulture Mine near Wickenburg. Miners stealing nuggets wouldn't be able to sell their loot in Wickenburg, so Waltz may have run a gold-laundering operation by caching the Vulture gold in the Superstitions. If so, he still has a lot of people fooled, even after 100 years!
Spring and autumn bring the most pleasant weather for a visit to the Superstitions. Winter is often fine at lower elevations, though snow and cold hit the higher areas. Summer (May to October) gets unbearably hot. Temperatures can exceed 115ºF in the shade—and there's precious little of it. You can venture into the Superstitions in the summer on a crack-of-dawn journey, then be out by late morning when the heat hits. Carry plenty of water, especially in summer when springs and creeks dry up.
Some of the Southwest's best desert hikes wind through the canyons and mountains of this160,200-acre wilderness. It lies south of the Salt River Canyon and Apache Trail, about 40 miles east of Phoenix. Elevations range from about 2,000 feet along the west boundary to over 6,000 feet in the eastern uplands. Desert vegetation dominates, but a few pockets of ponderosa pine hang onto the highest slopes. Wildflowers may put on colorful extravaganzas in early spring and following summer rains.
Twelve trailheads and 180 miles of trail offer all kinds of possibilities. Because they're so close to Phoenix, the Superstitions get unusually heavy traffic for a wilderness area. The west half, especially near the Peralta and First Water trailheads, receives the most visitors. You're more likely to see javelina, desert mule deer, mountain lion, black bear, and other wildlife in the eastern part of the range. You don't need a permit to hike or camp in the Superstitions; just leave the area as you found it and limit groups to 15 people and stays to 14 days. Horses are allowed, but bring feed, as grazing is prohibited. Laws protect the wilderness from prospecting involving surface disturbance, so no one can file new claims. For additional information, check with the Forest Service offices listed above and take a look at guidebooks such as Hikers Guide to the Superstition Wilderness by Jack Carlson and Elizabeth Stewart.
Four Peaks Wilderness
This wilderness area covers 60,743 acres in the southern Mazatzal Mountains, located north across the Salt River Canyon from the Superstition Mountains. Four Peaks—visible over a large section of central Arizona—have long been a major landmark. From their deeply incised lower slopes along Canyon Lake at an elevation of 1,600 feet, the mountains top off at Browns Peak, northernmost of the four, at 7,657 feet.
Vegetation ranges from saguaro cactus at the base to ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and aspen near the top. Javelina, deer, desert bighorn sheep, black bear, mountain lion, and smaller animals inhabit the slopes. Arizona's highest concentration of black bear live here; wise campers use bear canisters or hang food out of reach at night. Trailheads can be reached from AZ 87 on the west (northeast of Mesa) and from AZ 188 on the east (northwest of Roosevelt Dam). Lone Pine Saddle Trailhead is the most popular, though the 6,500-foot elevation can get snow in winter; access is easiest from the Roosevelt Lake side, but a high-clearance vehicle is still needed. A huge fire in 1996, caused by two careless campers near Lone Pine Saddle, burned 61,000 acres, though all trails have reopened.
Once a raiding route for Apache, the Apache Trail (AZ 88) still has a primitive and imposing character. It twists and climbs as it tries to find a way through the rugged land. Jagged ridges, towering cliffs, and the desert itself inspire awe among travelers. Much of the Apache Trail, now designated a National Scenic Byway, is graded dirt. Due to narrow bridges and blind curves, the road isn't recommended for large trailers or large RVs. From the Phoenix area, take the Superstition Freeway or other roads east to Apache Junction and follow signs for AZ 88.
OK Corral Stables (480/982-4040, www.okcorrals.com) offers hourly guided horseback rides into the nearby Goldfield Mountains and day and overnight trips in the Superstitions. RV sites cost $25 w/hookups. At the beginning of the Apache Trail, turn north five miles on Idaho Road, turn east one mile on McKellips Road, then turn left at the sign.
Superstition Mountain Museum
Exhibits (480/983-4888, www.superstitionmountainmuseum.org, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, $4 adults, $3 seniors 55 and up, $2 youth 6-17) introduce the region's geology, wildlife, prehistoric tribes, prospectors, miners, cowboys, and military. You'll learn about the Lost Dutchman Mine and have an opportunity to decode maps of it. A lecture series runs Jan.-March. The gift shop offers a great selection of Southwestern books, jewelry, and crafts; you can also pick up tourist literature on the area. Outside, you can admire massive limestone blocks of Roosevelt Dam and a 20-stamp mill. Stagecoach rides go Dec.-mid-April. The museum is about 3.5 miles down the Apache Trail on your right, one mile before Goldfield Ghost Town.
Goldfield Ghost Town and Mine Tours
The original mining camp of Goldfield boomed in the mid-1890s with the discovery of gold. Its population peaked at 5,000 before drifting away after mining yields dwindled in 1915. Nothing remains of the tent and adobe buildings, and the actual mine is too dangerous to enter, but you can see a lot of history and artifacts in today's reconstruction on the site (Mile 4.5 along the Trail).
Goldfield Ghost Town (480/983-0333, www.goldfieldghosttown.com, about 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily) features many activities and exhibits. Admission is free—you just pay for the attractions that interest you. Things slow down in summer when some businesses may go to shorter hours or close weekdays.
Outdoor exhibits among the weathered buildings include an authentic headframe, hoists, ore cars, a five-stamp mill, and miners' tools. In the recreated underground mine ($6 adults, $3 children 6-12), modeled after the nearby Mammoth Mine—one of the world's richest until closed by flooding—a guide takes you on a 25-minute tour and explains how miners tunneled and worked in the stope. A nearby shop offers gold panning and gold nugget jewelry.
Superstition Scenic Railroad (daily Nov.-May, Thurs.-Sun. June-Oct.) rolls down its narrow-gauge tracks with a narrated tour of the history and geology of the Goldfield area. Up on the hill, Goldfield Superstition Museum displays old photos, a Lost Dutchman Hunter Hall of Fame, a mineral collection, and an 1886 Brunswick bar that served Goldfield miners. A bit farther up the street, you can climb the stairs to the Bordello Museum (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri.-Sun.), where the women will explain how lonely miners of bygone years found companionship. A church at the end of the lane has Sunday services and hosts weddings. Other attractions at Goldfield include a live reptile exhibit, horseback and carriage rides (both closed in summer), and a photo studio. Gunslingers shoot up the town Fri.-Sun. from January to April. You can shop for Western duds, crafts, jewelry, rocks, and sweets.
Apache Trail Tours (480/982-7661, www.apachetrailtours.com) offers year-round Jeep and hiking trips along the Apache Trail and in the Superstition and Four Peaks mountains.
If you'd like to stay the night in the ghost town, Goldfield Boarding House (480/983-0333) offers old-style rooms. If you get a hankerin' for some grub, Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon (480/983-6402) serves lunch and dinner daily but lacks a non-smoking area; bands entertain some nights. A bakery down the street prepares breakfasts and lunches.
The best place for dinner is the nearby Mining Camp Restaurant (480/982-3181) with Western fare in a replica of an old mining camp's cook shanty. It's open daily Oct.-June for dinner and Sunday for lunch, $18-20 adults with discounts for children, seniors, and cash payments; reservations recommended. From Goldfield, head 0.2 mile back toward Apache Junction, then turn left one mile at the sign.
Lost Dutchman State Park
At Mile 5.4, the park (480/982-4485, www.azstateparks.com, $6/vehicle day use) offers picnicking, day hiking, and camping at the base of the Superstition Mountains. Staff present interpretive programs Oct.-April, including evening talks (usually Fridays) and guided hikes (usually Saturdays). The Native Plant Trail loop near the park entrance identifies desert plants on a paved and wheelchair-accessible path. Longer trails loop onto the slopes of the adjacent Superstition Mountains in the Tonto National Forest; ask for a map at the ranger station. Treasure Loop Trail has views and a variety of desert plants along its 2.4-mile length. Connecting trails allow for a variety of other loops too, and extend north to First Water Road and south and east to Hieroglyphic Canyon and Peralta Trailhead. Siphon Draw Trail climbs into the high country, 3.2 miles roundtrip to a basin at an elevation of 3,100 feet; adventurous hikers can continue up a rough route to the Flatiron (4,862 feet), a five-hour, five-mile total roundtrip.
Individual campsites are first-come, first-served and cost $12/vehicle no hookups or $20 w/electricity; only groups can reserve areas. Showers and a dump station are included. The popular campground may fill January to mid-April, so plan to arrive early then.
First Water Trailhead
Just down the highway from the state park you'll enter Tonto National Forest and come to the turnoff for First Water Trailhead, three miles in on the right. It's a popular starting point for hikes in the Superstition Wilderness. Parking runs $4/day or free with a golden passport or National Parks Pass w/hologram.
Different Points of View
At Mile 7.8, Needle Vista Viewpoint provides a good look at Weaver's Needle in the Superstitions. The Lost Dutchman Mine is said to lie in the shadow of this striking 4,535-foot pinnacle, which still beckons to gold seekers. The pinnacle's name honors frontier scout Pauline Weaver. Local Apache had a different appellation for it, relating to a certain part of a stallion's anatomy.
Farther down the highway you'll come to Canyon Lake Vista Point at Mile 12.5. The series of lakes along the Salt River provides fishing and boating for visitors and precious water for Phoenix. Past the viewpoint, the road sweeps down from the heights to the lakeshore.
Mormon Flat Dam, completed in 1925, created this reservoir. Anglers have hooked largemouth and yellow bass, trout, catfish, bluegill, carp, walleye, and crappie. During the busy mid-spring to mid-summer season, Sunday crowds sometimes fill all available parking places in the Canyon Lake area; try to arrive early then.
Acacia Picnic Site (at Mile 14.5) offers swimming at a gravel beach and fishing, $4/vehicle. Nearby Palo Verde Boating Site (Mile 14.7) has a boat ramp and restrooms but no picnic tables, $4/vehicle and $2/watercraft. Boulder Recreation Site (Mile 14.9) provides a swimming beach, picnic tables, and wheelchair-accessible fishing; $4/vehicle.
At Mile 15.2, you'll come to Canyon Lake Marina (480/288-9233, www.canyonlakemarina.com) with a campground, restaurant, boat tours, fishing supplies, and boat rentals and storage. Laguna Beach Campground offers year-round lakeshore sites for picnicking ($15), tent camping ($18), and RV camping ($20 dry, $30 w/hookups), showers included. Lakeside Restaurant & Cantina (480/288-8290) features steak, chicken, and seafood; open for breakfast Sat.-Sun., lunch daily, and dinner Fri.-Sun. with indoor and patio tables overlooking the lake. Dolly Steamboat (480/827-9144, www.dollysteamboat.com) takes visitors on scenic 90-minute narrated cruises daily at noon and 2 p.m.; lunch and dinner cruises go some days and require reservations; the vessel's double decks have both indoor and outdoor seating.
Boulder Canyon Trail #103 begins across the highway from the marina and climbs up a ridge to spectacular views of the Superstitions and Canyon Lake area. The trail continues on through La Barge and Boulder Canyons, linking with several other trails in the Superstition Wilderness.
Only boaters can access the Point camping area; it's on the left, three miles upstream from the marina.
Continuing down the highway, you'll soon come to Laguna Boating Site (Mile 15.5), $4/vehicle and $2/watercraft.
Tortilla Flat and Vicinity
Tortilla Flat (480/984-1776, www.tortillaflataz.com) is just a tiny community (pop. six), but it's the only one along this section of road (Mile 17.3). The faded Western-style buildings—including a cafe, post office, country store, and curio shop—look as though they're out of a movie set. Old mining and farming relics lie around. A hungry pioneer, who perceived the surrounding rock outcrops as stacks of tortillas, reportedly gave the place its name. The country store has an ice cream parlor—try a scoop of prickly pear. The cafe, wallpapered with dollar bills, serves American and Mexican meals.
Tortilla Campground (elev. 1,752 feet) across the highway is popular with RVers thanks to the large spaces (RVs up to 40 ft.) and water and sewer hookups. Cost is $12 per night and there's usually room. One section has been designated a quiet area (no generators) for tenters and solar-powered RVs. Summer temperatures get hot by mid-April in this canyon setting, so the campground closes May-September. Note that the gate closes from sunset to sunrise.
Continuing down the highway, you'll reach the end of the pavement at Mile 23.0 and the beginning of 22 miles of graded dirt road to Roosevelt Dam. A mile farther, Tortilla Trailhead for the Superstition Wilderness is on the right.
Fish Creek Hill to Apache Lake
At Mile 24.9, Fish Creek Hill Scenic Vista on the left is well worth a stop and has a restroom. The paved path leads to overlooks of rugged canyons, and there's a very good chance of seeing desert bighorn sheep. Four Peaks rises to the north.
The descent down Fish Creek Hill provides a thrill, especially for the driver, who must negotiate sharp bends as the road traverses a cliff face and drops 1,500 feet in three miles. Fish Creek, near the bottom, is said to have native Gila chub and Gila topminnow. Hikers can head up Fish Creek Canyon.
At Mile 30.6 on the right, Forest Road 212 goes three bumpy miles to Reavis Trailhead. Reavis Ranch Trail #109 climbs into ponderosa pine forests near Reavis Ranch in the eastern part of the Superstition Wilderness. Elisha Reavis lived a hermit's life on his ranch from 1872 until his death in 1896.
At Mile 32.4, Apache Lake Vista provides views of the lake in the canyon below. Held back by Horse Mesa Dam, Apache Lake reaches nearly to Roosevelt Lake—a distance of 17 miles. Turn left here 1.3 miles for Apache Lake Marina and Resort (928/467-2511, www.apachelake.com). The motel offers rooms ($65-75 d) and suites with kitchens ($80-90 d). RV sites go for $20 including hookups and showers. Tenters can camp in shoreline areas for just $5. Day use at the resort also costs $5. The restaurant (daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) features steak, chicken, and seafood among other American and some Mexican items. Other amenities include a swimming beach, store with fishing and camping supplies, boat ramp, fishing- and pontoon-boat rentals, car and boat fuel, and boat storage. Anglers can catch smallmouth and largemouth bass, trout, yellow bass, catfish, sunfish, and walleye. Officers staff the Maricopa County Sheriff Aid Station (928/467-2619) at the lake on weekends and holidays.
At Mile 34.5, unpaved Forest Road 250 leads down one mile to Davis Wash on the lake; this undeveloped area has outhouses and costs $4/vehicle day use or camping, $2/watercraft. The riparian vegetation here grows on a floodplain surrounded by desert hillsides. The turnoff may not be signed; look for it between Mileposts 231 and 232.
At Mile 39.5 (Milepost 236) you'll pass the sign for Burnt Corral Recreation Site, which lies one-third mile to the left on a paved road. Mesquite trees shade the picnicking and camping sites on the shore of Apache Lake at an elevation of 2,060 feet. Visitors enjoy the delightful setting and well-spaced sites in addition to a beach, drinking water, fish-cleaning station, and paved boat ramp. Day use is $4/vehicle and $2/watercraft. Camping costs $10 for a single space (up to two vehicles) and $15 for a double. Sites tend to fill on most weekends except in winter. Dispersed camping is possible along the shore at the adjacent Lower Burnt Corral, but this area is a floodplain; turn left through the gate just past the fee station.
At Mile 40.2, Upper Burnt Corral offers a primitive lakeshore area in a small cove; drive 0.7 mile on the Apache Trail beyond the Burnt Corral junction, then turn left half a mile on unpaved Forest Road 52, which may not be signed.
Three Mile Wash is another primitive area a bit farther up the lake at Mile 42.3; the unsigned turnoff is at a bend of the Apache Trail near Milepost 239. A bumpy dirt road leads 0.2 mile down to the lake in a floodplain area. These undeveloped sites have a $4/vehicle and $2/watercraft fee for day or overnight use. Outhouses are the only facilities, but you can get water at Burnt Corral.
From Three Mile Wash, the Apache Trail begins a climb through Apache Lake Gorge to Roosevelt Dam. You can enjoy the views at Theodore Roosevelt Dam Interpretive Overlook—which also has restrooms—near Milepost 241 before the dam and at Inspiration Point Interpretive Overlook near Milepost 242 after the dam.
On to Theodore Roosevelt Lake