Fall 2005 Forward to a Friend

An Indefinable Something – The Apache Trail

by William I. Lengemann III

Statistically speaking, a jaunt along the Apache Trail surely must be safer than driving the same distance on an interstate highway or during rush hour in a metro area. But when you reach the steep, narrow section known as Fish Creek Hill, you might remember the carrion birds you’ve seen off and on all day, circling high above it all and waiting patiently.

Theodore Roosevelt Dam Facts
Location: Maricopa and Gila counties, Arizona (76 miles northeast of Phoenix)
Dam type: Composite thick arch, mass concrete overlaying cyclopean masonry
Original construction: 1903-1911
Structural height: 356 feet
Crest elevation: 2,218 feet
Crest length: 723 feet
Crest width: 21.6 feet
Base width: 184 feet
Volume of concrete: 606,000 cubic yards
Reservoir: Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Drainage area: 5,830 square miles
Owner: Bureau of Reclamation
Operator: Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District
(Statistics from U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)
Fish Creek Hill turns up just past the halfway mark of this 42-mile scenic byway. Arizona’s first historic highway, the Apache Trail, gets under way about 30 miles east of Phoenix and links the East Valley town of Apache Junction with a lonely blip on the map known as Roosevelt.

Fish Creek Hill doesn’t seem to be a very appropriate name. Then again, Passengers-Clenching-Their-Teeth-and-Turning-a-Ghastly-Shade-of-Pale Hill, though more accurate, doesn’t have the same ring and wouldn’t fit on a map nearly as well.

The hill is one of the little frissons of danger that sets apart Apache Trail from so many other tourist destinations. It shows that there’s still a little bit of wild left in this part of the West.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Legacy

Most rambles along the Apache Trail begin in Apache Junction and wind up in Roosevelt, but I toured it the other way, working my way up to Roosevelt from Globe, a mining town that sits in the shade of Superstition Mountain, about 90 miles east of Phoenix. From Globe, travel to Roosevelt Lake is about 30 miles along a sparsely traveled road. The Theodore Roosevelt Dam in the Salt River created the lake and brought about the tiny community named for the 26th President of the United States.

If it weren’t for the Roosevelt Dam, finished in 1911 and, for a long time, the largest such structure anywhere, there might never have been an Apache Trail. In 1911, only six years after the first horseless carriage ventured onto the trail, President Roosevelt did some automotive rough riding to his glistening new dam and was duly impressed. His notion that the trail possessed “an indefinable something” not shared by the Alps, the Rockies or even the Grand Canyon has become a tried-and-true phrase for ad copy describing the area to tourists.

The Dusty Trail

The Trail ends at the dam – or begins, depending on whether you’re coming or going. From there, 22 miles of dust comprise the trail’s upper half. The Salt River borders the road and soon gives way to the long, narrow expanse of Apache Lake.

Superstition Mountain looms to the south. The scenery is so compelling that I had to rein in my natural tendency to gawk, lest I pull some Hollywood stuntman-type maneuver and go hurtling over a precipice. The speedometer rarely made its way above 20 miles per hour because of the sharp turns and drop-offs.

The Apache Trail overlooks the long, narrow expanse of Apache Lake.

Canyon Lake is one of the three lakes visible from the Apache Trail.

Superstition Mountain is named for the stories of lost gold and Indian legends and tales that surround it.

But then climbing and descending Fish Creek Hill – all 1.7 miles of it – was even more harrowing. Going down was the nail-biter. This driving challenge made of dirt, gravel and narrow ledges is what the Apache Trail is all about!

From Tortilla Flat to Superstition Mountain

About five miles after the paved road started, I pulled into Tortilla Flat. It boasts a restaurant, gift shop, tiny museum and fewer residents than you can count on your fingers. No, the town’s not named after John Steinbeck’s novel. The town Tortilla Flat existed approximately three decades prior to the novel.

Past Canyon Lake – the third of Apache Trail’s three lakes – and toward the end of the Apache Trail, I could see Weaver’s Needle. This rock formation is said to point the way to the infamous Lost Dutchman Gold Mine when the sun is positioned just right.

I finished the trail at the Superstition Mountain Museum after traveling through Goldfield, a genuine ghost town that has been reincarnated as a relatively sedate tourist stop. The museum is in the shadow of the exceedingly photogenic Superstition Mountain. That was where someone stopped me to ask directions to the Dutchman’s fabled mine. People in the area have been asking that same question for more than a century, and they’ve never found an answer. They probably never will.

But there’s ample gold of another sort in those mountains and valleys. The only equipment you need to find it is a camera or maybe a paintbrush and canvas. Better yet, just use your eyes – but don’t take them off the Trail for very long!

William I. Lengeman III has traveled the Apache Trail a number of times since moving to Arizona in 1998. He also has written for Delta Sky, Historic Traveler, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Saveur and the Kansas City Star.