A Travellerspoint blog

Land of superstition, legends and elusive gold mines

The Apache Trail

Look on the map at the area a little to the east of Phoenix and the names say it all. They send your imagination running wild. Wild like the area itself. Apache Junction... Superstition Mountain... Goldfield Ghost Town... the Lost Dutchman's mine.... Canyon Lake.... These names conjure up a land of legends, of hardship, of unrealised dreams. It's arid and rocky and everything that lives here either stings, bites, spits, scratches or has spikes and spines. I'm sure you know the type of place I'm talking about.

Now head for the Apache Trail picking its way through the wilderness of dry rock, strange-shaped mountains, deep canyons, twisting ravines, craggy cliffs.... a land rife with legends and rumours, and you'll soon understand why. Over the centuries, many have lost their lives here. Either to the fierce Apache warriors keen on keeping their sacred mountains and staches of gold a secret, or getting lost searching for elusive gold mines... or dying of thirst. Even right up to now, unwished-for events happen. Exactly one month before we headed out that way, a small airplane slammed into the high craggy rocks of Superstition Mountain at night, exploding like a fireball, killing all six occupants... the pilot and his three small children and two more adults were on their way home for Thanksgiving.

The Apache Trail had been described as "the best scenic drive in Arizona" and we didn't want to miss it. So off we set. We got lost before we'd even found it but it didn't matter. It was actually a stroke of providence as we came across a couple of places well worth a visit. Apache Junction came and went without us finding where to turn off so we had to do a U-turn on Superstition Freeway and that's when we turned off the road, just below the purple cliffs of Supersition Mountain. Well, actually at the bottom of Silly Mountain (another of those names). From here there were a series of trails disappearing up the mountain but we didn't get that far. We were mesmerised by the size of the massive saguaro cacti standing tall, their arms pointing skywards, a hundred times the size of anything I've grown on my windowsill. This was Arizona postcard scenery... and we felt very tiny standing next to these incredible spiky trunks and branches which looked like nature's answer to coat and hat stands. This type of cactus only grows in parts of Arizona and Northern Mexico, in the Sonoran Desert. Not only were we dwarfed in size but in age. These ones must have been at least twice as old as us. The first arms appear only once the cactus has had its 80th birthday, or thereabouts.

IMG_2370_-_AT.jpg
Driving along Superstition Freeway

IMG_2406_-_AT.jpg
Tree-sized saguaro cactus

IMG_2384_-_AT.jpg
Yellow flowers against an intense blue sky

IMG_2400_-_AT.jpg
Dwarfed by a saguaro

As we tried to skirt the bottom of Superstition Mountain to link up with the Apache Trail, our Dodge churned up clouds of dust and we found ourselves going round and round, with most of the trails petering out at the bottom of the rocks. We drove past houses whose residents obviously liked cacti, old rusting vehicles, and the odd gnome or two. Finally, we spied a man walking his dog. He put us out of our misery. "Are we far from the Apache Trail?" we asked. "Well, now, just a bit. But if you keep going down here, turn left, then right, you'll find yourself on a paved road going that way." I'm glad that at that point we hadn't read up about the Lost Dutchman.

IMG_2458_-_AT.jpg
Dirt roads leading to the bottom of Superstition Mountain

IMG_2439_-_AT.jpg
One of the houses we passed

IMG_2474_-_AT.jpg
Lost Dutchman State - The Dutchman (or German "Deutsch" man) was one of the legendary characters in the area who struck gold but died without revealing exactly where in the Superstition Mountains the gold mine was. Adventurers are still looking for it.

He was right. We emerged on the road and almost immediately bumped into a ghost town. At that time of the morning, it was still all but deserted. We decided to stop and explore. It turned out that this small mining town, Goldfield, had already died twice and this was its third lease of life. Back in 1892 gold ore was discovered here and it wasn't long before a flourishing town with a population of 4000 sprang up. It only lasted five years. Just enough for the gold vein to more or less run out. The miners moved to other mines, the post office closed and in 1898 Goldfield became a ghost town. In 1921 the mine was re-opened using new mining methods and equipment, the town came to life and the post office opened again. But the boom lasted only as long as the first time around, and five years later it was abandoned. Until 1966 when a couple, dreaming of owning their very own ghost town, bought it. Little by little, they turned it into an old wild west town. Perhpas the most spectacular thing about it, besides the huge saguaro in the middle, is the backdrop. Superstition Mountain looms up in the distance.

IMG_2481_-_AT.jpg
Goldfield Ghost Town, once a bustling gold mining town

IMG_2750_-_AT.jpg
Looking up the main street

IMG_2506_-_AT.jpg
Wooden buildings and carriages

IMG_2518_-_AT.jpg
The town was fairly deserted the day we went

IMG_2528_-_AT.jpg
An old fire engine

IMG_2543_-_AT.jpg
Saguaro cactus and old machinery

IMG_2544_-_AT.jpg
A lonesome cowboy

There were very few people, just enough to keep it a ghost town, just enough to bring the place to life. Old rusting machinery and vehicles lay around, untouched since they spluttered their last cough. Josep and Cristina went horse riding, disappearing off into the distance between the spiky saguaros while Marc and I paid a visit to the reptile shed where the sight of rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas just millimetres from our noses sent shivers down our spines. They also had a couple of Gila Monsters (pronounced "Hee-luh"), one of the only two species of venomous lizards in the world, which are only found around here. With their black bodies mottled with pink, orange or yellow patterns and growing up to 60 cm long, they have one of the worst, not entirely deserved, reputations in the reptile world. As they spend most of their time buried underground, humans don't have much to fear, and curiously, they're not all bad news. A protein from their spit is actually contained in a drug used by Diabetes 2 sufferers.

IMG_2570_-_AT.jpg
Setting off on horseback

IMG_2578_-_AT.jpg
Disappearing into the distance, among the saguaros

IMG_2607_-_AT.jpg
View from the town

IMG_2612_-_AT.jpg
Snake exhibition

IMG_2626_-_AT.jpg
A rattlesnake eyeing us up

IMG_2613_-_AT.jpg
A collared lizard

IMG_2651_-_AT.jpg
A large hairy tarantula

IMG_2652_-_AT.jpg
Deadly desert scorpion

IMG_2658_-_AT.jpg
The narrow gauge train encircling the town

IMG_2683_-_AT.jpg
The town's small church, still in use

No ghost town would be seen dead without its gunfights. On the stroke of midday, the dusty main street suddenly leapt a century back in time. A group of gunfighters and women in early 20th century dress appeared from the town's saloon. We were told to clear the way. The actors, maybe retired residents from the neighbouring area, seemed to be having great fun enacting a typical gunfight and ending up dead on the ground.

IMG_2692_-_AT.jpg
Feeling small by the saguaro in the middle of the town

IMG_2706_-_AT.jpg
Gunfighters gathering in the centre

IMG_2726_-_AT.jpg
Staged gunfight

IMG_2736_-_AT.jpg
Superstition Mountain looming up in the distance

IMG_2756_-_AT.jpg
The train passing by

Suddenly we remembered we were supposed to be travelling the Apache Trail and it was already lunchtime. The route itself is 48 miles (65 kms) of slow, windy roads and there would be no gas stations and only one place to find any food. Being prudent explorers, we headed back towards Apache Junction to fill up with petrol and buy some sandwiches at a lone gas station. Having paid for our sandwiches, crisps and a can of beer, Marc went to pick up the food and take it to the car but was stopped short. "No, son! Don't touch that!" came the lady's warning in a stern tone. We thought she was joking and laughed. He reached out for the plastic bag again. But she wouldn't let him touch it.
"How old are ya? 16?" "No, 14", Marc said. "Well, you're not allowed to buy, consume or carry alcohol! Leave it for your mom." We were learning.

IMG_2758_-_AT.jpg
The Lost Dutchman and his mule

IMG_2760_-_AT.jpg
Signs seen opposite the gas station

IMG_2764_-AT.jpg
Watch out! Cowboys ahead!

IMG_2775_-_AT.jpg
Apache Trail sign

IMG_2777_-_AT.jpg
Driving along the Apache Trail

IMG_2780_-_AT.jpg
Mileage signpost

IMG_2781_-_AT.jpg
The open road

IMG_2784_-_AT.jpg
Saguaro cacti lining the road

The Apache Trail turned out to be a truly scenic route, threading its way along cactus-lined roads through the rocky Superstition Mountains. Stopping for our picnic at a viewpoint, we looked down on Canyon Lake, an intense cobalt blue reflecting the desert sky, mouthwateringly refreshing in the middle of such thirsty land. There were very few people around, just a couple of young Native Indian mums with their two small kids, selling Indian artifacts. At Tortilla Flat, a hamlet of ramshackled Old West buildings, we had to ford the shallow creek. During flash-floods, this is impossible. The paved road petered out and our tyres hit the parched trail, sending up clouds of choking dust. Many hairpin bends later, we arrived at the Fish Creek viewpoint which we had to ourselves. The rocky wilderness stretched out in front of us. Rock, canyons, crags, cactus, and low scrub. Shades of yellow, ochre, orange, beige and brown with strokes of cactus green and that incredibly intense cobalt blue sky.

IMG_2802_-_AT.jpg
Canyon Lake in the distance

IMG_2818_-_AT.jpg
Driving past Canyon Lake

IMG_2828_-_AT.jpg
Saguaro cactus by the road

IMG_2830_-_AT.jpg
A good spot for fishing

IMG_2832_-_AT.jpg
Crossing a single-lane iron bridge

IMG_2842_-_AT.jpg
Looking down towards Tortilla Flat

IMG_2848_-_AT.jpg
One of the wooden buildings in Tortilla Flat

IMG_2850_-_AT.jpg
Fording Tortilla Creek

IMG_2882_-_AT.jpg
Driving along the unpaved section of the Apache Trail

IMG_2889_-_AT.jpg
Information about rattlesnakes

IMG_2896_-_AT.jpg
Looking out at Fish Creek Viewpoint

IMG_2901_-_AT.jpg
Bright green lichen on the rocks

IMG_2903_-_AT.jpg
Thirsty canyons

IMG_2925_-_AT.jpg
Arid land

It was at this point we decided to turn back instead of doing the full loop as there were still many miles of very winding road, most of them unpaved. The route continues on, hugging Fish Creek canyon wall and looking down on Apache Lake, a man-made lake 17 miles (27 kms) long. This area is home to bighorn sheep, javelinas, deer, mountain lions and eagles. The Trail then brings you to Roosevelt Dam, which was the largest lake and dam in the world when it was built in 1911. In fact, the Apache Trail was built as a road to get building materials through the Superstition Mountains to the dam, then under construction. And thanks to the Roosevelt Lake and Dam, built to harness the water of the Salt River, the Arizona desert was turned into land that could be farmed. I tried to imagine what the Apache Trail was like back in those days, unpaved, with mules and horses pulling carts and carriages over rocky ground. The word "dangerous" comes to mind. I hoped they didn't meet anyone coming along the way from the opposite direction. There are some long drops down to the bottom.

apachetrail_hauling.jpg
Mules taking building materials along the Apache Trail

FishCreekL..gon__1_.jpg
Old postcard of one of the two stagecoach stops along the Trail, at Fish Creek

Roosevelt_..uilding.jpg
An old photograph of the construction of the Roosevelt Dam

RooseveltDam.jpg
The Roosevelt Lake and Dam today

We turned around and headed back to Tortilla Flat, the only surviving stagecoach stop today along the Trail. Apparently, this is the smallest "town" in the United States, complete with an official Post Office and a permanent population of just six people. The name was given by a cattle driver who, on arriving at this flat campground with his men and animals, discovered that the only food they had with them was some flour. They made tortillas and called the place Tortilla Flat. It's a curious stop-off with old wooden buildings full of humorous touches and signs, and old mining and farming relics everywhere. The walls of one of the eating places is covered with $1 dollar bills signed by visitors from all over the world, while another has real saddles as bar seats. We didn't sample the famous prickly pear cactus ice-cream but did buy a postcard or two. Although Cristina took a liking to a Daniel Boone hat which rather suited her, we decided to leave it behind and eventually set off on our way back to Phoenix.

IMG_2956_-_AT.jpg
View through the windscreen

IMG_2969_-_AT.jpg
Coming back through Tortilla Flat

IMG_2972_-_AT.jpg
Tortilla Creek

IMG_2974_-_AT.jpg
Old bath tub - "Wyatt Earp were washed heah"!

IMG_2978_-_AT.jpg
A touch of humour

IMG_2982_-_AT.jpg
Signs at Tortilla Flat

IMG_2995_-_AT.jpg
Jacob Waltz - the legendary Lost Dutchman

IMG_2998_-_AT.jpg
Looking up to the mountains from Tortilla Flat

IMG_2999_-_AT.jpg
Old cowboy boots

IMG_3003_-_AT.jpg
Back to Canyon Lake

IMG_3024_-_AT.jpg
Calm lake waters

We arrived back in Phoenix, and crossed over the Salt River. Now I understood how such a large city has grown up in the middle of the Arizona desert. It was all due to the damming of the Salt River and the creation of the four huge lakes along the Apache Trail. Water is now available for irrigation and for the city's needs and the desert has bloomed here. No sign of any Apaches though.

Posted by margaretm 06:52 Archived in USA

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.

Enter your Travellerspoint login details below

( What's this? )

If you aren't a member of Travellerspoint yet, you can join for free.

Join Travellerspoint