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.
Driving along Superstition Freeway
Tree-sized saguaro cactus
Yellow flowers against an intense blue sky
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.
Dirt roads leading to the bottom of Superstition Mountain
One of the houses we passed
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.
Goldfield Ghost Town, once a bustling gold mining town
Looking up the main street
Wooden buildings and carriages
The town was fairly deserted the day we went
An old fire engine
Saguaro cactus and old machinery
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.
Setting off on horseback
Disappearing into the distance, among the saguaros
View from the town
A rattlesnake eyeing us up
A collared lizard
A large hairy tarantula
Deadly desert scorpion
The narrow gauge train encircling the town
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.
Feeling small by the saguaro in the middle of the town
Gunfighters gathering in the centre
Superstition Mountain looming up in the distance
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.
The Lost Dutchman and his mule
Signs seen opposite the gas station
Watch out! Cowboys ahead!
Apache Trail sign
Driving along the Apache Trail
The open road
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.
Canyon Lake in the distance
Driving past Canyon Lake
Saguaro cactus by the road
A good spot for fishing
Crossing a single-lane iron bridge
Looking down towards Tortilla Flat
One of the wooden buildings in Tortilla Flat
Fording Tortilla Creek
Driving along the unpaved section of the Apache Trail
Information about rattlesnakes
Looking out at Fish Creek Viewpoint
Bright green lichen on the rocks
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.
Mules taking building materials along the Apache Trail
Old postcard of one of the two stagecoach stops along the Trail, at Fish Creek
An old photograph of the construction of the Roosevelt Dam
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.
View through the windscreen
Coming back through Tortilla Flat
Old bath tub - "Wyatt Earp were washed heah"!
A touch of humour
Signs at Tortilla Flat
Jacob Waltz - the legendary Lost Dutchman
Looking up to the mountains from Tortilla Flat
Old cowboy boots
Back to Canyon Lake
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.