Arizona has two hidden features many travelers may not know about: the surprising abundance of waterways and the Apache Trail. Experience both on a day trip steeped in history, which includes a winding remote drive through the mountains, stops at historical trading posts and Western-themed tourist attractions, and ends at the Tonto National Forest at Canyon Lake.
For more than a thousand years, the Apache Native Americans followed a trail to make their way through the enigmatic Superstition Mountains. This path later became a stagecoach trail. Now called the Apache Trail, after the people who first traveled it, the route waits to be discovered on a scenic 40-mile drive through the Superstition Mountains and into the foothills of the Tonto National Forest (the fifth-largest forest in the United States).
The twisting, ever-rising roads aren’t for the nervous driver, but the views as you wind through the mountains are stunning. And other than the few stops listed below, there’s no civilization—just miles of rugged mountain terrain. The Apache Trail is a 120-mile loop best known for a mostly unpaved 40-mile scenic byway, the paved western section of which makes for an ideal trip. Each of the stops along this portion of the Apache Trail pays homage to the area’s Wild West roots. Along the way, one can visit an old Western movies film set, a mining town, and an Old West stagecoach stop, finally ending at secluded Canyon Lake, nestled in the Sonoran Desert landscape.
Superstition Mountain Museum
The trail starts at Apache Junction, Arizona, and runs along State Route 88. The first stop on the route is the Superstition Mountain Museum. Visit the museum and gift shop to learn about the history of the mountain range and surrounding areas, and see how life was like in the 1800s. Outdoors, walk the property to view stagecoaches, a replica of a small town with a boardwalk, and the famous Elvis Presley Chapel where part of the movie “Charro!” was filmed. Then, step inside the Apacheland Barn for more film props and a wall of movie-star photos. On the grounds, enjoy a hike on the nature trails.
Goldfield Ghost Town
Only one mile farther, you’ll find the Goldfield Ghost Town. Goldfield, a small mining town, came to life just after the first gold strike in 1892. Now, visitors enjoy Old West activities such as gunfights, plenty of shopping, dining, and live entertainment. Plus, the adventurous can take an underground mine tour or ride the zip line. The only narrow-gauge railroad in operation in Arizona is also located there. At the saloon, step onto the back patio and you’ll often see horses tied to the post as their riders sit and sip a prickly pear margarita or a cold brew.
Enjoy the scenic drive as you climb toward Canyon Lake. Just past the lake, stop at Tortilla Flat, population six. You can visit a tiny strip of a town that was a stagecoach stop in 1904. Take a break for lunch at the Tortilla Flat Saloon. The décor is as interesting as the small town, with saddles as bar stools and dollar bills signed by visitors plastering the walls and nearly every surface. Enjoy a sarsaparilla, a soft drink traditionally enjoyed by cowboys that is made from a vine plant, alongside a bowl of the Saloon’s famous chili.
Take the trail back a couple of miles to Canyon Lake for a scenic nature cruise aboard the Dolly Steamboat. The lake formed after the local Salt River was dammed in the 1920s. It’s set in nature without houses lining the 28 miles of shoreline, so you can enjoy wildlife sightings such as bighorn sheep and numerous bird species, and take in the massive rock formations while the captain tells tales of the lake’s history.
In addition to the steamboat, you can access the water by renting a boat or bringing your own. You can swim at the beach, scuba dive, or take a hike. There aren’t any hotels along the Apache Trail, but if you bring an RV or tent, you can spend a few days or so at the Canyon Lake Marina and Campground.
Whether you decide to stay or make the return drive back to Apache Junction as a day trip, the drive along the Apache Trail showcases the natural wonders of the Superstition Mountains, the Tonto National Forest, and the rustic Sonoran Desert landscape, offering a closer glimpse of the Arizona terrain and the history of the region.
Jill Dutton is a travel writer who seeks out locally celebrated foods, outdoor activities, and liquor trends. She’s passionate about telling the stories of those she meets on her travels, offering a glimpse at the culture of place. Follow Jill’s travels at www.USAbyRail.blog.