From U.S. 60 on the east side of Phoenix, the two-lane pavement of Highway 88 rises through the mountains through Tortilla Flat and then… it stops.
The pavement just drastically ends. There is no fade, as if an enormous butcher knife cut the path clean across and discarded the concrete into a rubbish bin. The dirt road onward is mostly wide and packed with long spans of grating that bounce you around like you're riding over a washboard. It climbs steep and slippery grades and twists around blind descents with ruts cracking the road into pieces where summer monsoons did the most damage.
Dust flies as oncoming cars, trucks and SUVs blaze a trail back to civilization, occasionally crossing your path (narrowly) on one-lane bridges spanning a number of dry river beds and creeks.
You wave. They wave.
They smile. You nod in response. It’s not like they can see a smile through your visor.
This is a custom I can only assume is common amongst the many adventure-seekers looking for cheap (read: free) and easy thrills on the infamous Apache Trail. When the ritual is over, the journey goes on.
The dirt portion of the road is challenging enough at varying speeds to be interesting. According to AboutTravel.com, "test drivers from General Motors Proving Grounds used the Apache Trail to test tires and vehicle maneuverability." But the graded road is also “beginner” enough that a novice like me could clear the whole course in less than three hours, including picture taking, bushwhacking and bathroom breaking. The return trip took an hour and a half, with traffic. But there’s more to this ride than the ride.
The Apache Trail has been around… for a very long time. Arizona's oldest highway has led stagecoaches and Native Americans alike through the Superstition Mountains for over 100 years. Though the highway is mostly paved today, 40 twisty miles of dirt still remain as a modernized glimpse of its past. The road parallels two beautiful, deep, reservoir lakes, Canyon and Apache, formed by the damming of the Salt River, and opens up at its end to the vast span of Roosevelt Lake, just east of the Roosevelt Dam.
Tortilla Flat, a small unincorporated town currently inhabited by six people, and historically a campsite for gold-seekers, is a fine point for rest and rehydration before the concrete ends 10 miles east. The humble town found its place in the early 20th century as a rest stop for stagecoaches and freight haulers headed to the Roosevelt Dam construction site. After a terrible flood and later fires, the town was rebuilt with a couple of small stores, a restaurant and a post office, but the number of residents dwindled after the famous disasters.
The history of the surrounding Tonto National Forest is a rich one. Tonto National Monument consists of two federally protected relics of the past that are carved into adjacent hillsides: stone and clay communities of the Salado culture, which occupied this area during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The lower cave dwelling is the more popularly visited (lower being the key factor) and the smaller of the sites, thought to contain 20 "apartments." The upper dwelling held more than 40!
Access to the upper dwellings is more restricted. You can only visit with a guide on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The groups are limited and tours take about three hours roundtrip, but such regulation makes a world of difference! This site is three times the size of its humble cousin, is in far better shape, and artifacts lie untouched where they were discovered. One guide told us that although no true evidence remains on site, it is speculated that the caves, formed millennia ago, were camp sites for ancient mammoth hunters who roamed the area in search of game. These visits only set you back $3 and transport you to ancient Arizona, before or after your fascinating ride on the Apache Trail.
A natural beauty
For those who appreciate the wonder and excellence of nature, this ride does not disappoint. Begin the voyage on Highway 88 in the morning so you can feel the warmth of sun reflecting off of the rocky mountain ranges. Your surroundings are distorted. The multi-textured earth looks surreal — effervescent — looming over and around you like a faint watercolor. Depending on the time of year, you could witness yellow embedded in brassy and rich forest greens as you ascend into the rolling hills. In the spring, the land is riddled with desert flowers and blooming cacti.
The road hugs the aforementioned Apache Lake at one point and quietly follows alongside until it turns sharply away from the dam. At this point, the concrete reclaims your path and you're a few sharps turns from the vast, manmade reservoir, Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Highway 188, heading north and south, separates you from the lake and offers to take you home, one way or another. One could never stray far from the beauty, even when you make it back to civilization.
Quick and easy
Multi-month adventure rides to Tierra del Fuego are great, but most people have jobs and lives that limit their free time and keep them indoors and close to home. Maybe you can’t leave for South America this evening, but you have enough freedom to take half a day for a dirt ride that gets you home by dinner. Or maybe Saturday is available to leisurely cruise beautiful landscapes, take a dip in cool clear lake, or hike to historical landmarks, without sacrificing too much time you could spend on the other loves in your life. Highway 88 into the Apache Trail can accommodate all of these scenarios, beginning just minutes from the sixth-largest city in the country.
You don't need a "good excuse" to explore the astonishing beauty of this adventure ride.