drive along the Apache Trail gets more rugged beyond
Tortilla Flat as the gravel road drops 1,500 feet in
hands gripped the steering wheel. My right foot rode the
brake. I was easing a four-wheel-drive rental down a
steep, narrow, curving dirt road in the Arizona
wilderness, and I was beginning to wonder what I’d
gotten myself into.
the passenger side, a towering craggy stone wall
threatened to dent the car and make me regret that I had
declined the rental company’s insurance coverage. Still,
I stayed as close to that wall as I dared. On the driver’s
side was a fate worse than a scrape: an abrupt plunge into
a canyon so deep I couldn’t see the bottom.
bend in the tight road, a new challenge loomed. A Ford
F-150 was headed my way — and it was towing a fat
speedboat. I pulled over where an extra few feet of road
was as good a turnout as I’d get, and prepared to eat
particular white-knuckle stretch of graded gravel, which
drops 1,500 feet in three miles, is part of the Apache
Trail. I drove that 120-mile ring road east of Phoenix one
January day with my uncle and sister. While the route
twists, rises and falls, sometimes precariously, much of
it is now paved and less nerve-racking.
road follows an age-old footpath mapped out by Indians and
encircles the Superstition Mountains, known for spires of
red-brown rock called hoodoos. It passes ghost towns
repopulated for tourists, Saguaro-studded landscapes and
700-year-old cliff dwellings. It also leads to the 1911
Roosevelt Dam, a structural wonder that gave modern
Arizona its foothold by providing water and electricity
for much of the central part of the state, including
Phoenix. The dam spurred the development of the road in
the first place; it was the route used to get construction
equipment to the site.
was only a quarter of the way around it when I hit that
sharp descent, but I already knew the road would deliver
the Arizona I’d come to experience, all in a day’s
drive — thrilling, beautiful, historic and wild.
headed out from my uncle’s house in Sun City West in the
morning, and turned onto the Apache Trail just when one of
the first tourist stops along the way, the Goldfield Ghost
Town, opened for business at 10 a.m.
is the kind of place that serves "vittles" (at
Mammoth Steakhouse), lets you dress up for an
antique-looking photograph (at Time After Time), sells
sterling silver jewelry (at the Blue Nugget) and announces
itself with a weathered wooden sign that reads "Arzona
Territory 1893." We approached with a shrug,
wondering if the tourist kitsch would ruin the experience.
Turns out, the opposite was true.
buildings in Goldfield may be replicas — the actual
ghost town had little more than foundations and a few
shacks before it was rebuilt in the 1980s — but they
look authentically ramshackle, with rusted horseshoes
adorning a wall and shovels hanging in rows like an
old-time art installation. It is a pleasant place to
wander and pop into shops selling pottery, candy and the
uncle and sister soaked up the soft sun along the town’s
dusty lanes. I headed underground for a tour of the
replica gold mine and a lesson in old Arizona, when
dreamers began populating the desert and chasing riches.
handful of other early birds and I followed our guide down
a set of stairs, then into an elevator that shimmied and
shook. If it was a fake ride downward, I was convinced.
When we stepped out the other side of the elevator, we
were in a claustrophobic, dimly lit underground tunnel,
akin to those where miners engaged in the dangerous work
of extracting gold from solid rock.
were down here breathing silica dust. If you got
silicosis, you might have six months to live. But that was
OK — you were getting paid $3 a day," said our
guide Cousin Jack, a bearded and good-natured man who
stayed in character as an 1890s miner.
learned the facts down below: The mine produced 50,000
ounces of gold. Jackhammers were introduced in late 1800s.
Miners had no aboveground bathroom breaks, though they
could sit on a toilet (with wheels, so the early porta-potty
could roll out of the mines); we saw the rusted remains.
But the most memorable moment came in an instant, when
Cousin Jack turned off the light switch to demonstrate why
miners wore headlamps powered by candles. There was utter
ground, I found my family and we headed up the road a mile
to Lost Dutchman State Park, where we stopped primarily to
take in the stunning views of the Superstition Mountains
from a native plant path. Park hiking trails lead into the
Superstition Wilderness Area, but they would have to wait
for another trip. Hunger pangs inspired us onward.
we pulled into Tortilla Flat, an old stagecoach stop on
the Apache Trail, people milled about on the wooden
walkway outside the Superstition Saloon, so I braced for a
long wait. No need. I dropped my uncle and sister at the
door, and they were already seated by the time I parked
the car, passed a fake Wild West shootout spectacle
complete with cancan girls, and found my way to the
patrons sat on worn leather horse saddles at the bar.
Dollar bills covered the walls. "There’s about
$300,000 stapled up here," our waiter told us, with
no further explanation, after I tucked into the booth.
place is known for "killer chili," but I opted
for chicken enchiladas. They were not excellent or killer,
but they were not as bad as you might expect of a place
that is positioned perfectly for a noon stop along the
Apache Trail, with no competition in sight. If we wanted
excellence, well, at least we had my aunt’s chocolate
chip cookies in the car.
around the bend
the car splashed over a trickle of a creek just beyond
Tortilla Flat, the tourist traps seemed to wash away. The
pavement ended and the road slowly curved and climbed.
40 twisting miles, little lined the road but desertscapes,
and the car’s windows framed views of Arizona’s stark
beauty. Buttes jutted into pure blue skies. Cliffs striped
with yellow, red and brown rock rose above the hillsides.
Saguaro cactus, some 200 years old, dotted the scene,
lording over an arid world that could kill other species
who aren’t as well prepared — humans, for instance.
just as I was feeling stiff from too much time behind the
wheel, we came upon an overlook for the Roosevelt Dam, the
structure that has done so much to make the dry land
hospitable. With its power and water supply, we build
homes and hotels with swimming pools and regard the
once-dangerous desert from those air-conditioned perches.
the dam was being built in the early 1900s — mostly by
Italian stone masons and Apache Indian laborers —
granite forged from the mountainside became building
blocks. Although a 1989 upgrade covered that work with
concrete, the 360-foot structure is still impressive in
its enormity. At the overlook, we were as high as the top
of the dam itself — so high that a group of sightseers
debated whether the flashes of water we saw far below in
the reservoir were the product of jumping fish or bathing
ducks. Ducks, was the consensus.
at the car, I took out the rudimentary map I had printed
off the Internet.
was 3 p.m., so I broke the news to my passengers gently.
like we’re halfway done," I said, and was met with
looks of concern and bemusement. There was nothing to do
but carry on.
soon after turning out of the parking lot, we hit
pavement. Another mile or so, and we were on a highway,
where we happily zipped along until we came to our last
stop of the day.
arrived at Tonto National Monument with little time to
spare before it closed at 5 p.m. My uncle stayed at the
museum, but my sister and I hiked briskly up a cactus- and
mesquite-lined walkway to the remains of a small cliff
cave’s rounded opening framed the straight stone walls,
as though it were a shadowbox. The room had been built 700
years ago by farmers known as the Salado people. It was
striking to peer into their home, see their fingerprints
left behind in the adobe and a ceiling still blackened
from their cooking fires.
know relatively little about the group, except that they
lived there year-round, farmed irrigated fields and traded
with people from far away (seashells and macaw feathers
were among their possessions). Clearly, they had adapted
to the harsh environment — even without the benefits of
we headed back to the car, dusk was setting in. Our long,
wild ride — on highways and dirt roads, from
hydroelectric dams to ancient dwellings — was over, and
I was glad it ended at a place that celebrates the oldest
of old Arizona.