The Apache Trail and the Roosevelt Dam

At various times, I’ve referred to this adventure of ours as “the Road Trip of a Lifetime”, and “the Make It Up As We Go Road Trip”.

Dunkin-Donuts-The-Registry-real-estateAs proof of just how much we have been making it up as we go, or planning it on the fly, we had just packed up our things from the 3 week stay in Scottsdale, stopped for an early morning doughnut and coffee at Dunkin Donuts (our Tim Horton’s away-from home) , and were en route to Tucson.

In my navigator role, I was looking at the map as we headed south, and I suddenly spotted the words “Roosevelt Dam”.  I excitedly mentioned this to Mary noting that this was something I remembered seeing in one of my pre-trip reading sessions but had forgotten all about it.

Mary agreed that it was something worth seeing and asked me where it was.  Laughingly I told her that the road to the dam basically started at the Goldfield Gold Mine where we had been 3 days earlier, and had we realized that the dam was in the same area, we could have combined the two “adventures” into one.


We quickly recalibrated our route and headed back toward Apache Junction, roughly 35 miles east of Phoenix and just east of Mesa.

The road leading up to the RooseveltApache Trail road sign Dam is known as the Apache Trail and has a storied history – in fact it has been recognized as the oldest Highway in America.

It was used by various Native American groups for over 1000 years before Ango-Americans “discovered” it around 1864.  Over the next 22 years, American soldiers used it for strategic purposes in quelling uprisings from the Apache-Yavapais Indians, before Geronimo finally surrendered at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona in 1886.

In the early part of the 1880’s a survey was done on the Salt River for possible water storage and flood control dam sites.  The report recommended the present day location of the Theodore Roosevelt dam, where Tonto Creek empties into the Salt River.

As planning commenced on the dam, 1915 Apache Trailcommunities in the Phoenix Valley raised money to turn a stagecoach trail running through the Superstition Mountains, into the Mesa-Roosevelt Road.  Construction began in August of 1903 and took two years to complete, and for the next 12 years the road was variably known as Roosevelt Road, Mesa-Roosevelt Road, and Tonto Wagon Road.  Finally around 1915, the road began being referred to as the Apache Trail, the name it continues to be called to this day.

Apache Trail winds steeply through 40 miles (64 kms) of rugged desert mountains, passing by four, deep, man-made reservoir lakes, and while it is a beautiful drive, it is not for the faint of heart.

As we started out at the site of the Goldfield Gold Mine, the terrain around us was rocky but for the first 15 miles of the drive, the road was at least paved, although not in the best of condition.



We slowly climbed up to the first vista point on the drive, overlooking Canyon Lake, the smallest of the four man-made lakes along the route.



Because it is quite accessible (by road), and not far from Phoenix (approximately 50 miles), it is a popular summer recreational site, and there is a large marina there.

Shortly past Canyon Lake, weIMG_8961 encountered the first of several one-lane bridges that we had to navigate on the journey to Roosevelt Dam, and a little more than two miles beyond the Canyon Lake lookout, we came across the town of Tortilla Flat.  Originally a stagecoach stop and a location that has been ravaged by both flood and fire, there are three old west buildings on the main street; the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant, the Country Store, and the Mercantile/Gift Shop. There is a sign that says “Population: 6”, and apparently there really are 6 people who live there and operate the stores.  As you can see from the pictures, there were cars, pick-up trucks and tourists everywhere, all stopping to explore this unique little town.



It is at this point that the trip began to get infinitely more difficult as the paved highway ended, and for the next 22 miles we wereIMG_9029 on a dirt road that in many places was barely wide enough to accommodate one car, let alone two.  There were steep drops along the road as well, with little in the way of safety barriers, and the road was riddled with pot-holes and ruts created by flash floods.  The maximum speed limit was 15 mph and at times we were lucky to be able to do that, resulting in a 22 mile drive that took well over 90 minutes to complete.

The most difficult part of the drive came at an area called Fish Creek Hill, where the road is in really bad shape, and it drops 1500 feet in a very short distance, including some completely blind turns, and many spots where one car was forced to back up onto a narrow ledge to let another other car pass by.  Really cool scenery, and exciting, but nonetheless precarious.  I had it easy though, as Mary was at the wheel, as she has been for much of our journey.



After a really wicked switch-back turn at the base of Fish Creek Hill, we climbed uphill again, passing Geronimo Peak, one of the most famous landmarks on the drive and drove toward Apache Lake, the largest and most spectacular of the man-made lakes.


We stopped to take a few pictures from the lookout point,

IMG_9015 IMG_9014

Then, we began another treacherous climb up the narrow deep-rutted road, until we at last we got our first glimpse of the Salt River, upstream from the Roosevelt Dam (still not visible to us at this point).


After several more switchbacks and at least another 30 minutes of driving, we came around a bend in the road, and saw the magnificent Theodore Roosevelt Dam, the highest masonry built dam in the world.  I was in awe of the fact that it had been built over 100 years ago (between 1906 and 1911), long before modern day construction methods and equipment were available to workers.   We found out at the Visitor’s Center that the dam had been resurfaced with concrete between 1988 and 1996, and raised an additional 77 feet to its present day height of 377 feet.




While standing at the observation site looking back at the dam, we had one of those wonderful moments that reminds us how small the world really is.  A man noticed our BC license plate in the parking lot, and asked us where we live.  We told him that we live in Langley but were originally from Ontario.  He said he was from Ontario too, but now lived in Montreal.  I asked him where exactly in Ontario, and he told me Toronto.  When I mentioned I had grown up in Leaside, he brightened up and said “you mean where old Pete Mahovlich drove the Zamboni, and ran the skate-sharpening operation” I laughed and said yes.   What a small, small world we live in.

After about 20 minutes worth of soaking up the scenery (the water was so pristine, we could see large fish swimming about in the river far below us, and a couple of cormorants waiting for just the right moment to pounce), we moved on to the other side of the dam, where Roosevelt Lake had been artificially created as a result of the giant structure.


From that side of the dam, we were afforded a close-up look at the Roosevelt Lake Bridge (built in 1992) which spans the lake and connects the Tonto Forest side of the Salt River Valley to AZ-188, and provides a long round-about way back into Phoenix.


Once we reached the dam, we now had a 79 mile drive around the edge of the lake and back through the Superstition Mountains to complete the circuit, skirting the towns of Globe, Miami, and Superior along the way.  This portion of the Apache Trail loop drive was easy and all took place on a decent well-paved divided highway.


One footnote about this drive; about four miles east of Roosevelt Dam and one mile off AZ 88 is the Tonto National Monument, the ancient Salado cliff dwelling that I wrote about in an earlier blog-post.  Make sure you allow an extra hour in your journey to visit this historical site as it was one of the best of the many ruins we checked out during our time in Arizona and New Mexico, and well worth the time.


I am so glad I happened to see the Roosevelt Dam on the map as we set out that morning.  It was one of our favorite excursions of the entire holiday but it delayed our southbound journey to Tucson by an entire day.  By the time we were finished driving the Apache Trail loop drive, it was well after 6 PM, so we ended up booking a night in the Hilton Hotel in Mesa, ironically about 15 minutes from where our condo was, before moving on down the highway the next day.



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