Driving in the Elements: The Apache Trail

Driving in the Elements: The Apache Trail

There’s no question about the type of vehicle you should take on the Apache Trail. It should be a 4-wheel drive, high clearance, manly type of machine. But in a pinch, a Toyota Sienna will do.

The road starts out tame and paved, but then suddenly it turns into dirt, and the dirt gets narrower and narrower by the mile until it seems no more than a trail. Your navigator may want to turn around, but you’ll want to keep going. Until you hit the washboard.

It’s the worst washboard I have ever experienced in my life – and I grew up on a dirt road. The driver’s side sliding door already had an annoying squeak and this ultimate washboard caused the navigator’s side sliding door to develop its own, slightly lower-pitched, squeak. Now we squeak in stereo.

The trail was built so that mules, and later trucks, could carry supplies to the dam at Roosevelt Lake, a little over 40 miles upstream. According to the interpretive panels, in some places over 60 feet of material was removed and in others over 40 feet of material was infilled to create a level road. These steep and cobbled parts are the most intense and fun – the rest is a study in tedium as you grit your teeth and bounce over the seemingly foot-high washboards.

Once you get to the end of the trail, you could turn around and head back, but if you didn’t start out in a 4-wheel drive, that prospect isn’t going to be too appealing. There’s another way back – you can take highway 188 to highway 60 in a big loop around the Superstition Mountains and stop at the Tonto cliff dwellings.

As you drive back towards Phoenix, thinking you’re out of danger, the temperature will start dropping and the rain will start to look suspiciously like snow. Five minutes later you’ll find yourself in a full blown snowstorm, the first of the year, in an area with drivers that aren’t used to driving in snow. That will be interesting. When you finally return to the civilization of your campground, you’ll heave a huge sigh of relief. You made it.

Canyon Lake
Canyon Lake and the day’s only glimpse of sun.
Some of the crazy terrain you will pass through.
Paul on the edge
Paul getting way, way too close to the edge. That’s the road back there.
Supposedly the caves in this area are actually portals into alternate dimensions. We didn’t bother to climb up to find out – I like this dimension as it is.
Rocky on a smooth patch of road.
Apache Lake
Apache Lake — we could only see a fraction of it through the rain, but that fraction was gorgeous.
The bridge over Roosevelt Lake — that’s snow on those mountains back there.
My fav cactus
My favorite cactus — the teddy bear cholla. Beautiful and painful. People believe they intentionally attack.
Cliff dwelling
Cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument.