Apache Trail: Weaver’s Needle, Tortilla Flat

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There’s not a lot to see or do along I-10 between the Arizona/California border and Phoenix.  I had hoped that a detour up US-60 would prove more interesting than the interstate, so I took it up to Wickenburg, then down into the Valley of the Sun. All this route really did, though, was take more time.

After driving across the urban sprawl of Phoenix, which took more than an hour at 70 miles per hour, I turned onto the Apache Trail, on the east side of town.

At the start of the Apache Trail you’ll find Lost Dutchman State Park.  The park offers plenty of campsites and access to several nature trails.  Complete details can be found on the park’s website.  Because there is an entrance fee, I chose to bypass it. 

After passing the entrance to the park, you’ll enter the Tonto National Forest.  One of the first attractions there is the trail to the Weaver’s Needle Viewpoint.

Unless you have some specific interest in seeing Weaver’s Needle, you could definitely skip this trail.  The above photo is taken at the end of the trail, still miles away from Weaver’s Needle.

Perhaps there’s only one good reason to walk this trail: the plant life.  In spring, cacti bloom in brilliant color, and you’ll find plenty of the flowering plants nearby.

The Tonto National Forest provides free access to several trails in the area. Most of them are too long for a casual hike (anywhere from 3-12 miles or more).  I suggest if you plan to take any of these trails, you plan your route ahead of time.  The US Forest Service website has information on the hikes, as does the excellent HikeArizona.com.

You’ll pass a couple of lakes as you wind your way up Arizona Route 88, the Apache Trail.  The first is Canyon Lake.  Tonto National Forest officials have provided an overlook, but there are power lines blocking the view.  Those power lines obstruct almost every picture you’ll want to take on the first few miles of the route.

About a mile past the official overlook, you’ll find a power pole-free view of Canyon Lake.  There’s no place to pull over, though, so if you slow down, you’ll have to keep an eye out for traffic.

Tortilla Flat, Arizona

Just before the pavement runs out, you’ll come across the only town along the Apache Trail.  Tortilla Flat boasts a population of just six full time residents, although that number multiplies as tourists drive through.  The former stagecoach stop now offers travelers a restaurant, saloon, and country store, all of which are wallpapered with real $1 bills.

There’s also an ice cream parlor, which will probably be the busiest business in town, especially on hot days.  Try their special blend of ice cream made from real prickly pear cactus.

I’m fairly certain the tiny motel is no longer accepting guests. Its condition looked, well, a bit rough.

Shortly after you leave Tortilla Flat, the road turns to dirt, and begins twisting and turning through the Superstition Mountains.  You may want to stop at this viewpoint, for a look at the road in the valley below.  That’s where you’ll be, after dozens of narrow, sharp curves.

You’ll find plenty of plant life at the overlook…

…as well as animal life.  I spotted at least three of these birds (possibly a Harris Hawk — they live in Saguaro Cacti) catching the upward drafts of wind up the hillsides.

You must plan plenty of time (at least a couple of hours) for your trip across the Apache Trail, for several reasons.  One, you’ll want to stop a lot; two, you must slow down for narrow curves, passing traffic, and several one lane bridges; and three, even on straight stretches of road, you’ll probably have someone in front of you who’s determined to drive slowly and not let anyone pass.

In some areas, the Apache Trail clings to the edge of the mountain, in other places, it cuts right through the rock.  This is one of the rare places that had a patch of pavement.  You won’t find a hard road surface very often, but that’s ok, since the dirt surface is well maintained and smooth in most places.

Another look at the road ahead, at the bottom of the valley.

Once you reach the bottom of the first, very long, hill, you’ll cross this one lane bridge.  There are a few wide areas, in case you want to park and stretch your legs.

Once the road levels out (more or less), you’ll pass beside some impressive mountain peaks, and hillsides covered with Saguaro cactus.

After passing through this area, you’ll come to another lake, then slowly climb another hill, as you head toward Roosevelt Dam.

Note: This trip was first published in 2005.

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