The Apache Trail, Arizona Highway 88, follows an aboriginal route used by ancient peoples that winds 42 miles, 22 of which are still unpaved, through some of Arizona’s most spectacular scenery.  Originally constructed so that supplies could be hauled to the site of the Roosevelt Dam, it now connects communities in the Salt River Valley and Roosevelt Lake.  In 1911 Teddy Roosevelt, traveling on his way to dedicate the dam named in his honor, noted, “To me, it is the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful panorama nature has ever created.”  Thirty-eight miles of the Apache Trail, designated a National Forest Scenic Byway, traverses Tonto National Forest, established in 1905 to protect and rehabilitate the area’s watershed.

Our first stop after leaving Apache Junction was a vista overlooking Canyon Lake, formed in 1925 following the construction of the Mormon Flat Dam by the Bureau of Reclamation.  We then stopped at the Acacia picnic site to walk along the shore of this beautiful lake.  A few boats were on the lake but as we passed lines of picnic tables it was easy to imagine how crowded this area must get during the heat of summer.

We stopped for lunch in Tortilla Flat, a remnant of an old west town boasting a population of 6.  In the former schoolhouse now museum it was stated that the town started in 1904 as a stage coach stop during the construction of the Roosevelt Dam.  The Superstition Saloon provides saddles as bar stools and is wallpapered with dollar bills embossed with dates and messages from visitors.  Just outside Tortilla Flat the road is no longer paved.

Fish Creek Canyon

Fish Creek Canyon

A magnificent panoramic view awaits those who stop at the Fish Creek Canyon vista.  A marker informed us of the difficulty workers faced in constructing the next stretch of road where 60 to 70 feet of rock needed to be removed.  Nevertheless, there is a 10% grade.

Apache Lake, created by the Horse Mesa Dam in 1927, is 17 miles long and at 266 feet is the deepest point on the chain of Salt River reservoir lakes.

Roosevelt Dam

Roosevelt Dam

When completed in 1911, the Roosevelt Dam was the largest stone dam in the world.  41 people died during its construction to manage and control downstream water from the Salt River.  From 1989-1996 work on the dam increased its height by 77 feet using 450,000 cubic yards of concrete and 849 miles of reinforcing steel.  This work, however,  increased Roosevelt Lake’s water storage by 20% and avoided potential flooding.  The Roosevelt Lake Bridge, built from 1987-90 because the dam modifications underway eliminated that crossing, is 1,080 feet long which makes it the longest two-lane, single span, steel arch bridge in North America.

The Tonto National Monument, just south of the Roosevelt Dam off Highway 188, introduced us to the Tonto Basin people who archeologists refer to as Salado, deriving the name from the Rio Salada (Salt River) that flows through the basin.  A half-mile walk climbs 350 feet to the Lower Cliff Dwelling, a 700 year old village with about 22 rooms, originally accessible only by a ladder which could be drawn up for additional security.   The visitor center exhibits examples of this culture’s unique polychrome pottery using red clay with elaborate designs.  By 1450 these peoples, along with others throughout the southwest, abandoned this area for reasons which continue to be a mystery.

Our trip on the Apache Trail provided an opportunity to explore Arizona’s prehistory of the Salado peoples, the taming of the Salt River, and the recreational opportunities created by the damming of this important river.

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