There are many iconic landmarks that echo the spirit of adventure and exploration characterized by the Wild West, but the 40-mile circular road winding through the Superstition Mountains known as the Apache Trail stands proudly in its own league. Originally used as a migration route by the Apache Indians, it eventually became a stagecoach route and now a scenic drive. Known for being one of the most treacherous routes in the United States, the road curves through steep mountainous terrain, surrounded by bush and cacti and a limited number of gas stations. Its 47-mile length begins at Apache Junction and winds past the Superstition Mountains, through Tonto National Forest, with views of three lakes, cliff-dwellings and many other points of interest along the way. Teddy Roosevelt played an incremental role in the development and preservation of the Apache Trail. He once described it “as one of the most spectacular, best-worth-seeing sights in the world.”
Salado Indians occupied the area surrounding the Superstition Mountains around 900 AD, and created many trails which were later used by the Apache to raid villages along the Salt River. It wasn’t until 1903 that the Apache Trail was developed and used to haul supplies from Mesa to Roosevelt Lake for the construction of the Roosevelt Dam, which would bring water and electricity to the Salt River Valley. Some of the most difficult and dangerous work had to be done by hand. Nearly 400 laborers were housed in six camps along the route and worked through the spring and summer.
The Apache Indians provided much of this labor force, working long hours under brutal summertime conditions – many of which required treks of up to four miles for drinking water. The Mesa-Roosevelt Road was highly regulated during the construction of Roosevelt Dam between 1906 and 1911, however when the construction was over the road became a favorite tourist attraction. The road was known as the Mesa-Roosevelt Road and Tonto Wagon Road between 1903-1915, which became referred to as the road the Roosevelt Road, and then inevitably the road became known as the Apache Trail.
Historians credit the origin of the name “Apache Trail” as a name coined by an enterprising young entrepreneur name E.E. Watson who worked as a railroad agent for the Southern Pacific. E.E. Watson was trying to promote the Southern Pacific’s “Sunset Limited” as it made its way through Arizona. The Southern Pacific offered a side trip for its transcontinental passengers over the Apache Trail if they were interested. The Apache Trail was officially dedicated as Arizona’s first historic highway on February 25, 1987, at Lost Dutchman State Park along the Apache Trail. Adding to the treachery, a segment of the trail remains unpaved between Tortilla Flat and Roosevelt Dam, this patch of narrow road slithers through some of the most spectacular scenery on the trail, but can be dangerous and is not recommended for large vehicles. Today, the Apache Trail is traveled by tourists from around the world as it’s only a short drive from Phoenix and makes an excellent day trip filled with beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert.