Tonto National Monument & the Apache Trail

Apache Trail vistaNew Year’s Day 2012 I spent on a bamboo raft in some of China’s most spectacular scenery, so this year I wanted to do something awesome again. This year I spent the day experiencing something that President Teddy Roosevelt called “the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful panorama nature has ever created.” No, it isn’t the Grand Canyon. It’s the Apache Trail – a 42-mile road connecting Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake just a couple of hours west of Phoenix.

Most of it is a dirt road not much wider than one lane that winds through spectacular desert scenery, canyons and plateaus. President Roosevelt said this stretch of road that “combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have.”

I wasn’t for sure going to take this path. My main adventure, I thought, was going to be Tonto National Monument, a site with 700-year-old cliff dwellings, but it wasn’t. I went directly to the national monument via normal paved highways, which also took me through beautiful places. So, let me tell you something about that first.

Tonto National Monument

Lower Cliff Dwelling from the trail head

I’ve been to many ancient settlements in the American Southwest. This wasn’t anything more or less spectacular than the others. There are two dwelling ruins at the monument, but only one is accessible without a park ranger. They only lead that tour once a day, and I didn’t make it in time for that – maybe next time.

I did enjoy the lower dwelling that is accessible via a short paved path. Just a heads up though, the path is only half a mile, but it climbs over 300 feet in that distance making it a steep climb. The path takes you by fantastical desert flora including giant saguaro cacti, ocotillo cacti and teddy bear cholla.

Lower Cliff Dwelling at Tonto National MonumentAt the end of the path is an ancient complex built in a natural cave in the side of the cliff. It isn’t very big, but sure is impressive. The dwelling isn’t as spectacular as Mesa Verde or even as impressive looking as Montezuma’s Castle, but it is always amazing to me to see how these ancient people lived and see what has lasted all this time.

As opposed to many similar sites, you can walk around a bit in the dwelling. You can walk in the rooms and experience a little more of what it may have been like to live there. Also neat are some of the artifacts they have in the visitor center. In addition to the standard pottery fragments, they also found very well-preserved textiles.

After about an hour of exploration there I headed out and chose to take the Apache Trail back to town. That was the best decision of the day. Here’s a short tour by video of the cliff dwelling.

Apache Trail

Apache Trail Arizona Highway 88

I was a little skeptical when I read the description from President Roosevelt about how spectacular the Apache Trail is. I mean grandeur of the Alps and magnificence of the Grand Canyon all in one place? I still wasn’t convinced for the first little bit. I thought it was beautiful and a nice drive, but not “the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful panorama nature has ever created.” As I continued I began to warm up to Teddy’s sentiment.

It ended up being pretty outstanding. In fact, if you were to visit me in Arizona, I would probably insist on taking you on this drive. I won’t say it is the most beautiful or awe-inspiring place I’ve ever been, but it does inspire awe and is chalk full of beauty.

My favorite part of the drive was down a little canyon following a creek. There are towering saguaros and brilliant yellow cottonwoods all mixed together while you’re surrounded by desert cliffs and a meandering stream. My pictures don’t even do it justice, but I did put my phone in the window and shot a few videos on the drive. (See a few in my Photobucket album or watch the one from YouTube below – it is of my favorite section and unfortunately doesn’t do it justice)

Canyon walls on the Apache Trail or Arizona Highway 88If you find yourself in the Phoenix area and want something to do, spend a few hours driving Arizona Highway 88 from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake or the other way. You don’t need an off-road vehicle. Even with a dirt road it is very compact and not that bad with the exception of some washboard sections. Just don’t let the scenery distract you because there will be cars coming from the other direction too.

If you have more time, you could stop at one of the recreation areas for a picnic or a trail head for a hike. At the eastern end you have Roosevelt Lake and Tonto National Monument not too far. The western end has Apache Junction and Superstition Mountains. You could take a little jaunt down to Globe or up to Payson. I’ll be sure to share my next adventure down this scenic byway since I’m sure I’ll be there again.

Enjoy the beauty of the world around you and go have an adventure!

3 responses to “Tonto National Monument & the Apache Trail

  1. Hi Kevin,
    I’m your mother’s cousin. I enjoyed reading your China adventures and now, your AZ experiences. My husband was born and raised in Phoenix, and although I’ve seen all the spots you have written about, your narratives make me think we need to plan another trip through beautiful Arizona.
    Thanks for making AZ interesting to me again.
    Cindy Suman

  2. Pingback: A New Year’s Adventure to Tumacacori | Adventure Patches·

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