On any given weekend afternoon, the Apache Trail looks like one of those ant highways you see on the sidewalk – cars and trucks zipping by in either direction as East Valley sun-seekers take in the fresh air and Old-West ambiance.
That’s how it is, anyway, between Apache Junction and the tiny frontier outpost of Tortilla Flat.
East of there, not so much.
Not so much because a few miles beyond Tortilla Flat the Apache Trail – also known as State Route 88 – has been closed since last summer because floodwaters from a fire-scarred piece of Tonto National Forest tore pieces of the road to shreds.
The shutdown has rankled thousands of East Valley residents and others who are demanding that the state repair the wildly scenic but admittedly primitive road that serves as the shortest link from the Valley to Roosevelt Lake.
More than 18,000 people have signed an online petition under the museum’s auspices urging the Arizona Department of Transportation to repair the road.
The state has no intention of doing so, meaning that an iconic reminder of the region’s rich history might remain permanently severed.
The road, in fact, is so significant that it’s one reason the East Valley is the East Valley, with its array of prosperous communities whose residents almost never have to give thought to where their precious water comes from.
The origins of the trail are lost in time, but it seems Native Americans traveled the route long before Europeans arrived here.
After that, settlers found themselves at the mercy of the capricious Salt River, sometimes in flood and sometimes in drought, a yearly gamble with the elements and hardly any basis for long-term prosperity.
With other Western regions in the same predicament, Congress in 1902 passed the Reclamation Act, which provided federal funding for dams and irrigation projects in the nation’s arid regions. That led quickly to the formation of the Salt River Valley Water Users Association, the forerunner to today’s Salt River Project.
Soon enough, plans were afoot to dam the Salt River 60 miles east of Mesa. Planners decided it would be less expensive to haul supplies to there from Mesa than from Globe, even though no road existed for doing so. Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix issued bonds totaling $75,000 to build it.
“Construction of the road was one of the more difficult and hazardous components of the dam project,” according to an official SRP history published in 2017.
“Apache laborers, who possessed skills in dry masonry and grading, signed on to the road construction crews,” it says. “Some of the retaining walls they built using only fitted stones with no mortar outlasted the concrete and steel walls built by the project’s engineers.”
The road was substantially finished by September 1905, and in its first month, according to the SRP history, more than 1.5 million pounds of freight moved laboriously up the hilly, winding course.
A lot of that stuff came from the Wong family grocery store at the corner of Mesa Drive and Main Street. The building survived until a few years ago, when it was razed for a light-rail parking lot.
When the dam was completed in 1911, Theodore Roosevelt himself rode the Apache Trail to dedicate the structure named in his honor. It appears he enjoyed the ride.
“The Apache Trail 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 others have. To me, it is the most awe-inspiring and sublimely beautiful,” Roosevelt said.
The “indefinable something” that Roosevelt praised has drawn legions of adventuresome drivers over the past century, though truth be told the awesome scenery may have been too much for some to resist: It is said that you can still find the wrecks of cars that plunged off the roadway’s unguarded edges a half-century ago.
Over the years the Trail fed recreation and tourism in that reach of the Superstition Wilderness – one favorite site being the Apache Lake Marina and Resort, reachable only via the rustic roadway.
Then, last summer, disaster struck.
In June the human-caused Woodbury Fire consumed almost 124,000 acres of the Tonto National Forest. In September a storm dumped some 5 inches of rain onto the fire scar and the runoff ravaged 14 miles of the unpaved road. Seven miles between Fish Creek Hill and the entrance to the marina remain closed.
That cut off access to Apache Lake from the East Valley except for those willing to drive first to Globe so they could reach it via the Apache Trail from the northeast. Starved for customers, the resort and marina closed in October.
That the road remains closed is frustrating to John Schempf, chairman of Apache Trail attractions at the Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction.
Referring to the Apaches who carved out the road, Schempf said, “They built it in less than a year, and they did it with pick and shovel. Now it’s been closed almost a year, and I don’t understand why, with modern technology and equipment, we cannot get it open.”
ADOT, which maintains the road, is adamant that it will not be reopened anytime soon.
“Because of widespread and extensive damage to the landscape from the Woodbury Fire, additional damage from massive flash flooding is not just possible but likely until vegetation recovers,” ADOT told The Tribune via e-mail. “This process will take several years.”
The ADOT statement added, “While ADOT has worked aggressively to maintain access to Canyon Lake, Tortilla Flat and Apache Lake, the seven miles between Fish Creek Hill overlook and Apache Lake will remain closed indefinitely because of the inevitability that flash flooding from the Woodbury Fire burn scar will add to the already massive damage this unpaved section has suffered and the potential for flooding to trap and/or harm the public.”
Schempf doesn’t buy that explanation.
“It was an extraordinary storm we had last year,” he said. “It wouldn’t have made any difference if there was a fire or not, it still would have washed the road out. That’s what happens in the Superstitions.”
Schempf said no one is asking ADOT to actually improve or pave the road, and that money for repairs is available from federal emergency relief funds. ADOT’s website says the repair bill would total in the millions.
Schempf said that in addition to the marina closing, the road blockage has negatively affected recreational destinations at Roosevelt Lake, in Globe and near Superior.
“A lot of people like to go the whole circle around – go out the Apache Trail and then come back by Boyce Thompson Arboretum or vice versa,” Schempf said. “It used to make a really nice circle trip.”