As I mentioned in my post about test trips, I drove the Apache Trail a couple times when I used to visit Arizona for work. I’ll quote myself to share a relevant part of that post:
About two years passed between my first test trip in California and quitting my job to travel full time. Over those two years I imagined, many hundreds of times, being free of work and moseying around North America. I imagined being able to settle in to camp for a week or more at a time. I imagined sitting around relaxing, reading, writing, hiking, watching the stars, and so on. In many of these daydreams, I was in Arizona. I was out near Sedona. And, most common of all, I was along the Salt River.
There are more beautiful places for sure. And there are countless places as nice as along the Salt River. But because I had been here on a test trip and because of how I felt while driving the Apache Trail, those feelings had me thinking back to it, and looking forward to it.
Arizona – Excursions from Phoenix
At the end of 2016, I’d just crossed the border from California to Arizona. I spent a couple weeks near the border, by Ehrenberg and Quartzsite, and attended the RTR, where I did a fun little “Rigs of the RTR” photography project.
After the RTR, I came to Phoenix. I had decided to make Phoenix my home base for the rest of winter. I’ll to spend about 10 weeks in and near the city. I expect to spend half the time inside the city, and half on excursions of about a week each. Most of these will be within 50-80 miles of Phoenix. As the weather warms up in the spring, I’ll go further north and stop coming back to Phoenix.
Ok… on to trip 1:
My first excursion, as you’ve likely guessed – included driving this beautiful stretch of gravel and dirt. The Apache Trail is a 40 mile stretch of Highway 88 from Apache Junction to the dam at Roosevelt Lake. The southern half is paved, and the northern half is a well-maintained gravel road.
There are some tall tales about this area. When I told my Grandma who lives in Phoenix that I’d be going on camping trips, she said “ohhhhhhhhh, don’t go out in the Superstition Mountains!”. The Apache Trail passes through them. The tales are mostly centered around gold mines, buried treasures of which old mysterious maps give vague directions, and murders of miners, treasure hunters, and some of the original teasure owners. The biggest of these tales is about the “Lost Dutchman’s Mine”. This is the most talked about and most searched for lost mine in North America. There are over 100 books and maps about the mine. Adventurous go-getters have been searching for the mine for over 120 years, with as many as 8,000 people searching in some years. Many have died while doing so.
There are numerous fascinating stories and tales all wound together. Some of them are definitely fact. Some are fantasies and deception.
A few excerpts:
The legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine centers around the Superstition Mountains. According to the legend, a German immigrant named Jacob Waltz discovered a mother lode of gold in the Superstition Wilderness and revealed its location on his deathbed in Phoenix in 1891 to Julia Thomas, a boarding-house owner who had taken care of him for many years. Several mines have been claimed to be the actual mine that Waltz discovered, but none of those claims have been verified
But – a warning – if you’re searching for treasure out here, you might wander into Hell:
Some Apaches believe that the hole leading down into the lower world, or hell, is located in the Superstition Mountains. Winds blowing from the hole is supposed to be the cause of severe dust storms in the metropolitan region
From a website about Tortilla Flat (a little outpost of a town along the Apache Trail)
Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer in America in the early 1500’s. During an expedition to Florida, he was shipwrecked on a Texas island in 1528. There he was enslaved by the Indians. He escaped and made his way into the Southwest and eventually into Mexico by 1536. His wanderings brought him in contact with the Pueblo Indians, and his later reports in Mexico gave rise to the legends of the Seven Cities of Cibola, — or the Cities of Gold. These legends were the catalyst for bring Spanish explorers and prospectors into the Arizona territory. As part of the Coronado expedition into Arizona for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Marcos de Niza traveled westward along the Gila River as far as what is now the Phoenix metropolitan area. He may have been the first Spaniard to see the Superstition Mountains.
What has all this to do with Tortilla Flat, you ask? Because of it’s location, Tortilla Flat, even presently, is affected by the search for gold in the Superstitions. Each Spanish expedition inspired other expeditions looking for the vast wealth in gold. In the late 1600’s through the Mid- 1700’s, Jesuits priests were located throughout the Southwest. Allegedly, the Jesuits had amassed a fortune in gold and didn’t want to share it with the King of Spain. The king, convinced of treachery, ordered the deportation of all Jesuits in 1767. However, before their departure, they supposedly hid their treasure in various places throughout Southwest and according to legend, the Superstition Mountain region was one of these hidden places.
In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain, and an influx of Mexican prospectors poured into the Superstition Mountain region. Don Miguel Peralta was a wealthy landowner and miner from northern Mexico. Reportedly, his expeditions recovered immense quantities of gold from the Superstitions in 1847 and 1848. All but one member of the expedition was killed in a battle with the Apaches at a site commemorated as Massacre Grounds, located at the west end of the mountains.
If this sounds interesting, here are some links to get you started:
- Treasure maps!
- and a Wikipedia page about the treasure maps (Peralta Stones)
- An example of a person’s search
- A bunch of pages from a guy (team?) who believes he’s found the Lost Dutchman’s Mine, or at leas the area containing it, an area about 3 miles south and slightly east of Tortilla Flat.
My Searching Expedition
I was on a search alright. But not for gold. I was searching for a perfect campsite along the Apache Trail. For the campsite I’ve daydreamed of hundreds of times. I did little research, figuring I’d go by memory and probably just find the right spots.
Like the treasure hunters, I came up short. But I didn’t die! There aren’t many nice camping spots along the road. A couple are right near the bottom of the big cliff that you drive down if you’re traveling northwards. They’re down at the bottom of this picture:
Ok.. look at the front of the van up by the windshield. Then track just a bit to the right. See that little branch off from the road with a white and red speck? That speck was a pickup with a camper and his hood up – a sign that he was settled in camping – putting the hood up is a method to try to prevent rats from nesting in the engine bay. Further north on the road, maybe 100 meters, is another good camping spot that had a car in it as I passed. They were likely out hiking or treasure hunting. Or maybe down in hell.
These two spots are the best free campsites along the Apache trail. That’s just according to my opinion right now, which is based on limited understanding of the area. Next time I drive this road going north, if one of these spots are open, I’m definitely stopping there.
This is a shot of the road as it continues down:
See how the road sort of disappears in the distance, and turns back around? There’s something cool down there right at the horseshoe turn:
Did people used to live in that cave/overhang? It would be a decent spot, with that river right below.
I continued along, hoping to find a spot on or overlooking the salt river. Further north, on the last few miles before the dam, the road parallels the river pretty closely. I’d seen campsites during my test trips when I was just passing through this road and daydreaming. Now that I was looking to actually stop and camp, what I found is:
- The campsites off the west side of the road – towards the river, are all sites where you have to pay (I don’t stay at those)
- There are a few roads going east off of 88. Everything on the east side of 88 is all just normal (free) dispersed camping. The one I explored wasn’t so great. Lots of hill walls would block the sun this time of year (a problem for my solar electrical system), and there weren’t any good views for as far as I walked up it.
- There are spots right along the road where you could stop and camp. Some of them have nice views. There’s a lot of traffic on this road though
I made it all the way to the dam without finding a spot that felt right. So I continued up past the dam and went to the Tonto Basin Ranger Distric Office. It’s a really nice visitor’s center, as nice as most National Parks have. I got some information and a bunch of free maps/papers, and headed over to the only free campsite along the lake (Bachelor’s cove). I stayed there for a few days, and then moved up to a Forest Service road that climbs the hills overlooking the lake. I stayed up there for a few more days.
I went on a few bike rides and hikes. My first trip up the road I camped on was on my bike. But past a certain point the road is so steep that I had to get off and walk a lot of. Later, I hiked all the way up. I also went on a bike ride over to and back down the Apache Trail. I remembered to take my GoPro! You may want to watch it at 2x speed to make it less boring.
Bonus – Ever wondered what’s inside a cactus?
I had assumed it was all just a wet mass. Sort of like a melon. Well, no. Inside some cacti are a system of sticks/trunks/branches: