Blame it on the plants. The whole thing started when I heard about the Plants of the Bible Tour at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, AZ. It’s about 60 miles from where I live, and as I was studying a map, an idea began to form in my head. What about a stop here, a drive up to here, then come back this other way? Yes, this was going to be a memorable trip. A day trip along the historic Apache Trail was just the thing I needed to boost my confidence after my misadventures in Arkansas.
With the plans made and the car packed, I set off early on a Saturday morning in September, the Sausage McMuffin warming my tired hands. I’d stayed up way too late making a mix CD of road trip songs for my journey and loading up the car (in my typical fashion of over-thinking the details). My spirits were high as I transitioned to old US 60 and took in some scenery. The desert landscape was pleasing to look at and the road fun to drive as you wind over gentle hills and curves toward Superior. It was about 8:30am when I pulled into the Arboretum, at the base of Picketpost Mountain.
While I waited for the tour group to gather, I hiked one of the shorter trails near the entrance. It was a small loop that boasted every kind of native desert plant and ways in which desert natives use them for medicinal and healing purposes. At 9:00 am outside the gift shop, everyone gathered for the tour. The guide was friendly spoke with the confidence of a man who has a passion for both plants and scripture. The next two hours just flew by and we walked across the whole preserve, from the Demonstration Garden to the greenhouse to the Australian area, and everything in between.
The tour was mostly concerned with Old Testament verses relating to plants, including what was around at the time and how we know. There was adequate shade along the tour but under the morning sun I was glad to have brought my jug of water with me. About 11:15am or so I headed back to the car and drove east toward Superior. Digging around in the cooler, I removed a sandwich and some chips and ate lunch in front of the World’s Smallest Museum.
This little pit stop is adjacent to the Buckboard Cafe, outside of which was parked the baddest custom-built V8 motorcycle I’ve ever seen! The rear tire was wider than a car tire and it also had a serious front suspension and a radiator with an electric fan. The hardass who owns it was nowhere to be seen, though I would have liked to see the human match for such a machine. The World’s Smallest Museum was worth stopping for, especially the historic photographs and a roof made entirely of sun-faded beer cans. Besides, you can’t beat the price: it’s free!
Down the road a short ways I spied a couple of old motel signs I had been hoping to find. The sort of places that advertise amenities like “Phones” and “Refrigeration” have some serious vintage appeal, and they make for great photographs too. You just don’t see that kind of thing with modern “chain” hotels that get remodeled every few years.
Just past Superior is the famous Queen Creek Bridge, a steel arch bridge on the way to Globe. The turnoff to take a picture comes up quickly, so be alert and signal your turn before pulling off the highway. Before you know it, the Queen Creek Tunnel is next. Blasted through solid rock, this thing is a marvel that replaces a more primitive tunnel from the frontier days. This road has it all! Bridges, tunnels, and neon, oh my!
As you arrive in Miami, Arizona you might notice the little roadside shrine next to the big welcome sign. This is a great place to stop and stretch if you haven’t had enough chances already. Getting out of the car to take some more photographs, I caught a whiff of the air in Miami. It’s not exactly clean and refreshing, no doubt due to the heavy mining operations that have been going on for decades. The Phelps Dodge Corporation has a smelter, a refinery, and a rod plant in operation that provides over 400 jobs to the town of 1,800 souls. If you’re not into mining or drinking, your best bet is to keep driving. From there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to Globe, which was my next stop.
Globe has a massive head frame looming over the city, like a silent monument reminding the buildings, roads, and people why they are there. Of course, the rows of historic buildings in Globe have become destinations in themselves, though it was the old motor courts such as the El Rancho and the El Rey that grabbed my digital eye. While cruising the main drag, I spied a couple of streamlined and deco-style gas stations as well. By about 2:30pm I was headed north on AZ 88 towards Roosevelt Dam. Climbing through the mountain passes, the lake was visible in the distance as a vast, flat body of blue that looked like a great chunk of sky had fallen to the desert.
In addition to the dramatic upgrades to the dam itself, the Roosevelt Dam Bridge was also opened in 1990 and strengthened the link between Globe and Payson. This beautiful two-lane, single-span, steel-arch bridge is the largest in North America. Its sky blue steelwork stretches gracefully over the lake just behind the dam, and seems to float weightlessly over the water.
Near the parking lot I found a nice picnic bench where I enjoyed a late lunch. Just past the dam a sign warned that there was no pavement for the next 22 miles. As I sat there eating my lunch, a steady stream of cars covered in dust would emerge from the trail at the rate of about one every five minutes. At about 4pm under an overcast sky, I set off down the Apache Trail.
Everything I had read about the Apache Trail was in the form of a stern warning: bring water, be prepared, don’t go alone, don’t go at night, watch out for flash floods and wild animals, watch your speed, the road has no guardrails, watch the one-lane bridges, be mindful of the sharp, blind turns and steep grades. Beware, use caution, and all that stuff.
Fish Creek Hill is a local legend, with a 19% grade. It means business. But as I was driving along the well-maintained dirt road at 30 mph, I kept waiting for that really treacherous part to come. Where was the disaster, the terrifying part that would make me regret taking this route? It never came.
In all seriousness, this road was better than some paved roads I’ve been on. And here I was bouncing along this washboard trail in a lowered Cavalier that jolted me around like a rock tumbler with A/C. Not far down the trail a plastic cover from under the dashboard rattled itself loose and fell on the floor on the passenger side. That was the worst I had to endure.
Traffic was light and most of the other people on the trail were taking it easy too, save for the lifted Dodge truck hauling ass with a boat trailer in tow. By 5:15pm I was in Tortilla Flat, and didn’t bother to stop and check it out, having made plenty of photo stops already. You might remember it as the little town the owners tried to sell on eBay for $5.5 million dollars in 2003 – and of course it didn’t sell. By six o’clock I had passed through Apache Junction and was back on US 60 heading home towards Phoenix.
Overall the trip was a rousing success. Nothing went wrong and I enjoyed a leisurely weekend drive through some beautiful scenery. The weather was nice and cool and the views were great while passing by Roosevelt Lake, Apache Lake, and Canyon Lake. If you’re thinking about driving the Apache Trail for yourself, I’d say get out there and go for it!