Old West Week: Roosevelt Lake and The Apache Trail

Steep and stunning Fish Creek Hill on the Apache Trail

After McDowell Mountain our next stop was the Cholla Campground at Roosevelt Lake, a National Forest Service campground. I had heard about Roosevelt Lake last year and wanted to try it out. This was our first time at a Forest Service campground, and our experience was…mixed.

There were many positives. The location itself was stunning: Roosevelt Lake sits in the Tonto Basin, just east of the Superstition Mountains (I just love the colorful place names of the West). The lake is a reservoir formed by the eponymous Roosevelt Dam, inaugurated by Theodore Roosevelt himself in 1911, which blocks the Salt River. This lake and its downstream smaller lakes and canals provide most of the drinking and irrigation water for the Phoenix area, so it is a critical piece of infrastructure.

Theodore Roosevelt Dam

The campground itself is reasonably well maintained, with nicely spaced sites and landscaped with natural desert vegetation, although the previous occupants of our site left their trash in the fire ring (I just hate that), and the camp hosts didn’t bother to clean it up. The sites are dry camping, i.e. they have no hookups (which we normally like, but it didn’t work out so well here – see below), so you fill your water tank on the way in (fortunately the water spigot near our site had a threaded connection but all of the others did not, and I’m not sure how well our “water thief” would have worked).

There is a new dump station at the campground, to go along with another one across the street. But one is only open from 10-2 on Thursday and Friday, and the other only on Saturday and Sunday. I asked at the visitor center what the “thinking” was behind this bizarre operating model, but no one seemed to know.

Odd dump station hours

The Forest Service proudly states that this is the largest solar power-only campground in the United States. Which is great, except that if you want to take a warm shower at the shower house, you’d better do it on a sunny day, or before 4 pm when they run out of warm water. There is water in the bathrooms, but no soap, paper towels or hand dryers. Fortunately we had our own bathroom.

There are no campsite reservations; you just occupy any available site (the woman I spoke with at the ranger station said in the 16 years she has been there it has never filled up). But to pay for your camping you must purchase a wonky “Tonto Pass” from a nearby retailer, which is an $8 hanging tag for your car’s rear view mirror with a scratch off date good for 24 hours.

There are some nice hikes in the area, and we took advantage of a few. But the maps and information (a rough hand-drawn map seemingly photocopied from decades ago) provided at the ranger station are not up to the standards of Arizona and Texas state parks. The Forest Service budget (and management) seems to be even below that of the Park Service.

View from the trail

The lake also provides great recreation opportunities for boaters and anglers, and that was the source of the biggest issues during our stay. We selected a site close to the water, thinking that would make it easy to walk down to the shore. Unfortunately, shortly after we arrived, the sites opposite us on the loop had the same idea and began filling up with a group I’ll call “The Generator Bros”. (Bros as in “what’s up bro”). They had not made an investment in solar panels, and so ran their loud, 3,000 watt contractor generators from 7 am to 10 pm with only occasional breaks. In fairness, this is completely within the rules of the campground, but it also enabled them to power up their “kicker” outdoor speakers and entertain us with their Classic Heavy Metal – Bon Jovi – Aerosmith – Journey mixtapes.

View of Four Peaks and The Generator Bros

Our first clue should have been that each of their sites had not only an RV, but also a fishing boat. I have nothing against fisherpeople, but they were not looking for the same kind of camping experience that we were. They were there to have a vacation and have some fun with their buddies, and they weren’t particularly concerned about their fellow campers or listening to birdsong. It’s now clear that the primary constituency of this campground is anglers, and we’ll need to take that into consideration when selecting places to stay in the future. That said, one of the benefits of RVing is that if you don’t like your neighbors, you can move. We decided to stick it out for a few more days while we explored the area.

The first highlight was the drive down the Apache Trail to the town of Tortilla Flat. Originally a trail used by the Apache Indians, the Apache Trail was built as a freight highway to carry materials up from Phoenix to the Roosevelt Dam. It is mostly a dirt road with steep drop offs and little in the way of safety barriers. The crazy Fish Creek Hill section is carved into the side of a sheer cliff and climbs in excess of a 10% grade for over a mile. It didn’t seem that scary driving it at the time, but looking back I’m having second thoughts.

Keep your eyes on the road

When I think of the effort and personal risk that it took to not only build this road, but to use it with nothing more than mule teams, I feel the greatest respect for the rugged people who made it happen. Sadly, dozens lost their lives in the construction of the road and the dam, and some of them are buried in a poignant little cemetery overlooking Roosevelt Lake.

Roosevelt cemetery – note the stonecutter’s headstone

The town of Tortilla Flat is an old stagecoach stop toward the base of the Apache Trail that has managed to transform itself into a thriving tourist trap. The food (burgers and nachos) at the restaurant was decent, and the band that plays at the outdoor bar was also quite good, but otherwise the whole thing smacked of a way to separate middle-aged folk from their money, at which it appears to be quite successful.

Tortilla “Trap”

After lunch we descended the rest of the Apache Trail to Apache Junction, turned left and climbed back through the Superstions to the towns of Superior, Miami and Globe, home to massive copper mining operations. Arizona is the Grand Canyon State, but it is also the Copper State, and these gigantic piles of greenish ore are testament to its history of mineral extraction.

The other highlight near Roosevelt Lake was the Tonto National Monument, which is comprised of two sets of cliff dwellings, built by the Salado people 700 years ago, and set in caves high above the lake. The Park Service has done a really nice job with the little museum and interpretive walkway up to the lower site. The upper site can be visited by reservation only, and is booked months in advance. Had I planned better it would have been worth the trip, but we enjoyed seeing just the lower dwellings. These primitive buildings were impressive architecture for the time. The accommodations were small but had a stunning view of the valley below. Nearby they had all the food and water they needed.

This real estate has great views

Upper cliff dwellings

Come to think of it, that’s how we think about our little RV: not a lot of space, but we have what we need, we’re comfortable, and the view outside is almost always awesome.