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  • Writer's pictureBryan Donoghue

Very Superstitious: Phoenix in the Fall

Traversing the Superstition Mountains, just outside Phoenix AZ

Lost Dutchman State Park - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue


The stories I had heard about the Superstition Mountains outside Phoenix, Arizona didn’t even come close to doing the area justice. What an incredible introduction to the desert climate of the Southwestern US - I’m from New England, so really haven’t had much experience with this part of the country at all before now. I’ve been fascinated by the desert for quite some time, but honestly I’m not a big fan of hot weather so I wasn’t sure it was the right area for me. I am SO glad I changed my mind and decided to give it a shot.

I’m living in Phoenix for the week, have a good place to stay with good internet to help fulfill all my Pathloomly duties, but wanted to make sure I got a chance to get out and explore the fascinating wilderness surrounding the city. I’ll be camping quite a bit next week, so until then I was content with simply finding a few good places to hike, and good scenery to drive through to get there. Fortunately, this city is rife with incredible trails, vistas, and other amazing outdoor experiences, both within city limits and just outside, so I had plenty to choose from when plotting my destinations. But the area that I had heard the most about from friends, and the area that caught my eye the most when doing some research with the Pathloom App, was Superstition Mountains in the Tonto National Forest.

The Apache Trail - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue

I cannot say enough about the drive through the Apache Trail alone, even the small section that was currently accessible from the outskirts of Phoenix up to Tortilla Flat. Hairpin turns switched back and forth across sheer mountainsides, with rocky outcroppings causing blind curves to make things even more interesting (and perhaps mildly terrifying - but in a good way somehow). Saguaro cacti dotted the hills for miles in every direction, presenting their iconic silhouette against the backdrop of the blisteringly blue sky. Lakes and mountain tarns glittered in the sunlight from what seemed like a thousand feet below the road, until I took a few turns and found myself driving right along their coastlines. Single-lane bridges over dried-up creek beds presented a great opportunity to play chicken with the giant pickup trucks coming from the other direction (just kidding, though the bridges were certainly pretty). The road itself was surprisingly well-maintained for being out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, though again this was within 20 miles from the outskirts of Phoenix. The terrain was alien enough that it felt like I was a thousand miles from civilization, when in reality you could practically see the lights of the state capital from the mountain peaks.

I have to say, Route 88 through the Superstitions (known as the Apache Trail) is right up there with Highway 1 on the California coastline and I-93 through the White Mountains in New Hampshire in Autumn as my current favorite roads to drive in the country. And what I drove on was only a small portion of the route - which by all accounts just gets better and better as you get into the unpaved area East of Tortilla Flat. Unfortunately, I wasn’t convinced my low-slung rental sedan would have been able to handle the dirt roads in the area, so I only planned to drive up to the Flat and then find some trails to hike in search of a good mountain sunset. It ended up being a moot point anyway, as flood damage had caused that section of the road to close since last year, regardless of the clearance or all-terrain-ness of your vehicle. But even that 17 mile stretch was one of the most breathtaking, whiteknuckling driving experiences in recent memory.

Canyon Lake - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue

The variety of hiking trails in the Superstitions was quite a welcome sight. Since I only had a day to explore the area, I limited my focus to hikes that could be done in anywhere from 1-4 hours - and there were plenty! Signs for trailheads dotted the roadside as I traversed the Apache Trail, so I was able to pull over, check out how long the hike was, and get hoofin’ it if it fell within my range. Lost Dutchman State Park alone probably had 10 different trails to choose from, ranging from 1-2 up to 9 hours in length. Some of the trails are temporarily closed due to natural disasters or Covid concerns, but there were more than enough to choose from regardless. Whether solo hiking or bringing the family, the variety not just in length but skill level could accommodate just about any needs.

I look forward to coming back to the area to get deeper into the mountains, maybe set up a backpacking trip - or take advantage of the numerous campgrounds in the area as a launching pad for my outdoor adventures. I must say, Canyon Lake also looked extremely inviting as a way to cool down after a long day in the Arizona sun. Maybe I’ll get up there early enough to catch the sunrise next time, most of the vista points seemed to be facing East so they’d be set up perfectly for that. Maybe I’ll spend some time exploring the Goldfield Ghost Town, maybe I’ll bring a fishing pole and see what the lakes have to offer. Maybe once Covid is in our rearview mirror I’ll roll up to the Tortilla Flat Saloon for a beer with the locals (population: 6). Maybe I’ll learn to ride horses and go for a trek across the flats. Maybe I’ll learn to ride a motorcycle and really take advantage of the Apache Trail. Regardless of my (or your!) preference in outdoor activities, knowing that I could be back in the Superstitions within 2 hours of landing at Sky Harbor airport and have all of those options available has me extremely excited to get back to the desert - even if I’d need full bandoliers of sunscreen and a floppy Kentucky Derby-esque hat to survive!

Arizona Sunsets are just unbelievable - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue


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