Tag: Tortilla Flats

The Apache Trail and Tonto National Monument

From Google Maps

From Google Maps

Going to the Tonto National Monument is an all-day trip from Phoenix, especially if you want to take the most scenic road to Roosevelt Lake. Google claimed that the drive was about 2 hours long on Apache Trail (88), but the drive down the twisting, dirt roads is more realistically between two and three hours long. It takes longer if you stop along the way, of course, and taking your time is a good idea on Apache Trail for both safety and your enjoyment.

Just before the Apache Trail turns into a dirt road, you will see three small buildings near the edge of Fish Creek. The buildings are somewhat ramshackle, and their boxy architecture and wooden walls is purposefully reminiscent of a small historic Western town. This is Tortilla Flats; and it is one of my personal favorite places to stop whenever I am on the 88. There isn’t much here- a small restaurant, a gift shop, and a country store. The restaurant has a great atmosphere that fits the area to a T. The walls are coated in layers of signed dollar bills, most from the US, but I always like to peek around for money from all over the world. The bar is also lined with horse saddle stools, and the bathrooms are surprisingly humorous but I won’t spoil why. The food here is good, mostly sporting American classics. As much as I enjoy stopping by the restaurant here, however, I mostly come to Tortilla Flats for its delicious prickly pear ice cream, which I like to eat next to the (sometimes) gurgling stream that runs right by the area.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Past Tortilla Flats the dirt road begins, and while this area is breathtakingly beautiful, anyone who wants to drive this road needs to take their time, and keep their eyes on the road. There are cliffs along long stretches of the road, and at times the road narrows until vehicles will need to stop and pull over in order to let each other pass. Along this part of the Apache Trail is the small Apache Lake, and the Roosevelt Lake Dam. After stopping to view the dam, the road curves up one final hill, and at the top the largest lake in Arizona expands out to either horizon- Roosevelt Lake.

For some reason, I was expecting there to be a sizeable town around Roosevelt Lake, but in the direction from Roosevalt Dam towards the Tonto National Monument all I saw were a few small settlements. One was a high-end gated community perched on the edge of the lake, some looked like a mix of large camp grounds and RV grounds, and about eight miles from the turn off by the dam was a small collection of low buildings including a gas station, and an all American restaurant called Boston’s Lake House Grill (that seemed surprisingly far from the lake for its name).

From the lake to Tonto National Monument was a short drive up from the relatively flat desert surrounding Roosevelt up into a small box canyon. The visitor center here was under construction when I visited, so there wasn’t much there to see, and we immediately headed out onto the trail leading to the Lower Cliff Dwelling. This is the only trail accessible to visitors without a ranger or guide, it is a mile long (round-trip), and it is nicely paved and thus welcoming to most people, although it is steep.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

I got winded a few times on the way up, but it was a good excuse to stop and take in the scenery, which was always worth the pause. The plant communities surrounding the path up to the Lower Cliff Dwellings was amazingly rich, and was so lush that I almost felt like I was taking a stroll through Phoenix’s manicured Desert Botanical Gardens. All of the charismatic plants of the Sonoran Desert were represented in vibrant greens on either side of the trail, and any time spent at one of the trail’s benches would reveal a variety of bird, mammal, and reptile life as well.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Of course, the crowning jewel of the trail and the national monument itself are the ruins. Unlike Montezuma’s castle, Tonto National Monument allows visitors to carefully climb inside of the ancient Salado ruins here. They are watched over by a volunteer, who dutifully reminds visitors to not lean or sit on the stone walls tucked into the mountain-side, and who is prepared to answer any questions that visitors may have about the people who once lived here, as well as the surrounding area. Inside the warm, stone and mortar walls of this ancient Native American village, it is easy to see what drew people to this place. The shallow cavern that the buildings were constructed in makes the place feel safe and protected. The walls are dark with the remains of fires from hundreds of years ago, but the closeness of those ancestral families doesn’t seem to have abandoned this place. Just over the remaining walls, or through the surviving doorways and windows, visitors can catch glimpses of the Salt River Valley and the lake, beckoning with its life giving waters, and the lush desert around it.

In short, Tonto NP is a must-see for anyone interested in Arizona history, or in the ingenuity of our ancestors. There is a second set of ruins in the park as well, but visitors must join a tour in order to see them, and the hike is more difficult than the trek to the Lower Cliff Dwellings. If what I saw was any indication, however, I think that the trip to the Upper Dwellings would certainly not disappoint anyone with the time and ability to make the journey further into the mountains.

And if you have any questions about Tonto or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

My next update will be on December 1st; about the Organ Pipe National Monument!

Upper Fish Creek in Tonto

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One of my first memories of travelling was when I went camping with my dad at Fish Creek in the Tonto National Forest of Arizona. I learned to put up a tent here, how to build a camp fire, and the way to make perfect smores. I also got to spend my first night by running water here, and ever since, the sound of a babbling creek is a noise that can invariably lull me to sleep. In is an oasis in the desert, and when there is water flowing down the creek, the water is smooth and clear, and gives refuge to a myriad of different animals. Fish Creek has played a pretty integral role in the type of person that I am now, especially when it comes to the relationship that I have with the natural world.

I would argue that it is one of the most beautiful places that I know of in the Phoenix-area, but there are a few challenges in traveling out to this spot. First off, it is a fair way down a dirt road (the Apache Trail), which is well-kept enough for cars to easily navigate, but the road is narrow and winds along the edge of intimidating cliffs. Due to this, it isn’t the most comfortable drive for everyone, and courtesy is essential from people traveling up or down the road. I have seen people get stuck in the ditch on the inner side of the road as they are trying to avoid the edge and let people pass in the other direction. There is also evidence, in warped road guards, that there have been close calls on this road before. Those planning on taking this road should be prepared for these conditions, and be ready to drive patiently and courteously.

Once you make it down the steep road to the single-lane bridge that crosses over Fish Creek, it can be hard to find a place to park, and I would definitely suggest that you get there early.DSCF3391 After parking, you cross over to the western side of the bridge and head south an unmarked but fairly obvious trailhead. After that, things get somewhat complicated. The trail here, while being well traveled, goes off in several directions, and it can take some experimentation to find the best one, because they aren’t all very easy to travel. In particular, I would warn against the trail that runs furthest up the cliff side, because getting into the shallow cavern that crowns the top of the path into Fish Creek canyon involves some scrambling, and a hefty little jump if you aren’t particularly tall.

The trails from the road lead to a hollow in the cliff face, which has a fairly steep floor, is covered in graffiti, and, and has a ceiling patched with the soot of past fires. It isn’t the best place to hang out, but if it is quiet, there are some lovely views of the canyon and creek from here. Once you start to make your way down, the final and, in my opinion, biggest challenge presents itself. The trail down to the creek is very steep, and has many smooth rocks that are covered in a thin layer of sand. Sometimes this trail gets so slippery that it makes more sense to just sit down and slide down the trail, than to creep down on your feet and hope you don’t slip. Either method is precarious and the trail should be taken with caution. While hiking down, it is important to be aware that there may be people below you, so dislodging a rock is potentially very dangerous.DSCF3371

Down at the bottom, even if you don’t decide to hike and boulder your way up the canyon, the beautiful canyon walls, lined with lush green riparian trees, and the cool water at the bottom (when the creek is running) makes the challenging travel worthwhile. Of course, in order for Fish Creek to remain beautiful, people need to respect this place. Trash isn’t all that uncommon, but visitors that are aware can change this fact. Come prepared to pack your own trash out of the canyon, and if inclined, help clean up the canyon a bit. It is a contemplative, refreshing place when people respect eachother and the area itself.

I usually travel south as soon as I get into the canyon, and travel in this direction takes some problem solving and a willingness to scale boulders along the way. DSCF3373I have never made it more than a mile or two into the canyon in this direction, because the bouldering can get pretty technical further down the canyon, but the trek is well loved. Last time I went, besides the creek being alive and well, there was a ton of birds and butterflies around. I think that at times there are canyon tree frogs in this area as well.

No trip down to Fish Creek is complete without a stop for lunch at Tortilla Flats. This area is pretty busy, but the crowds don’t detract from this place too much. The food at the Tortilla Flats restaurant is pretty good. I am especially fond of their hot dogs. One thing I would say, however, is that if you are used to good Mexican food, stick with their American stuff cause that is their forte. After lunch, stop by the ice cream shop. They have prickly pear ice cream, which I traditionally get when I am in the area, and a bunch of other great flavors. If you still have time after that, check out the gift shop and the little museum that they have there. There’s some interesting history here, and some quirky little things in the area.

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