May 10 2016
The Arizona Republic
Why not explore a nearby natural or prehistoric site? You could take a hike, learn some history or spot wildlife. All of these locations are within a two-hour drive of Phoenix.
The Superstitions, looming east of Apache Junction, are the largest of the mountain ranges ringing Phoenix. The 160,200-acre wilderness area, part of Tonto National Forest, contains one of the state's most popular trails — the Peralta — yet the vast interior of the Superstitions boasts some of the state's most rugged, seldom-seen territory. Stretching 24 miles east and west and 9 to 12 miles north and south, the wilderness is crossed by trails ranging from flat and easy to steep and strenuous. More than a dozen access points lead into the wilderness; the Peralta Trailhead is one of the most popular. It has large parking areas and a restroom but no water.
Details: To get to the Peralta trailhead, take U.S. 60 past Apache Junction to Peralta Road. Turn north and drive about 8 miles to the trailhead. Free. 480-610-3300,www.fs.usda.gov/tonto.
Apache Trail scenic drive
The Apache Trail through the Superstition Mountains was built to supply construction workers building Roosevelt Dam in the early 1900s. When Theodore Roosevelt drove there in 1911, he compared the region's beauty to that of Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks. Saguaro-covered hills and deep canyons stretch for miles, broken by red-rock cliffs and hoodoos. The area is a favorite of sightseers, boaters, hikers and anglers. The Apache Trail, aka State Route 88, is not for the squeamish or those afraid of heights. It's full of twists and turns, rising and falling with the hills and valleys. Part of the road is paved; the graded dirt stretch is suitable for most cars but not recommended for large RVs.
Lost Dutchman State Park
Located on the Apache Trail northeast of Apache Junction, this park has a visitor center, picnic ramadas and hiking trails leading into Tonto National Forest at Superstition Mountain. The park offers such programs as ranger-led hikes and family campouts.
Details: 6109 N. Apache Trail, Apache Junction. $7 per vehicle. 480-982-4485,azstateparks.com/parks/LODU.
Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch
The Riparian Institute oversees a 110-acre preserve in Gilbert that provides great bird-watching. More than 200 species have been spotted here. The institute works to educate people and promote awareness of Arizona's ecology, and the preserve offers hiking and biking trails and fishing.
Details: 2757 E. Guadalupe Road, Gilbert. Free. 480-503-6234, riparianinstitute.org.
This reservoir on the Salt River offers plenty to do. The Saguaro del Norte recreation site is near Stewart Mountain Dam and has a restaurant, picnic tables, restrooms, boat ramps and a marina with boat rentals. Board the Desert Belle for a sightseeing cruise. A camping site with 30 spaces is accessible only by boat and is open year-round. The Arizona Game and Fish Department keeps the lake stocked with a rainbow trout, largemouth bass and channel catfish, to name a few.
Details: Take State Route 87 north for 8 miles to Bush Highway, then follow the signs to the lake. $6 per vehicle; $4 per watercraft. 602-942-3000,azgfd.gov/h_f/waters_saguaro_lake.shtml. Desert Belle tickets are $12-$25 (free for age 4 and younger). 480-984-2425, www.desertbelle.com.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
At 323 acres, this park is Arizona's largest and oldest botanical garden, founded in the 1920s. Managed by the University of Arizona and Arizona State Parks, the arboretum features more than 3,000 types of Sonoran Desert vegetation and a 1.5-mile main loop walking trail. There are events galore, including guided walks along the main trail.
Details: About 55 miles east of Phoenix on U.S. 60, near Superior. $5-$10. 520-689-2811, azstateparks.com/Parks/BOTH.
Lake Pleasant Regional Park
From boating to water-skiing to parasailing and scuba diving, this park offers an abundance of aquatic activities. The park has two boat ramps, both of which have restrooms and paved parking lots. For those who like to wet a line, Lake Pleasant is stocked with 12 species of fish and the park hosts fishing tournaments year-round. The park has more than 4 miles of pedestrian-only trails. There are 148 developed and semideveloped sites for RV and tent camping, plus restrooms and shower facilities.
Details: 41835 N. Castle Hot Springs Road, Morristown. $6 per vehicle; $4 per watercraft. 928-501-1710, maricopa.gov/parks/lake_pleasant.
Estrella Mountain Regional Park
Here's something that no other park in the Maricopa County system has: 65 acres of grassy picnic space. In addition to picnicking, the park has close to 20,000 acres of desert topography for hikers, bicyclists, joggers and horseback riders. Duffers can try the links at Tres Rios Golf Course, and fishermen can catch and release along the Gila River, which runs through the park.
Details: 14805 W. Vineyard Ave., Goodyear. $6 per vehicle. 623-932-3811,maricopa.gov/parks/estrella.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
Tonto Natural Bridge is an impressive span. The man who first documented the bridge came across it while being chased by Apaches. David Gowan, a prospector, hid in a cave inside the bridge for three days. After that, Gowan claimed the land by squatters rights and persuaded his family to emigrate from Scotland to settle there. It is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world, standing 183 feet high over a 400-foot-long tunnel that measures 150 feet wide. The half-mile Gowan Loop Trail leads down the bank of the creek — and several steep flights of steps — to an observation deck near the tunnel under the natural bridge. Two other short trails provide good views of the park's features. Call before you make the drive to find out if any trails are closed because of snow or ice.
Details: 10 miles north of Payson off State Route 87. $2-$5. 928-476-4202,azstateparks.com/Parks/TONA.
Tonto National Monument
The monument is home to two cliff dwellings. The walk to the lower ruin is self-guided; visitors may come and go as they please. Reservations are required for guided tours of the upper ruin; it's open from November through April. The structure is surprisingly well preserved. The dwellings were built by the Salado people between 1250 and the early 1300s, and occupied until around 1450. At any given time there probably were 40 to 50 people living there. You can walk through some rooms; many others are sealed off. A small cistern, which could hold up to 100 gallons of water, remains beneath a now-dry spring at the base of the shallow cave. In addition to guided tours, there are wildflower walks and other seasonal events.
Details: About 100 miles east of Phoenix on State Route 188. $5, free for age 15 and younger. 928-467-2241, www.nps.gov/tont.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona. They laid down 1,000 miles of irrigation canals in the Salt River Valley, a network that eventually supported enough fields to feed about 40,000 people. The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites, including a four-story earthen structure. Interpretive walking tours and exhibits are available.
Details: 1100 Ruins Drive, Coolidge. $5 per person, free for age 15 and younger. 520-723-3172, www.nps.gov/cagr.
This article was originally published in The Arizona Republic.