Why part of the Apache Trail has been closed for 3 years with no end in sight

Shanti Lerner
Arizona Republic
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Arizona Route 88, known as the Apache Trail, snakes though Fish Creek Canyon in the Superstition Mountains.  The dirt and paved road winds nearly 50 miles through the Superstitions.

Since its completion in 1911, the Apache Trail has drawn visitors from all over the world with its scenic grandeur. The 40-mile drive connects Apache Junction and the Theodore Roosevelt Dam east of Phoenix.

The two-lane road, officially known as State Route 88, meanders past Goldfield Ghost Town and Lost Dutchman State Park where the Flatiron peak towers over the Superstition Mountains' craggy landscape draped with saguaros.

The road grows steeper and more dramatic as you navigate through sharp curves and past sheer drops to Canyon Lake, and then the historic stagecoach village Tortilla Flat. The road continues up to Fish Creek Hill where jaw-dropping views of the Salt River Canyon come into full frame. There are 20.3 miles that are unpaved from mile 220.2 about 2 miles east of Fish Creek Hill Overlook to mile 240.5 near Roosevelt Dam. 

But motorists can't make the whole drive.

Since June 2019, a 5-mile section of the Apache Trail from the top of Fish Creek Hill to mile marker 227 has been closed in the aftermath of the Woodbury Fire, which burned 120,000 acres of Tonto National Forest and the Superstition Wilderness.

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The closure has made it impossible to drive the entire length of the Apache Trail and nearly doubled the travel time from metro Phoenix to recreation areas like Apache Lake.  

The Republic talked to officials from the Arizona Department of Transportation, experts from the Forest Service and business owners affected by the road’s closure to learn why the legendary byway has not been fixed and whether there are plans to reopen the Apache Trail.

State Route 88, known as the Apache Trail, has had a 5-mile stretch closed from the top of Fish Creek Hill to mile marker 227 following the June 2019 Woodbury Fire.

Why is the Apache Trail closed? 

Fires, floods, intrigue and mystery make up the history and legends of the Superstition Mountains, and this issue fits that profile. 

The U.S. Forest Service is the landowner of the Apache Trail and ADOT has maintained the road since it was designated a state highway in 1927.

ADOT was formally granted an easement for the road on July 5, 2017, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under the easement deed, ADOT is responsible for construction, reconstruction, maintenance and operation of the Apache Trail. 

The Apache Trail is 40-plus miles of steep, winding roadway and jaw-dropping, ever-changing scenery.

This easement gave ADOT the authority to close the road after the Woodbury Fire. The road was not burned, but the fire blazed through nearby vegetation and left a burn scar that created the potential for landslides and flooding. 

In August 2019, ADOT reopened a 9-mile stretch of the Apache Trail that included the now-closed Fish Creek Hill section. The next month, heavy rainfall from Hurricane Lorena forced another closure.

The September deluge had triggered a large rock slide that rendered the section of the road impassable. ADOT said there also were concerns about soil stability and the likelihood that this would lead to future rock slides and flooding of the road.

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What ADOT is doing about the Apache Trail closure

“The issue is not that the road is irreparably damaged,” said Doug Nick, ADOT assistant communications director.

“The issue is that because of the fire damage going back to 2019, the concern is that the rainfall or the potential rainfall that occurs, whether it's winter rains or monsoon, would have an increased amount of runoff because there's not enough or not the same amount of vegetation as was before that holds the soil together.

“And the concern would be that if you repair the road and the extend of the resources to do that, the risk might be that it gets washed out very shortly again. And so that's why we need to look at long-term solutions.” 

ADOT has undertaken a study to evaluate the vegetation in the area to see what long-term construction and maintenance work is possible. The study was authorized by the state legislature in 2021.  

Part of State Route 88, also known as the Apache Trail, has been closed since the Woodbury Fire in the summer of 2019.

According to Garin Groff, public information officer for ADOT, the study has yet to begin, as ADOT is still going through the legally required process to implement it. The study is expected to take about six months to complete.

The study will cost $700,000, and ADOT anticipates it will be completed in 2023. Nick said the next steps will be determined after the study is complete. 

How the Apache Trail closure affects Tortilla Flat

While ADOT'S study proceeds, business owners along the Apache Trail grow increasingly frustrated by how the closure is affecting their livelihoods. 

Katie Ellering, owner and operator of Tortilla Flat, a two-block-long hamlet on the Apache Trail west of Fish Creek Hill, has been one of the most vocal business owners asking for the road to be fixed. 

There's over 100 years of heritage out there and there's thousands of visitors yearly that want to come and visit and experience the Apache Trail,” Ellering said. “But unfortunately, travelers can't do the whole Apache Trail. So they're not coming.

"We're just not seeing them come through Tortilla Flat and it has definitely impacted my business. I get emails, phone calls weekly about, 'Hey, has the road been opened yet?' It's heartbreaking. And there's other local businesses that are feeling the impacts as well.” 

Besides the inability to drive the entire historic route, Ellering says a big concern of business owners is the amount of travel time the closure has added. Ellering, who owns a boat in Roosevelt Lake, says a formerly 45-minute drive now takes over two hours. 

“I have to take Highway 60 out towards Globe and come back and cut up through (State Route) 188 and come around the back side,” Ellering said. “I even lost one of my employees because she lived on the other side of the washout and it would take her two and a half hours to get to work." 

Easy day trip from Phoenix:Here's why you should drive the Apache Trail to Tortilla Flat

What the Apache Trail closure means for Apache Lake Marina

Another business owner who has felt the effects of the closure is Kathy Schuster, previous owner and operator of Apache Lake Marina Resort. 

Schuster, whose family purchased the marina in 1973, says she saw a quick decline in her revenue after the road was closed, which caused her to sell.

“Our resort was severely impacted by the decisions that were made to close that road and basically forced us almost into bankruptcy, and then we finally sold it in January of 2021,” Schuster said.

Apache Lake

Tylor More, the current owner of Apache Lake Marina Resort and a resident of the East Valley, said he often has to stay overnight at the marina because the commute is so long. 

“When I go up there I usually stay a few nights because it's not worth it to make that drive,” More said. 

More, who purchased the marina from Schuster, says the lack of access has hampered his ability to make money. 

“Any time you can get more access to the property to come and visit the better," More said. "With only one entry and exit point to this lake it makes it that much more difficult to enter. If it were fixed or there was another way to come, we would 100 percent generate more revenue."

What Apache Trail business owners are doing about the road closure

Ellering and Schuster, who is representing More's interests in the matter, are members of a group called the Apache Trail Attractions Committee, which has been trying to persuade government officials and ADOT to fix the road.

The group, comprising several businesses along the Apache Trail, has gotten support from Pinal County Supervisor Jeff Serdy and Maricopa County Supervisor Thomas Galvin.

The two men wrote a joint letter to ADOT in April 2021 requesting that the agency add Apache Trail repairs in the state’s 5-Year Transportation Plan, which came out on June 17, 2022, and did not include the Apache Trail.

How the Woodbury Fire and Hurricane Lorena affected the Apache Trail 

To understand how environmental changes after a wildfire may affect a road like the Apache Trail, The Republic corresponded with Susan Blake, a Tonto National Forest spokesperson who gathered the information from a hydrologist who works for Forest Service and an ADOT liaison.

When environmental events like the Woodbury Fire and Hurricane Lorena affect Forest Service land, a protocol needs to be followed, Blake said. Any fire over 500 acres must be assessed by a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team to check for damage and potential risks to life, safety, Forest Service infrastructure and natural and cultural resources. 

“The BAER team was out there as part of the BAER assessment soon after the fire and the BAER team revisited the area in February 2020 to see how the area was recovering,” Blake said. “Also, the Forest Service's ADOT liaisons performed a site visit to survey the road damage.”

Woodbury Fire burning in the Tonto National Forest

While decreased soil stability in the affected areas has been one of ADOT’S concerns, Blake notes that many of the soils in the area were already deemed hazardous prior to the fire and storm.

“The soils in the area vary," Blake said. "Many of them are inherently unstable according to the USFS soil surveys, are steep, have moderate to high erosion hazard ratings, and high potential for storm water runoff because they are shallow and there isn’t as much room for the water to seep into the soil."

Blake said vegetation and soils have to recover to their pre-fire conditions, which can take three to 10 years, depending on the burn severity. And even when that occurs, flooding is still possible. 

“There are many areas where the soils are inherently unstable and therefore any intense or prolonged rain event can cause flooding and damage,” Blake said. “Even stable soils or slopes can be damaged by a large enough and intensive enough rain event.”

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How does ADOT decide which roads to repair or build? 

ADOT’S  Five Year Transportation Facilities Construction Program (Five Year Program) was released on June 17, 2022. The plan details projects and accounts for spending for the next five years. Nick said the plan is updated annually. 

“We make a presentation every year to the (Arizona Transportation State Transportation Board) of the projects that we've identified as needing attention,” Nick said. “And the board will consider those. And that's a very long process and if you look at our five-year plan it is indeed statewide and it is designed very much so that it is fair to all. So in other words, the I-10 or I-17, they don't get everything. 

“It is spread out throughout the state. And certainly (the Apache Trail) would be one of those potential projects that will be programmed into the five-year plan. That was the decision that was made. But again, that has to be something that we look at once we know what the study says." 

When asked why it has taken over three years to get a study conducted, Nick pointed out the complexities of transportation funding and how projects are prioritized. 

“So it's going to depend on safety needs, traffic increases ‒ any number of factors that come into it. There is no one busiest highway in the busiest city that gets priority. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to get something right away.

"And when you look at highways like (U.S.) 93, it doesn't go through a lot of populated areas, but a lot of people use it to get from Phoenix to Las Vegas. So we just have to look at everything."

While the issue of reopening the Apache Trail has become a touchy subject among various stakeholders, Nick says ADOT is steadfast on how it will proceed. 

“It’s not just a matter of finding maintenance costs to go make those dollars to go in there and fix the problem," Nick said. “The real issue is when we go in there, we have to make sure that what we do doesn't get undone in a matter of months, because that would not be good for safety.”

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