The dangerous beauty of the Apache Trail

PHOENIX (KSAZ) - The Apache Trail is one of the most scenic drives in Arizona, known for its beautiful canyon views and its dizzying, narrow road, with drops in some areas of more than 1,000 feet (304.9 m).

With such drops, the path can turn deadly.

At the bottom of the ravines, and along the rocky canyon sides, wreckage from vehicles that have gone over cliffs remain, with some having been down there for nearly 50 years.

The Apache is believed to have used the trail to get through the Superstition Mountains. In the 1930's, covered wagons rolled up and down the narrow dirt path that is known today as State Route 88. While the heavily traveled portion is paved, most of the Apache Trail has remain unchanged. Where the pavement ends, the road becomes precarious. The trail zigzags its way to a peak, jutting boulders create blind curves, and dangerous drops not lined with guardrail lurk around corners.

Drivers are urged to proceed with caution, or the consequences can be deadly.

"The highways got some sad stories over the years," said Richard Ochs, Assistant Chief for the Superstition Fire & Medical District. "That is the unfortunate truth." 

Ochs has worked as a firefighter in this area for 30 years, and he knows the twists and drops by heart, He has also seen his share of harrowing rescues.

"What happens is the oncoming person coming around the sharp bends is going to have a split second decision," said Ochs. "You're going to hit someone or veer off the roadway and take your chances."

Chances of walking away from a drop like this are not very good, but miracles do happen. Ochs recalls one particular crash scene from 2012.

"If the vehicle would've flipped one more time, it's about another 1,000 foot it would've dropped," said Ochs. "Amazing how it worked. How he survived."

The driver climbed up to the roadway, where he waited for help.

On one flight, SkyFOX Drone spotted nearly half a dozen crashed vehicles splattered along the rocky cliffs. Nowadays, owners are required to have their wreckage removed, but that wasn't the case decades ago.

"These are left behind from accidents that probably happened in the late 70's at the earliest to veer into oncoming traffic," said Ochs. "There's a few other ravines where there's some very, very old vehicles which could go back to the 30's when they first built the roadway."

Mangled old cars lying on their roofs or wedged on rocks. Some have been there so long, bushes have grown over and around the vehicles. It's unknown how long they've been abandoned, and the stories behind the wrecks, remain mysteries. Removing these relics is expensive and risky, and since no one has claimed the vehicles, they will remain part of the historic trail.

Even today, there is no guarantee one survive a plunge off a cliff. With cellphones, service is spotty, and unless someone saw you go over the edge or you survive the crash, no one would know you're down there.

"I remember one night a family of seven people went over right behind us, and they were lucky because somebody was fishing right below that seen the car go over, so they were able to get help quickly," said Ochs.

The van plunged about 1,000 feet to the bottom of a ravine. Sadly, Och remembers that the mother and six kids survived the fall, but the father did not.

In 2017, one SUV filled with eight teenagers went over an embankment and landed in Canyon Lake. Fortunately, all of the teens survived.

However, the further one goes along the Apache Trail, the further one will get from emergency help.

"Realize that the response from medical or even the sheriff's department is an extended ETA," said Ochs. "You're a minimum of 20 to 25 minutes, in a best case scenario. You're a long way from help."

At one of the highest sections of the Apache Trail, it could take 45 minutes to an hour for first responders to arrive at a crash site. After arrival comes the perilous job of removing injured patients from the bottom of the canyon.

"It takes an hour to retrieve people, just to get them up to a roadway, then to get to a location where they can be transported to a hospital," said Ochs. "Very, very time consuming, so it's a dangerous area."

Most people do enjoy the jaw-dropping, rugged scenery without driving over the edge of a cliff. First responders say people should pay attention to the road and mind the speed limits.


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