By Jamie Killin
While Arizona has changed quite a bit since it’s pre-statehood Old West history with Phoenix becoming one the country’s largest and fastest-growing cities, there are still places that remind us of Arizona’s fascinating history and transport its visitors back to simpler times, when the area served as a mining destination within relatively unexplored land.
One of these places is Tortilla Flat, a Western town in the Tonto National Forest approximately 30 minutes outside of Apache Junction. Tortilla Flat serves as an easy summer day trip destination for families wanting to learn more about early life in Arizona while enjoying a fun day of delicious food, shopping, and scenic views.
The small town’s beginnings date back to the Apache Tribe who first inhabited the area. It was then discovered by Jesuit missionaries exploring the Superstition Mountains – known for their hidden gold in the Lost Dutchman Mine. Tortilla Flat legend says that the same Jesuit priest who led the St. Xavier Mission was one of the richest missionaries in the New World and knew of the now legendary treasure stash even before miner Jacob Waltz, who is said to have found the mine.
The better-known history of Tortilla Flat begins when settlers began to visit Tortilla Flat when cattleman would drive cattle from the Tonto Basin to the Phoenix stockyards. Around the same time, in 1904, it was established as a stop along the Apache Trail and as a settlement for workers who hand-built the Roosevelt Dam. This time period cemented Tortilla Flat’s critical role in the development of Phoenix as an agricultural hub by helping to move water into the emerging city.
Over the years, Tortilla Flat has had several iterations – transforming from a stagecoach stop to a tourist destination and even rebuilding on the opposite side of the road from where it presently sits after a flash flood in 1943. More than four decades later, Tortilla Flat was forced to rebuild yet again, after a 1987 fire that began in the restaurant nearly burned down the entire town. However, the history hasn’t been all disaster – the town has welcomed famous guests including the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt, Clark Gable, John Wayne and even Barbara Streisand. It’s also been home to a zoo and even served as the backdrop of Western films, as well as helping to inspire the book “Thunder God’s Gold,” and subsequent film, “Lust for Gold.”
Today, the town is a family-friendly attraction and relic of Arizona’s past. It is a fully independent town and has six residents that proudly call Tortilla Flat home.
When visiting Tortilla Flat, visitors will first be greeted by breathtaking mountain views and a look at Canyon Lake during a winding drive to the remote town. Upon arrival, head to the Superstition Restaurant and Saloon to try items from the recently re-vamped menu. Adults will love The Prospector pulled pork sandwich or Carne Asada Street Tacos while kids can enjoy the full kids’ menu with favorites like cheeseburgers, chicken strips and corn dogs. However, the star of the menu is the saloon’s famous chili, which has been made using the same recipe for 80 years and is now incorporated into Tortilla Flat’s Killer Chili Dog, Chili Burger and the classic Killer Bowl of Chili.
After a delicious meal, guests can head to the country store to try a scoop of prickly pear gelato. It’s the town’s signature flavor, and Tortilla Flat is known as the largest purveyor of prickly pear gelato in the entire world! The country store is also a go-to destination for one-of-a-kind food items like prickly pear honey and cactus salsa.
From there, head to the mercantile and post office to browse the shop’s carefully curated selection of kid-friendly books, gift items and one-of-a-kind items crafted by Arizona artists – to name a few.
To finish the day, we recommend a visit to the Tortilla Flat museum, which is an exact replica of the schoolhouse where the local children gathered to learn in the 1930s. While exploring the small museum, guests will see photos, historical relics and learn all about the development of Tortilla Flat, including the history of its owners dating back through to early 1900s.
In addition to Tortilla Flat, the Superstition Mountains are a beautiful place to hike in nature, visit Canyon Lake and even go camping for a multi-day visit.
For more information on your journey out to the Wild West and Tortilla Flat, visit www.tortillaflataz.com or call 480-984-1776. Tortilla Flat is open seven days a week.