By Patti M. Daley
There’s a humble, hidden treasure of the Tonto Basin to be found just a short drive from Globe. It’s easy to get there: drive north on Highway 188 to Roosevelt Lake. At mile marker 242.8, you’ll see the sign. You’ve reached the Roosevelt Lake Visitor’s Center.
The building, built into the landscape, is barely visible from the highway. When you enter, you’re greeted by a beautiful view of Roosevelt Lake and an easygoing introduction to the wildlife and history that surrounds it.
Every Tuesday through Saturday, from 7:45 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon, LuAnn Peek will be there to welcome you. Employed by the USDA Forest Service as a Customer Service Rep, LuAnn answers questions and helps travelers explore the region. She does it with a love and knowledge of the Roosevelt Lake area that comes from a lifetime of living there.
LuAnn grew up in a large family of fishermen, hunters and campers. “When we had our last Easter Picnic here, we were five generations,” she remembers. “What a blast it was.”
She moved away only once, when she and her husband, Tom, went to work at the BHP Copper mine in Ruth, Nevada. In five years, LuAnn learned to drive 19 vehicles, including forklifts and haul trucks that were so big they were, in her words, “like driving a two-story house!”
LuAnn and Tom returned to the Roosevelt Lake area, and in 2002 they became campground hosts. For twelve years, they worked together at the Frazier Horse campgrounds and nearby Cottonwood Cove picnic area. When the Visitor’s Center needed volunteers, LuAnn showed up to help. She worked as a volunteer for eight years, until, a year ago, she was offered a full-time position at the Visitor’s Center.
Today, as LuAnn and I are talking, a couple comes into the center, ready to hike. LuAnn offers them a trail map. As she explains the options, she raves about the views that await them. A little later, a man arrives, asking about camping. LuAnn shows him a map of nearby campsites and points out the “dirt road” access to other lakes and more sites. He purchases a Tonto Pass for $8, a one-day pass for all camping, boating and fishing in the region.
“It’s not always like this,” LuAnn says. “One day I got a call from people whose friends were out hiking, looking for water. There wasn’t any water out there, not this time of year. I had to tell them to tell their friends to return. Then I called the emergency services to alert them.”
As more people flow into the Visitor’s Center, LuAnn counts each one with a click. “When it’s hot, May until August, we may get only 20 or 30 people in a day,” she says. “As the weather cools off our numbers increase. On a busy weekend or holiday, we can get 300.”
Visitors come from around the world, many from Europe and Asia. “They come from referral, through word-of-mouth,” LuAnn explains. “Someone they know has been here, and they tell them, if you’re going to Arizona, go to Roosevelt Lake.” She is surprised by how few locals come to the center. “Many people have lived here for years, and don’t know we’re out here.”
Following Tom’s death in late 2016, LuAnn packed up the family home in Claypool and moved into her fifth wheel, to be closer to the lake. “It’s a healing place,” she says knowingly. These days LuAnn takes walks and swims in the lake, with her yorkie terrier floating by her side in an inflatable donut.
Back at the Visitor’s Center, LuAnn welcomes a young family. The kids play with the touchable displays. Next, they check out the historic exhibits that introduce the Salado – people who lived here long ago – and the Apaches, native people who helped build the dam and live here still. There are glimpses of life and actual remnants of the 1904 boomtown that surrounded the dam construction. Visitors who want to learn more can take a seat in the small theatre and watch a movie about the making of Roosevelt Dam.
LuAnn was an eyewitness to the expansion of the dam, or as she says, “remaking the lake,” which was completed in 1996. “The lake filled up 3½ feet per day. We could watch it,” she recalls. LuAnn and other locals were taken by surprise. “We didn’t think it would happen. We goofed about where they’d put the ramps. One guy had his RV stuck in the lake because nobody thought it would go that high.”
To help me visualize the scale of the change, LuAnn pulls two postcards from a rack and points out the same tree in each. It’s an effective demo and a good sales technique. I tell her I want to buy the postcards but hadn’t brought money. Without hesitation, LuAnn opens up a tiny tin box and puts 50 cents on the counter.
“I’m grateful to be here,” she says, gesturing broadly toward the lake. “So I’m happy to share it with others.”
The Roosevelt Lake Visitor’s Center is open daily from 7:45 to 4:30 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Free admission.
From Mesa: Take State Hwy. 87 (Beeline Highway) north for about 60 miles to the junction of State Hwy. 188. Turn right and follow State Hwy. 188 for 26 miles to the lake. The Visitor’s Center is located at mile-marker 242.8.
From Globe area: Take State Hwy. 188 northwest 27 miles to the lake and look for the Visitor’s Center at mile-marker 242.8.