Off The Track Destinations - Bisbee, Arizona
Take route 80 south from Tombstone, drive past a few mountains, and you will suddenly find yourself literally above Bisbee, Arizona.
On our last trip to the state we were asked by more than one person, independently, 'Have you been to Bisbee, yet?' 'Are you going to Bisbee?'
The name is unfamiliar to those who live outside the Grand Canyon State, but any local will tell you, 'You have to go to Bisbee'.
What is so special about this obscure little town?
Why does Bisbee exist?
The answer is the same reason Tombstone exists: Mining.
In the early 1900s, Bisbee was a boom town with a population of over 20,000, but it was not your normal mining town. Despite relying on the copper mine and offering all possible vices in the notorious 'Brewery Gulch', the town was also a center of culture. Bisbee was, in fact, home to Arizona's first public library and (a precedent only some will appreciate) Arizona's first golf course.
The town remained a prosperous mining town until the mid 1970s, when the mines became unprofitable and the people drifted away.
What makes Bisbee different?
In the mid 1970s the mines began to close down. The mine workers left and Bisbee began to turn into a ghost town. The commercial district, rebuilt shortly after a fire in 1908, was abandoned and people moved out in droves.
That was when the 'alternative' people found Bisbee. As housing and store front prices plummeted, artists and artisans saw an opportunity. They were drawn not just by the cheap studio space but by the remote and gorgeous location in the Mule Mountains.
In a conservative state most famous recently for cracking down on immigrants, Bisbee became a haven for everyone who did not fit in. Not just artists, but aging hippies, neo-pagans of all stripes and the gay community have all found a place here. All of this makes Bisbee stand out as different. It's a great place to buy art or amazing specialty olive oil. (With tasting first). Several antique stores also line the attractive main street. (Although be warned. Like most of non-urban Arizona, they roll the sidewalks up at 5pm, with only restaurants staying open).
What about those stairs?
Bisbee is built literally in a small canyon. There is almost no flat land in the town and a map of it looks more like a map of Rock Creek Park in DC than anything else.
Because of this, Bisbee is known for its stairs. Many residents park on the street and climb a hundred or two hundred stairs to their front doors. The annual 'Bisbee 1000 Great Stair Climb' is a popular charity event that requires that participants climb nine sets of stairs and walk or run through twisting streets...all made harder by the fact that Bisbee is at an average altitutde of 5538 feet. That's a mile, if you want to be less technical about it...not enough to give people altitude sickness but enough for sea level types to notice.
Staying and Dining in Bisbee
Bisbee is about three hours south of Tucson and one hour south of Tombstone. While it is not an ideal base of operations, it is certainly not that far (by Arizona standards, anyway).
Bisbee has a number of bed and breakfasts, including the Bisbee Grand Hotel. There are also several hotels and motels and a couple of places where you can park your RV for the night.
There are some very nice restaurants. I particularly recommend Santiago's for chimichangas the size of your head. Be warned that (as in a lot of Arizona) many places are closed on Sundays.
The town is small enough that you should only need your car when you plan to leave.
Mining and History
Mine tours of the Copper Queen copper mine are available...the mine is the other side of Route 80, but easily accessible through an underpass.
The town's mining history is celebrated in the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum. Several pieces of old mining equipment including a cage and railroad cars are on permanent display in the Copper Queen Plaza, pretty much in the center of town. Also check out the statue of a copper miner in front of one of the oldest public libraries in Arizona.
For other history, you can take in a baseball game at what some people think may be the oldest ballpark still in use in the United States (I don't buy it, but that's what they claim). The local team is the Bisbee Ironmen. And yes, you can play a round on the oldest golf course in Arizona, if you so choose.
Bisbee also offers several ghost tours, one of them a pub crawl.
Bisbee is at a slight altitude. If you are from sea level, limit your alcohol. Alcohol has about twice the normal effect at altitude.
As mentioned earlier, the town tends to roll up the sidewalks at five. Most people in Arizona seem to eat dinner very early. If you're used to eating later, you might find a 'hole' of time that is hard to fill. This is also the case in Tombstone.
Take normal desert precautions - always carry water when walking around the town. The various galleries do not object to water bottles (although they will to soda, alcohol or anything else 'sticky'). Always wear sunscreen. I personally know of somebody who insisted black people don't need sunscreen, went to Arizona, and realized she was wrong.
Also take your credit card. Or don't. The artwork is fantastic and there just might be a piece that wants to come home with you.
As a final note, there are U.S. immigration checkpoints on the road north of Tombstone and also on the next road over. Bisbee is very close to the Mexican border. Although I hate to have to say this, if you are of Hispanic descent and have a U.S. passport, I would recommend taking it to avoid delays at the checkpoints. Also, do not carry marijuana (or worse), as the checkpoints are also staffed by drug sniffing dogs. Delays at the checkpoints are, however, unusual and I and my husband were simply waved right through.