While driving to Bisbee, we found ourselves out in the middle of nowhere again. Well, a middle of nowhere that afforded us a view of the most spectacular rainbow cloud and a cute javelina that was nosing around on the side of the road – definitely our kind of place! We were also surrounded by mountains, some just distant silhouettes as the sun began to sink behind them. Then, as the chill of dusk settled over us, we found ourselves in Bisbee, queen of the copper camps.
As if the surrounding mineral rich, copper-colored hills weren’t enough, indications that Bisbee was an old mining town were all around us. The skeletal remains of a concentrator that once processed millions of tons of ore kept a lonely vigil along the side of the road. A headframe (a mine elevator, of sorts) across the road stood watch over a once bustling mine. We couldn’t wait to dig into Bisbee, but sightseeing would have to wait until the next day.
Where is Bisbee?
Bisbee is 12 miles north of the border with Mexico, off of Highway 80 in the southeastern corner of Arizona. The closest large city is Tucson which is 97 miles northwest.
Click here for an interesting short history of Bisbee.
The Inn at Castle Rock
Our hotel, The Inn at Castle Rock, was our first stop when we arrived in Bisbee. We knew very little about the hotel but booked it because they had one room available for a reasonable price and their ratings were decent.
Upon check in, the desk clerk gave us a quick tour and then showed us to our room called “Crying Shame”. While the inn wasn’t our usual type of accommodation, it had some great qualities such as a wonderful owner and staff, a free help-yourself-to-whatever’s-there breakfast, and it was clean. Built in 1877, it turns out that the inn has quite a history. They even claim to have a ghost or two lurking around but, disappointingly, we didn’t encounter any. Read a short history and see a few old photos of The Inn at Castle Rock here.
At night, the inn shines the Bat Signal on Castle Rock which is across the street. Did we mention that the inn is kind of funky? We’ve stayed in historic hotels before, but this one has to be the most offbeat. For anyone looking for a totally out of the ordinary place to stay, we would recommend it.
With our luggage dropped off in the room, we were ready to eat, so it was off to downtown Bisbee to seek sustenance.
A Quiet Evening in Bisbee
We arrived at the restaurant that had been recommended by the inn, and that’s where it was happening, at least on that evening. The restaurant, Bisbee’s Table, which is located in the old mercantile building and shares its space with a bookstore and a bodega, must be a popular place for travelers and locals alike.
We had a short wait before the hostess led us to our table. Once we were served our tasty food, we could see why the place was so busy. Then it was back to the inn for some sleep so we could be up and at ’em early for a morning of sightseeing.
After a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of oatmeal, bagels, and bananas, we were ready to do some exploring. Our first stop was the Lavender Pit.
The Big Hole
Bisbee’s “big hole” consists of three open pit mines that were once owned and operated by the Phelps Dodge Corporation. They are the Lavender Mine, the Sacramento Hill Mine, and the Holbrook Mine. Another Phelps Dodge operation was the Queen Mine which sits adjacent to the Lavender Pit and at one time was the highest producing copper mine in Arizona. The historic Queen Mine, Bisbee’s main tourist attraction, can be toured today by those who don’t mind venturing underground into a mine shaft. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to take the tour, so maybe another trip to Bisbee will end up on our agenda at some point.
The city of Bisbee has created a nice scenic overlook area at the Lavender Pit. We spent about 45 minutes there, taking pictures and viewing the “big hole”. Mining began at the Lavender Pit in 1950 and continued until the mine was closed in 1974. The pit is 4,000 feet wide, 5,000 feet long, 850 feet deep and covers 300 acres. It produced over 600,000 tons of copper during its 24 years in operation.
Other byproducts of the Lavender Pit included Bisbee Blue turquoise, azurite, and malachite. We would love to get our hands on some of these…um, gems.
And speaking of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, that was our next stop.
Bisbee’s Smithsonian Affiliate Museum
Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum sits right in the middle of town and is a “shouldn’t miss” for any visitor. Covering the history of Bisbee and its mining heritage, the museum appropriately occupies the building that once housed the Phelps Dodge Corporation’s general offices. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1983. While we photographed a lot of the museum’s displays, it was the historic photos that grabbed our attention the most.
The scenes above and below reflect a very different Bisbee than what we see today. Of course, mining was the top priority in Bisbee, so civic responsibilities and city beautification wasn’t really on anybody’s mind until the early 1900s.
Bisbee on the rise
While mine workers came to Bisbee from all over the world beginning in the early 1880s, men with families began arriving in the early 1900s. The city was incorporated in 1902, and it was then that the town began taking on a modern city feel. Public sanitation, clean water, and fire protection were highly important to the newly incorporated city, so work to implement those necessary services began. During that time, suburbs also began springing up. One suburb, Warren, which is now part of Bisbee, has one of the oldest baseball parks in the US. Another suburb was Lowell. In 1908, Bisbee even began operation of its first cable cars that ran to Warren and back. As a city on the rise, the population had grown to 25,000 by 1910. In 1917, the first open pit mine was established in an effort to supply the high demands for copper during WWI. However, by 1974, the Phelps Dodge Corporation had ceased production of the pit mines. Underground operations were closed in 1975 causing many of Bisbee’s residents to leave to find work elsewhere. Today Bisbee is the home of about 4,000 residents.
Lowell, Arizona, a suburb of Bisbee, was a small mining town in its own right before the Phelps Dodge Corporation began the Lavender Pit mining operation. Though once excavations of the huge open pit mine began, Lowell was, quite frankly, in the way. Phelps Dodge gave Lowell’s residents the option of selling their homes to the company for market value or having them moved to other locations. Today, all that remains of Lowell is Erie Street, which sits adjacent to the Lavender Pit, and is a quarter mile long time capsule.
We spent an hour walking both sides of the street in Lowell. It’s a definite not-to-miss attraction when visiting Bisbee.
Supporting the Arts in Bisbee
Okay, this might be a thing everywhere else, but it was the first time we had ever seen one. It is called a C.I.G. Art Miniatures Museum, and basically it’s a refurbished cigarette machine that now dispenses miniature artworks. Examples of the type of art you might get are displayed, though what you receive is a total surprise. Each one costs $20.00 USD and fits in a cigarette box type of container. Most of the proceeds of the sales go to the artists with a portion going to the Bisbee Arts Commission.
If everyone else has already seen these vending machines, we may just be behind the times. Or maybe we just need to get out more. (Yes, please!) Anyway, we thought it made a cute souvenir and it was a small contribution to support a good cause.
We hope you enjoyed this visit to Bisbee. Thanks so much for joining us!
Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out these great destinations:
- Butte, Montana
- Things to Do in Sedona, Arizona
- Annapolis, Maryland and The United States Naval Academy
Safe travels, y’all!
Mike and Kellye
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.