A classic boom-and-bust mining town, Bisbee (pop. 5,221) is one of the most satisfying offbeat destinations in Arizona, combining scenic beauty, palpable history, and a good range of places to eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. Climbing up winding streets lined by 100-year-old structures—Victorian cottages, board shacks, and stately brick churches—Bisbee has attracted a diverse population of desert rats, bikers, working artists, and New Age apostles, all of whom mix amiably in the town’s cafés and bars. One of the more infamous events in Bisbee’s busy history occurred in July 1917, when Industrial Workers of the World representatives presented demands for better conditions. Tensions grew, and a few weeks later 1,186 men—not all of them miners on strike for better pay and conditions—were forcibly deported and literally railroaded out of town and dumped in the desert outside Hermanas, New Mexico.
The heart of Bisbee lies north of old US-80 along Main Street, stretching west from the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum (daily 10am-4pm, $8), which displays dioramas, old photos, and sundry artifacts inside the old Phelps Dodge company headquarters.
For visitors, the main event in Bisbee is the Queen Mine (866/432-2071 or 520/432-2071, tours daily, $13). Put on a hard hat and a miner’s lamp and take a train ride down into the mine shafts and tunnels, which were in operation until 1975. Call for times for the hour-long tours, leaving from the Queen Mine building, just south of downtown along old US-80. Temperature down in the mine is a cool 47°F, so dress appropriately.
One of Arizona’s most unforgettable sights, the massive Lavender Open Pit Mine forms a gigantic polychrome crater along Hwy-80, just south of the Queen Mine. Named not for its color—which is more rusty red than purple—but for a mine superintendent, Harrison Lavender, its ore deposits provided the bulk of Bisbee’s eight billion pounds of copper before being shut down in 1974.
About two miles west of Bisbee at the 6,030-foot Mule Pass summit of old US-80, a much-abused stone obelisk commemorates the convict-laborers who first constructed the road in 1913. The monument stands in a somewhat scruffy parking area directly above the modern tunnel, and from it you get a great panoramic view of the surrounding Mule Mountains.
Lined by characterful old brick buildings, Bisbee’s winding Main Street has many cafés, antiques shops, art galleries, and restaurants. At the center of town, the Copper Queen Hotel (520/432-2216, $165 and up), looming over downtown along Howell Street, has been the best place to stay since it opened in 1902. Most of the rooms have been upgraded to include modern conveniences without losing their old-fashioned charm.
Bisbee also offers what has to be the most unusual lodging option in Arizona: the Shady Dell RV Park (1 Old Douglas Rd., 520/432-3567, $85-145), located just under two miles east of downtown, behind the gas station at the Hwy-80/Hwy-92 traffic circle. The Shady Dell welcomes you to stay the night—or longer—in one of eight well-restored 1940s and 1950s Airstream, Royal Mansion, and Spartanette trailers, or a pleasure boat, all filled with period furnishings. Rates are reasonable and include use of a VCR stocked with classic B-movies. Across old Hwy-80 from the Shady Dell, a few blocks of ramshackle buildings are coming back to life, hosting the healthy Bisbee Food Coop (72 Erie St., 520/432-4011) and the even tastier Bisbee Breakfast Club (75A Erie St., 520/432-5885), known for its corned beef hash-and-eggs and creamy cheesecake.
Back in Bisbee proper, the Copper Queen Hotel has a good restaurant and popular bar, while the nicest place in town is the gourmet Café Roka (35 Main St., 520/432-5153). Brewery Gulch, which runs north from Main Street at the east side of downtown Bisbee, once held over 50 different saloons and gambling parlors. It’s considerably quieter now but still tolerates crazy drunken fun at haunts like The Stock Exchange Saloon (15 Brewery Ave., 520/432-1333), inside the old Bisbee Stock Exchange, and the ancient St. Elmo Bar (36 Brewery Ave., 520/432-5578), which has live music most weekend nights.