Arizona ghost-town road trip: 5 former boomtowns worth the drive. Here's how to see them
You know you’re a real Arizonan if you have a favorite ghost town.
Back in the day, Arizona represented the raggedy edge of the frontier. Despite the harshness of the terrain, communities sprang up whenever ore was discovered. As long as gold, silver or copper flowed from the ground it seemed like boom times would never end.
Yet once the mines closed, towns struggled. Not all survived. Their sun-bleached bones dot the landscape. Discovering them is a journey back in time.
Ghost towns are not typical tourist destinations and therein lies much of their appeal. For the traveler who likes scenic beauty mingled with mystery and a soothing solitude, here are a handful of Arizona ghost towns worth a visit. Please tread respectfully and leave everything just as you found it for the next visitor.
Perched on the banks of the San Pedro River, Fairbank thrived as a transportation hub. It was the closest railroad stop to Tombstone and ran a stage line to the town with the thriving silver mines. Like most Old West towns, Fairbank also saw its share of violence.
The most famous incident occurred in 1900 when the Burt Alvord Gang tried a daring train robbery at the depot. But they were foiled by legendary lawman Jeff Milton. Despite catching a bullet that shattered his arm, Milton wounded one bandit and killed “Three Fingered Jack” Dunlop with a shotgun blast. Dunlop was one of the last outlaws buried in Tombstone’s Boothill Graveyard.
Fairbank held on until the 1970s when the last resident pulled up stakes. Today a half dozen structures including a large mercantile building, a schoolhouse and a few homes huddle in the mesquite groves above the river. The site is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and is part of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
The schoolhouse serves as a visitor center and museum but has been closed during the pandemic. Hiking trails lead through the woodlands along the river and past a spooky cemetery, always a plus for a ghost town. The site is free and open for self-guided tours.
Details: Fairbank is 10 miles west of Tombstone on State Route 82. 520-258-7200, www.blm.gov.visit/fairbank-historic-townsite.
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On the south side of the Dragoon Mountains, the Chiricahua Apache people mined turquoise for jewelry and trade. Anglo prospectors continued the practice in later years. When John Gleeson discovered a large copper deposit in 1900, the small community boomed. In its heyday, Gleeson had 1,500 residents.
Around 1912, 15-year-old Joe Bono immigrated from Italy with his brother, Barney. They worked in Tombstone but soon moved to the more bustling Gleeson and opened a general store. Although time and the elements have gnawed the building, the name Joe Bono is still visible on the facade. That’s significant since the town of Gleeson was purchased in 2014 by another Joe Bono, the son of the store’s owner.
Bono remembers growing up in the town and wanted to preserve its history and the stories that are especially meaningful for him. His uncle Barney is buried in the Gleeson Cemetery.
In addition to the store, a few cabins still stand, and the foundations of the hospital and school. The centerpiece structure is the restored 1910 jail that serves as a museum. Bono opens the jail from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month. Admission is free and donations are welcome. Visitors are welcome to stop by Gleeson at any time.
Details: Gleeson is 15 miles east of Tombstone on Gleeson Road. The road is mostly unpaved but can be managed in passenger cars during good weather. 520-609-3549, http://www.gleesonarizona.com.
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Imagine spending a night in a lonely ghost town far from civilization. Kentucky Camp sits amid the grasslands that cloak the eastern flanks of the Santa Rita Mountains northwest of Sonoita.
It served as the headquarters for the Santa Rita Water and Mining Co. from 1902 to 1906. The company folded soon after the founder, James Stetson, mysteriously plunged to his death from a Tucson hotel window.
Now maintained by the Forest Service, the site includes five partially restored adobes. The headquarters building can be reserved for day use. A small rustic cabin can be rented through the “Rooms with a View” program. The cabin sleeps up to five people and has electricity but no water. The kitchen contains basic amenities like a refrigerator, microwave, hot plate and utensils. A vault toilet, stall for solar showers and outdoor sink are on site.
Since the Arizona Trail is routed through Kentucky Camp, you’ll enjoy daytime hiking and birding. Expect quiet evenings and dark night skies laden with stars. The cabin rents for $75 per night and reservations can be made at https://www.recreation.gov.
Details: Kentucky Camp is off Gardner Canyon Road, which is 21 miles south of Interstate 10 on State Route 83. Go west on Gardner Canyon Road, drive 0.75 miles to Forest Road 163 and take FR 163 for 5 miles to the Kentucky Camp Gate. Park in the designated area and walk a quarter-mile to the town. 520-281-2296, https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/coronado.
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When prospector Henry Wickenburg spotted a quartz ledge in the desert, he discovered the richest vein of gold ore in Arizona.
Work began on the Vulture Mine in 1863. It would go on to produce 340,000 ounces of gold (and about 260,000 ounces of silver) during its operation. Ranchers and miners soon settled along the fertile plain of the Hassayampa River and the town of Wickenburg was born.
Located 12 miles outside of Wickenburg, the ghost town of Vulture City is being restored and preserved. More than a dozen buildings around the original mine are still standing, including Henry Wickenburg’s old cabin. That ironwood tree shading the cabin earned notoriety as the Hanging Tree. It’s said that 18 men danced from the end of a rope slung over its branches for a variety of crimes.
Walk the graveled half-mile path to see the collection of weathered historic buildings surrounded by old mining equipment such as the stamp mill and headframe. Guided tours are offered at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Details: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; closed March 21-27. 36610 355th Ave., Wickenburg. $15. 877-425-9229, https://www.vultureminetours.com.
In the southernmost part of the state, Ruby is one of Arizona’s best-preserved ghost towns.
Mining started around 1877 and proceeded in fits and starts for decades. Processing was hampered by lack of water. The mine produced gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper. Originally known as Montana Camp because the mining was done at the base of Montana Peak, the town became Ruby in 1912 when the first postmaster named it after his wife.
A history of violence hangs over the town. Between 1920 and 1922, three double homicides took place here and in the vicinity. They were known as the Ruby Murders and led to the largest manhunt in Arizona.
Today Ruby is open to the public for tours, fishing and camping. More than a dozen buildings in various states of disrepair remain. Two small lakes linger from the old mining days, although water levels are low during the current drought.
Ruby is about 12 miles south of Arivaca and the last few miles are on a rough dirt road. Be sure to pack water and food. Permits obtained in advance are required. Visit the website for directions and permit options.
Details: Open Thursdays-Sundays. Admission is $15; fishing and camping permits cost $20 each. 520-744-4471, http://rubyaz.com.
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