Hunt for treasure in southern Arizona’s quirky mining hamlet.
“You’ll love Bisbee – it’s really funky.” That’s what my friend and I kept hearing as we planned our weekend sojourn to the former mining boom town nestled in the mile-high Mule Mountains, a little more than 200 miles south of Phoenix. That, and: “Watch out for bikers.” A funky little biker haven? We threw on our jackets and set out to discover this jewel for the first time.
While Bisbee’s eccentric reputation is well-earned – where else can you find a hearse-run ghost tour, a playground that used to be a cemetery and a spa that was once a jailhouse? – its edges are not as rough as most think. Instead, its multicolored buildings of time-traveling architectural styles line winding, sloping streets that lend a cozy, European sophistication to the eccentric mishmash of hippie, family, retiree, biker and hipster types populating them. Cross a twee Swiss village with an artist commune, add a sprinkle of Mayberry, and you get Bisbee.
But don’t take our word for it – set aside a weekend to explore this peculiar little place on your own. Here’s a treasure map to get you started.
Bisbee’s claim to fame is copper mining, which spurred the town’s establishment in 1880 and kept its economy booming until the 1940s. Suit up in a bright yellow rubber slicker, blue hard hat and hand-held lamp and make like a miner for the Queen Mine Tour (478 Dart Rd., 520-432-2071, queenminetour.com), led by former Phelps-Dodge miners who supplement historical information with their personal tales of life in the mine.
For a true taste of Bisbee, plan a ride with Lavender Jeep Tours (leaves from the Copper Queen Hotel, 11 Howell Ave., 520-732-7325, lavenderjeeptours.com), owned and operated by Tom Mosier, a Bisbee native, town history expert and local legend. Mosier – who also owns Bisbee’s Copper Kings baseball team – and his jeep guides provide incomparable tours of Bisbee and the surrounding area. Six tours are offered, but you can combine them and negotiate for family and group rates. Make sure to include the Historic Old Bisbee Tour, which winds up and down the steep, twisting back roads and high trails of Bisbee that aren’t accessible (or drivable) for the average car. The bird’s-eye vantage point and panoramic views of the many layers, textures and colors of Bisbee are nonpareil, as are Mosier’s insider insights and personal recollections of life in his hometown.
Feeling a bit queasy after all those twists and turns? Stroll through the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum (5 Copper Queen Plaza, 520-432-7071, bisbeemuseum.org), the first museum in the southwest to be designated as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Affiliations Program.
Hidden treasure: Art lovers should make a point to peek inside St. Patrick Roman Catholic Parish (100 Quality Hill Rd., 520-432-5753, stpatsbisbee.com) to see the gorgeous stained-glass windows by Emil Frei, shipped from St. Louis, Mo., in 1917. Next door, the Cochise County Courthouse is an art deco masterpiece, with dramatic steps and gleaming engraved doors.
Jimmy's Hot Dog Company; Queen Mine Tour
Start your day with a rib-sticking breakfast fit for a miner at Bisbee Breakfast Club (75A Erie St., 520-432-5885, bisbeebreakfastclub.com), where mountainous, pillowy biscuits are drenched in sausage gravy, or Mornings Cafe (420 Arizona St., 520-366-1494, morningscafebisbee.com), where the only thing more vibrant than the punchy green and yellow walls are the servers dishing up crisp hash browns and great coffee. Both places are your best bet for simple, delicious classics and for rubbing elbows with locals.
For lunch, get a chili cheese dog, Chicago-style dog, brat or Italian beef with a bottle of Mexican Coke at Jimmy’s Hot Dog Company (938 W. Highway 92, 520-432-5911), a place charmingly decorated like an old-school Chicago hot-dog shack, complete with red checkered tablecloths and silver napkin dispensers. For a hipper vibe, head to Screaming Banshee Pizza (200 Tombstone Canyon Rd., 520-432-1300, screamingbansheepizza.net) for a Margherita Bliss or Screaming Banshee (fennel sausage, mozzarella, roasted onions, mushrooms and rosemary) pie on addictive, crisp-chewy crust.
A visit to Bisbee isn’t complete without dinner at Cafe Roka (35 Main St., 520-432-5153, caferoka.com). It’s an institution for a reason: Chef/owner Rod Kass crafts elegantly presented yet approachable four-course meals, with soup, salad, sorbet palate cleanser and entrée. The menu changes weekly, but you can’t go wrong. On our visit, a pistachio-crusted roast chicken with a brandy and cracked pepper cream sauce was divine. Don’t skip dessert – the crème brŭlée and flourless chocolate cake are perfection. Reservations are recommended, so call ahead to secure a table.
Hidden treasure: Old Bisbee Brewing Company (200 Review Alley, 520-432-2739, oldbisbeebrewingcompany.com) is carrying on the legacy of its Brewery Gulch location with its historic Copper City Ale. The recipe dates back to the town’s early mining days. Order in 16 or 20 oz. glasses ($4.50 and $5) or try a flight of the brewery’s seven beers for $7. Gratis popcorn is the perfect salty accompaniment.
Bisbee is a thrift and antique lover’s dream. Downtown/Old Bisbee brims with fun and funky boutiques, art galleries, secondhand shops and antique stores. Finders Keepers Antiques (81 Main St., 520-432-2900, fkeepers.com) is a literal treasure trove of antique jewelry, crystal, china and art, but you can also buy incense and glittery inspirational magnets. Miners & Merchants Antique Center (7 Main St., 520-432-4009) is one of the best thrift/antique shops we’ve ever seen, with three floors of labyrinthine rooms full of every kind of curio and collectible imaginable, from an enviable assembly of vintage cowboy boots to hand-embroidered Mexican dresses to cast-iron biscuit pans. If you visit one shop, make it this one. The Gift Basket (54 Main St., 520-432-5229) stocks an explosively colorful array of imports from Central and South America, from serapes and tooled-leather belts to earrings and toys. Sweet Midnight (7 Howell Ave., 520-432-3308, sweetmidnight.com), owned by Renee Gardner of the Old Bisbee Ghost Tour (see Bisbee Gems at bottom), sells adorably macabre accessories and tchotchkes, including Dia de los Muertos figurines and “ghosts in a bottle.” Ask Renee or her husband Jimmy to give you a tour of their in-store Bisbee Mini Museum of the Bizarre, their own collection of off-kilter artifacts, including Victorian funeral portraits and celebrity grave rubbings.
Hidden treasure: Bisbee Olive Oil (8 Brewery Ave., 520-432-4645, bisbeeoliveoil.com) is a treasure all by itself (don’t leave without a bottle of the white truffle garlic olive oil and garlic cilantro balsamic vinegar), but an even cooler story lurks beneath its floors. Owner Jeff Vlahovic says the store’s basement was used as a hangout, party spot, live-music venue and setting for illicit, counterculture antics for decades of Bisbee youth. Psychedelic graffiti covers the cement walls and ceiling, with the earliest tag – if it’s authentic – dating back to 1912. Vlahovic wants to preserve the basement’s history and says he won’t change anything about it. He has photos on his laptop at the register for a virtual tour, but if business is slow and you sweet-talk him, you might be able to score a subterranean tour.
Steps outside The Jail House Inn; Old Bisbee Brewing Company
A night in the clink was never this fun. The Jail House Inn (8 Naco Rd., 520-432-8065, jailhouseinnaz.com) was once the city/county jail and held up to 60 prisoners. Now, its five quaint rooms are decorated with local art and globally inspired design elements like Asian room dividers. The scent of lavender wafts upstairs from the onsite Dr. Feelgood’s Salon and Spa – a far cry from jail aromas, no doubt. Get a massage and a blow-out and head to Room 4 Bar in the Silver King Hotel (43 Brewery Ave., 520-432-3723, silverkinghotel-bisbee.com), which bills itself as “Arizona’s Smallest Bar.” It is teeny – two seats at the bar and two crowded at a corner table. You might have to explain how you want your drink made if it doesn’t come out of a bottle, but in exchange you’ll get great conversation and life lessons from the wise barkeep. Sure, there are more happening nightlife spots in Bisbee, but why go mainstream when you can enjoy this offbeat treasure?
Hidden treasure: For a 2006 ad campaign, designer Kate Spade shot on location in several spots throughout Bisbee, including Main Street in the Lowell section of Bisbee, the highway, the oft-closed Shady Dell RV Park & Campground and Atalanta’s Music and Books (38 Main St., 520-432-9976). Tour the sites and recreate the shots to create your own high-fashion souvenir.
An essential part of Bisbee’s quirk quotient is its fascination with the paranormal. Renee Gardner, owner of boutique Sweet Midnight, hosts the Old Bisbee Ghost Tour, Copper Queen Ghost Hunt, Hearse Tour and the Old Bisbee Haunted Pub Crawl. She’s the author of Southern Arizona’s Most Haunted and was featured on the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures. Her dramatic retellings of town hauntings captivate tour-takers rain or shine (rain in our case, enhancing our eerie experience). Here, three ghouls Gardner brings to life:
Jeremiah: Legend has it this miner was cheating at poker in the saloon of the Bisbee Grand Hotel when he was shot in the back of the head. Now, he haunts the bartenders after hours and is a shameless peeping tom who lurks in the ladies’ room.
The Lady in White: Beloved rather than feared, the Lady in White is said to have saved the lives of three boys by holding her hand out and stopping them from running into the path of a rock slide. She haunts the Bisbee Inn/Hotel LaMore.
Ghost Cat: Once a stray turned away by the proprietors of the Bisbee Inn/Hotel LaMore, this kitty was accidentally locked into a storage facility in a neighboring saloon, where he starved to death. At least in death, he was granted entry to the inn – he haunts room 23 (the renamed room 13) and is said to curl up and purr by hotel guests and scratch at the windows.