My dad was born in 1927 in a small mining town called Chrysotile, Arizona. It is now a ghost town perched in the rugged Salt River Valley between present day Globe and the Salt River. Because of this, I have always been fascinated with these old boom to bust towns because they have an interesting history and seem to be stuck in time. It is that sense of nostalgia that you will find on my day trip from Tempe to the copper mining towns of Superior, Miami and Globe, Arizona. Although they have seen better days, and perhaps it is wishful thinking, I hope that these towns will boom once more. At one point, Arizona produced more copper than just about anywhere in the world. In their heyday, thousands of miners were employed, families flourished, a high school football game was the place to be on a Friday night, stores were stocked and the downtown areas were the focus of social gatherings. My parents talked about how they would travel ‘all the way to Miami’ from Gilbert on old Route 60 in the 1940’s and 1950’s to go to the dances. They were hubs of social activity. This Google driving map will show you our route and directions to our destinations throughout the day.
All that changed in the late 70’s and 80’s when copper prices dwindled, costs went up and miners lost their jobs. The proverbial ‘bust’ came to fruition. Families moved out, stores shuttered and the old timers stuck around. Now there is renewed interest in these towns. Not just for mining, but for the possibility of becoming something different.
To start the day, my other half, Marty, and I had breakfast in Tempe at a favorite local hangout called Back East Bagels. It is at the NW corner of McClintock and Southern Avenue in Tempe. I have met many New Yorkers who claim that the bagels here are the best in Arizona and the closest thing to a New York bagel that you will find. I believe them. There is a large variety from onion, to egg to plain and every other flavor you desire. We had the breakfast bagel with egg and cheese. A very filling way start to the day.
Next, we headed from Tempe east on the US 60 also known as the Superstition Freeway. As you leave the city’s edge, the freeway becomes a split highway and the scenery is spectacular. The Superstition Mountains appear and the desert plant life line both sides of the highway. A vast, protected wilderness known as the Tonto National Forest reveals itself. The drive continues up the mountains and within 30 minutes you arrive at our first stop Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park was founded in the 1920 by Col. William Boyce Thompson who believed in the need to preserve plant resources. Today, the Arboretum is the largest and oldest botanical garden in Arizona. At 323 acres, you can spend the day walking through the various paths where you will find desert plants from around the globe, beautiful mountain scenery, wildlife, a bridge across a creek, specialty gardens and massive trees. My favorite areas include the glass enclosure, Hummingbird area, barrel cactus collection, the Eucalyptus trees from Australia and the serene stand of palm trees that provide a nice place to relax. The Arboretum has a full schedule of events and offer plant sales in the fall and spring.
Next, we head another 5 minutes east on US 60 to our first mining town, Superior. Sitting at the foot of the dramatic Pinal Mountains, Superior was once a large producer of copper. While the copper mining has come to a virtual stand-still, the town itself has some interesting spots. We enjoy walking through the old buildings that date back to the early 1900’s. Original tin ceilings can be found in the several boutique and antique shops that have started up and the town is awaiting the reopening of the original Magma Hotel. Driving through the small downtown, old company housing and interesting neighborhoods, you can get a sense of what this town was like when it was buzzing with life. Popular places to eat include De Marco’s Italian Restaurant and Los Hermanos Restaurant.
Continuing east on US 60, you climb through the Pinal Mountains, through a mountain tunnel and some of the most beautiful scenery in Arizona. In 1986, this roadway was designated as the Gila-Pinal Scenic Road and it should not be missed. About 20 minutes out of Superior, we reach the town of Miami. Sadly, you will see the scars in the landscape left behind by decades of mining. Founded in 1909, the town was developed by the Miami Land and Improvement Company to house the miners and their families. The quaint downtown area is a mix of buildings that have be restored and others that that are quietly waiting to be re-imagined. While it is not a ghost town, there are certain buildings that give you that feel. Some great antique shop owners have seen the potential and have set up shop along the main street. And one of my favorite restaurants sits right in the center of town. Guayo’s El Rey Café is Mexican food like Nana (grandma) made. We stopped in for red chili burritos, enchiladas, rice, beans and homemade salsa. It is delicious and should not be skipped when visiting Miami. Before leaving Miami, you may want to check out Bullion Plaza Museum to learn a bit more on the culture and mining heydays of Miami.
Just seven miles east along US 60 is the much larger town of Globe, the seat of Gila County. Laid out in 1876 to house the miners seeking a fortune in silver, and later copper, the town features some amazing old buildings that are remnants of a wealthier past. The Holy Angels Church, built in 1916, is on the National Register of Historic Places and features impressive stained glass windows and doors made of, what else, copper. The neoclassical Valley National Bank was built in 1909 and features an elaborate frieze, semicircular windows and Corinthian style pilasters. Other historic spots include the Italian Renaissance style Gila County Courthouse (1906), Butler Building (1901), Elks Building (1910) and the Arizona Eastern Railroad Depot (1916). These and other historic buildings are now home to offices, coffee shops, boutiques and antique stores. It is worth a stroll through the downtown to see a city built on the riches of the copper mine industry.
Heading back to Tempe, the drive is spectacular. The sunset against the dramatic mountains make the 1 hour drive even more special.