Authentic Old West: Bisbee, Arizona

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Bisbee is nestled in the Mule Mountains of Arizona.
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Bisbee is nestled in the Mule Mountains of Arizona.

What: Bisbee, Arizona. The authentic Old West with real saloons, vibrant colors and great roads!
How to Get There: Take I-10 from either Tucson or El Paso, point your front wheel south on SR 80, and enjoy the next 50 miles as you climb into the Mule Mountains!
Best Kept Secret: Café Roka. Try the appetizer sampler and choose from their outstanding native Arizona wine list.
Avoid: Getting a hotel room right above the saloon!

Cochise County. The Mule Mountains. Great roads. Mining. Saloons. Hotel rooms that lock with real keys. Friendly people. It doesn’t get much better than Bisbee!

Hidden in Arizona’s majestic Mule Mountain range 90 miles southeast of Tucson and just a hop away from the Mexican border, Bisbee is as much a jewel as the gems that came out of her mines. Bisbee combines the Old West, the American Southwest, a 1960s counterculture feel, fine dining, superior scenery, great riding and more. With only 6,000 residents and covering just 5 square miles on steeply-sloped hills, the town almost looks European, but it’s Wild West all the way.

Founded in 1880, the town grew up around the Copper Queen Mine. Mining drove the economy until the 1970s, with more than 8 billion pounds of copper and 3 million ounces of gold taken out of the Mule Mountains, along with a bunch of zinc, silver, turquoise and many other exotic minerals.

Bisbee is a town that will not die. She burnt to the ground in 1908 and rebuilt quickly. A second brush with death came when the copper played out: Bisbee seemed destined for hard times, but that wasn’t meant to be. The town’s rustic hillside attracted a thriving artist colony and the hippies took over. A ride through the town’s tight streets (laid out when horses and walking were the only ways to get around) reveals Bisbee’s relaxed lifestyle. Awesome art, vibrant colors, classic architecture and pristine VW buses abound. You’ll spot at least a few motorcycles in front of every hotel in this motorcycle friendly town.

The riding in and around Bisbee is impressive. The fun begins once you exit I-10 and head for the hills along SR 80. State Route 80 includes long straights through the desert and tantalizing twisties as you climb into the Mule Mountains. Bisbee is nestled in the hills on your left, but don’t stop yet. Pass Bisbee’s entrance and continue along SR 80’s colorful cut through the Mule Mountains and you’ll find the best photo op in town; the enormous Lavender Pit on your right. It’s a monstrous hole (850 feet deep, 4,000 feet wide and more than a mile long) with an artist’s palette of colors hinting at the ore it once held. It’s best to return to this spot just after sunup to get the best photos.

Judge DeWitt Bisbee was one of the principal investors in the Copper Queen Mine, an operation that dug deep for the Mule Mountains’ treasures. The Copper Queen Mine moniker is obvious; this area was one of the largest copper producing regions in the world. Open pit mining started in 1917 to meet wartime demands for copper. Work on the famous Lavender Pit commenced in 1954. The Lavender Pit’s palette has little to do with its name, though. Even with more than 300 minerals giving the Lavender Pit its many colors (including some that add a lavender hue), this open pit mine is named after Harrison Lavender, a former general manager of the mining company, Phelps Dodge.

Bisbee contains no big name motor lodges; this is an artsy collection of bed and breakfast joints and vintage hotels, complete with saloons and a tangible Old West feel. We stayed at the Bisbee Grand Hotel on Main Street and enjoyed a fine breakfast at the adjoining Marysol’s Grand Kitchen. Waking up to Marysol’s strong black coffee and chilaquiles marked the start of a great day (she makes her own tortilla chips right there). Try the Café Roka’s artichoke lasagna for dinner (they are only five doors down from the Bisbee Grand) and all will be well with the world. — Joe Berk

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