Precious metals and minerals once lured adventurers to Arizona, and many of the state’s most notorious towns rose and fell with the quest for copper, gold and silver.
Although less shrouded with Wild West legends, mining is still important to Arizona today. Several mine tours and associated attractions offer a glimpse of the state’s past and current earth-moving activities.
Bisbee’s Illustrious Mining Past
In the nearly 100 years that the Bisbee mines were in operation – the last one closed in 1975 – they produced some 8 billion pounds of copper.
The Phelps Dodge Corporation’s Queen Mine was one of the world’s richest sources of the metal. Don a hard hat, yellow slicker and miner’s headlamp for a ride 1,500 feet into the copper mine’s shaft on the Queen Mine Tour, led by former miners.
Nearby, the small Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum is the first museum in the Southwest to be affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Come here for an overview of the town’s early years and to ogle the dazzling gem and mineral exhibit.
You can’t miss the huge Lavender Pit Mine if you drive into Bisbee from the west. Stop at the overlook at the intersection of highways 80 and 92 to learn the history of the multicolored abyss, which produced around 600,000 tons of copper and lots of prized Bisbee Blue turquoise.
See Mining in Action in Sahuarita
The Asarco Mineral Discovery Center’s tour of the copper-producing Mission Mine, operated by the American Smelting and Refining Company just south of Tucson, provides a rare opportunity to see one of Arizona’s formative industries in action.
The tiers of rocks piled around the gigantic (nearly 2 miles square) open pit from which ore is still extracted look like an ancient Mayan temple complex, and the size of the equipment is mindboggling.
You can also watch the ore being ground to a powder to separate out the copper and, at The Company Store, purchase copper products – jewelry and home decor items, not computer components.
Rough-and-Tumble Mining in Tombstone
The name Tombstone was a nose-thumbing by prospector Ed Schieffelin to those who warned him that, if he ventured into dangerous Apache territory, all he would find was his tombstone. Instead, in 1877, he struck one of the West’s richest silver veins.
Schiefflin was equally terse when it came to his second mine claim: He called its huge lode of silver ore “Good Enough.”
The Good Enough Mine Underground Tour, created by a former Tombstone mayor and his geologist wife, takes you nearly 300 feet below the surface into this hand-dug mine to view the maze of passageways that miners once traversed with nothing but candles to light their way.
Lore and Legend in the Superstition Mountains
The Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix are known for their rugged beauty – and for a fabulously wealthy gold mine that may or may not have existed: The Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, named for German (“Deutsch”) immigrant Jacob Waltz, who never revealed its location.
Many attractions just east of Apache Junction on the Apache Trail are related to this legendary mine, as well as to the documented millions of tons of gold unearthed in this area.
Among the attractions is the Superstition Mountain Museum, where exhibits detailing the area’s history include a huge ore crusher and maps of the Lost Dutchman mine.
The Goldfield Ghost Town reconstructs the 1890s boomtown that once stood on the site. An underground guided mine tour provides an overview of gold mining equipment and procedures – and shakes to simulate dynamite blasts.
At Goldfield Ghost Town’s Prospector’s Place, a historian offers instruction in proper gold-panning techniques. Any small slivers of ore you find are yours to keep.
Lost Dutchman State Park now mostly attracts people more interested in hiking the Superstition Mountains than in finding gold there, but it’s fascinating to see the rough terrain that hopeful prospectors once traversed.