A Day in Old Bisbee


May 9, 2016

A Day In Baja ArizonaIssue 18: May/June 2016

An hour and a half southeast of Tucson, where Highway 80 slips through the Mule Pass Tunnel, Bisbee is a charming and colorful enclave of 5,000 people, resting, as one local musician sings, “in the crotch of the Mule Mountains.” Founded in 1880 when copper was discovered near Castle Rock, and saved by resourceful hippies after the mines pulled out in the 1970s, today the Queen of the Copper Camps boasts more than 100 galleries, museums, restaurants, and shops. From a thriving art and music scene, to its dining and nightlife, its history and culture, its lively Main Street and infamous Bisbee 1000 stair climb event, and its proximity to one of the world’s premier nature-watching hotspots, Bisbee has something for everyone.

Start your day at the Bisbee Coffee Company (2 Copper Queen Plaza) for a cup of Miner’s Blend, roasted fresh right upstairs by Justin West and his Diedrich roaster. This is the blend that started it all, a bold mix that perfectly complements their cranberry-orange scones.


Cruising down Tombstone Canyon.

A few steps around the corner, you’ll find Carol Lokey at Bisbee Books and Music, which features musical instruments, vinyl records, and hundreds of books on subjects about the Southwest. Chat with Carol about the latest titles from local authors, like Richard Shelton’s Going Back to Bisbee or Melissa Sevigny’s Under Desert Skies.

Next, take a walk across the street to the Copper Queen Hotel and nearby Santiago’s (2 Howell Ave.). Take note: Both offer a fully stocked bar (margaritas!), local music, and lunch and dinner options, including the latter’s famous molcajete—steak and sautéed shrimp in an ancho-chipotle chile sauce with grilled red and green peppers and Oaxacan cheese, served in a 500-degree lava bowl. Outstanding. Just don’t set your beer near it.

Then head up historic Brewery Gulch. Opposite Bisbee Olive Oil, home to 60 of the world’s finest flavors of virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars, the Stock Exchange Saloon was the most popular libation hall in Bisbee until Prohibition, when a brokerage firm relocated there. A stock board—still in place today—replaced the bar, and a ticker tape brought the New York Stock Exchange to Arizona. Patricia Steward has recently remade the place with three distinctive dining and entertainment venues, including a saloon and grill. The Copper Plate wine bar and dining room feature world-class wines to go with their environmentally friendly steak, seafood, and pasta entrées.

At Old Bisbee Brewing Company you can sit next to the serving tanks in the tap room for a bratwurst washed down with their famous Holy Grail Indigenous IPA. Or cross the street to St. Elmo, which first opened in 1902 and is Arizona’s oldest continuously operated bar. (During Prohibition, it fronted as a soda shop and reportedly sold liquor via a convenient mine cart system beneath the floor behind the bar.) Here you can sample a draft of Electric Beer (formerly Dave’s Electric), Arizona’s first beer and a brand now living on through Bisbee’s Beast Brewing Company (1326 W. Highway 92, No. 8).

Continue walking up the Gulch to Youngblood Hill Avenue. The steep climb (everything is “up” in Bisbee—even the down is up) passes the Muheim Heritage House Museum (207 Youngblood Hill), an elegantly restored 19th century pioneer home with commanding views of the mountainside homes of Old Bisbee.

Or stay in the Gulch and check out the “cribs” area, Bisbee’s old red-light district. Concrete steps are all that remain, though some clever artist has created a beautifully ironic fence from metal bedsteads.

Backtrack to Stairway No. 2 of “The Great Stair Climb,” take the 100 steps up to Opera Drive, and follow this portion of the Bisbee 1000 course back to Main Street past flowering gardens, artful stone terraces, and the Italian-Renaissance-style Central School, now a haven for studio artists. Notice the brick and stone construction and hand-carved, painted designs (an eclectic mix reflecting styles from the Mannerism, Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Gothic Revival movements) that make Bisbee one of the most architecturally diverse towns in the country.

If you want an authentic mining experience, the Queen Mine Tour (478 N. Dart Road) will outfit you with headlamp, hardhat, and yellow slicker and take you 1,500 feet underground on a mine train. Otherwise, Main Street Bisbee offers an afternoon of browsing pleasure, from shops featuring fiber and metal art to gold and silver jewelry, pottery, hand-woven straw hats from Ecuador, vintage clothing, memorabilia, collectables, and antiques. Take your time, but be sure to stop in at the Inn at Castle Rock (112 Tombstone Canyon), an 1890s miners’ boarding house, and ask about its most recent ghost sightings.

Farther up Tombstone Canyon you’ll find several dining choices to finish your day: Contessa’s Cantina offers Mexican fare like tasty grilled fish tacos and High Desert Market serves exquisite takeout or dine-in meals like shrimp kebabs with yogurt tahini sauce. Relax in the courtyard at Screaming Banshee Pizza (200 Tombstone Canyon) over a local brew and a wood-fired calzone as evening descends and the “B” on Chihuahua Hill winks on in blue light.

Copper-colored hills above Old Bisbee.

Copper-colored hills above Old Bisbee.

Ken Lamberton is the author of six books, his most recent being Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Yearlong Obsession with the Grand Canyon State.

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