Most travelers hoping to escape the heat and congestion of Phoenix head to the artist community of Sedona about two hours away. It’s a gorgeous place, ringed with bright red sandstone cliffs that seem to glow in the sunset, and it has a lot to see.
But Sedona also feels like a tourist trap, overrun with spiritual seekers willing to drop top dollar on fancy artwork, crystals, and turquoise trinkets that may or may not be authentic Native American jewelry.Looking for an offbeat day trip from #Phoenix? The quirky town of #Jerome is the perfect spot! Click To Tweet
Fortunately, as I was scouring Atlas Obscura (always one of my favorite resources for finding interesting places to go) during our road trip through the Southwest, I came across the perfect alternative: the town of Jerome, Arizona.
It looked like it had everything I could want: some beautiful landscapes, a little bit of weirdness, and a relative lack of crowds. Plus, I could easily get there on a day trip from Phoenix.
Jerome, AZ: History of a Mining Town
One of many old copper mining towns in Arizona, Jerome was founded around the turn of the 19th century. Two companies were literally tearing down the mountains to get at the riches beneath it, and a swarm of immigrants from all over Europe, Asia, and Mexico descended upon it, hoping to reap their fortune.
Just up the road from Jerome, the Haynes mining camp came upon something much more valuable than copper – gold! This set off an even bigger mining frenzy, but one that didn’t last long, as the deposit was quickly depleted.
Like many of its fellow mining towns, Jerome fell on hard times when the primary mine closed in the 1950s. But unlike the others, it didn’t become a ghost town (though the population got down to 50 at one point).
Instead, its few remaining residents (today, the population of Jerome is just under 500) focused their efforts on developing tourism and drawing visitors from the booming population of Phoenix.
Something else to consider? Whether Jerome is haunted! Workplace accidents were common in the mines and violence was frequent in the town’s rowdy bars, so it should come as no surprise that there were quite a few deaths in Jerome’s heyday.
The United Verde Mining Company, in the belief that investigations into the deaths would waste time and cut into company profits, swept some of them under the rug. It’s now believed that a few of Jerome’s restaurants and hotels are haunted by the spirits of those who never got justice for their untimely deaths.
Paranormal activity aside, Jerome was (and is) especially appealing to city dwellers growing weary of the heat. As Jerome’s elevation is 4,000 feet higher than Phoenix, its average summer temperatures are about fifteen degrees cooler, making it a welcome respite from one of the hottest places in the country.
Where is Jerome, Arizona?
Jerome is about two hours north of Phoenix, and the drive passes through some of central Arizona’s most striking landscapes. Massive Saguaro cactuses flank the highway just outside of Phoenix, and as the road climbs higher into the hills near Jerome, you’re treated to a carpet of stunted barrel and prickly pear cactuses. Could anything be anymore emblematic of the American Southwest?
Jerome sits high atop Cleopatra Hill and overlooks the Verde Valley, a fertile area of over 700 square miles that forms a sea of green against the backdrop of Arizona’s red and orange rock formations. The directions to Jerome are straightforward since it’s nearly due north of Phoenix, but the road is steep, and the last few miles are heavily switchbacked.
It doesn’t get any flatter once you’re in town, either; many of the roads are built at increasingly vertical angles and with even more twists and turns. That’s one of my favorite things about these old mining towns, though.
Like Bisbee near Arizona’s southern border and Butte in my home state of Montana, Jerome and its accompanying mines are situated on a very steep hill without a lot of space to spread out. Most of these towns existed before the invention of automobiles, and they’re designed to be compact and walkable, with long staircases connecting the switchbacked roads.
The Quirkiest Attractions in Jerome, AZ
Gold King Mine and Ghost Town
Gold King, despite its name, is not actually a mine or a ghost town. You might call it an open-air museum of sorts. Some would dismiss it as a junkyard, but such a characterization really doesn’t do it justice (though it’s hard to classify exactly what its purpose is).
When the Haynes mine down the street from Jerome was up for sale in the 80s, husband and wife Don and Terry Robertson bought the derelict property and used it to assemble a collection of…things: rusted old cars, farm implements, shacks from the turn of the century, and all sorts of other random objects. Tourists started showing up not long after, hoping to get a look at the eclectic stockpile.
It’s an understatement to say that Don had some eccentric preferences. He was a mechanic who loved cars, trucks, motorcycles, and all things transportation-related. One by one, he collected over a hundred vehicles from around the country, many of them incredibly rare, like a Studebaker Electric Car from 1902 (yes, there were electric cars nearly 120 years ago).
He even expanded beyond the stockpile of vehicles to include complete buildings. On the property, there’s an entire gas station and a schoolhouse, which had to be hauled all the way up the winding mountain road from Flagstaff.
Some would undoubtedly write Don off as a hoarder. Many of the vehicles in the collection sit out in the open, are covered in rust, and have little to no information posted to explain what exactly they are.
Much of the memorabilia he collected to go along with them is kitschy and silly, and the buildings are more or less scattered wherever there’s space for them. It’s an untidy but fascinating collection of mostly unconnected objects, now in a beautiful state of decay.
There’s a lot of history contained in these broken down vehicles and buildings, too. It’s not a pristine gallery with descriptive plaques to explain the origins of each piece, but that’s part of why it’s fun. Use your imagination to envision Jerome as it might once have been (or to imagine pulling a trailer up those switchbacked roads with an entire schoolhouse on it).
The founders of Gold King have passed, but their family remains passionate about showcasing the weird and wonderful in this old mining camp. I’m not sure how long other people spend there, but I lost a few hours wandering among all the old cars and crumbling buildings.
It’s a photographer’s dreamland, full of striking colors, crumbling buildings, and all sorts of oddities that are perfect fodder for Instagram. Cost of admission is $7 for adults, $5 for kids, $6 for seniors, and free if you’re 75 or over.
A Non-Adventure at the Abandoned Post Office
The next stop on my tour of bizarre Jerome attractions should have been the abandoned post office between the town and the Gold King Mine. It’s supposedly only a quarter-mile hike from the free parking lot on the road towards Gold King.
But after scoping it out, it just didn’t feel right. There were No Trespassing signs all over, and sneaking in seemed like a non-starter with so little cover on the treeless hills surrounding the building. The photos on Atlas Obscura looked amazing, but I’m a chicken when it comes to urban exploration in the U.S., where you can end up with a trespassing ticket or a day in jail.
If anyone else was brave enough to venture past the fence, let me know how it went in the comments!
The Sliding Jail
The last item on my bucket list of weird things to do in Jerome was to check out the sliding jail in the middle of town. As might be expected in a rowdy mining community, there was a substantial need for a jail during the town’s heyday. After all, Jerome was once nicknamed “The Wickedest Town in America,” thanks to all the drinking, fighting, gambling, and general debauchery that took place there.
But spending the night in the clink would have been a frightening experience back in 1930s, when explosions in the nearby mine shook the ground and lifted the jail off its wooden foundation, causing it to slowly descend the town’s steep hill. No one got hurt, but that was obviously the end of holding inmates there.
Admittedly, the jail is now just a dilapidated concrete building, and the story is more interesting than the sight of it.
Lunch With a View (and Maybe a Ghost)
Having worked up an appetite roaming through the fields of abandoned vehicles at Gold King, it seemed like lunch was in order. There’s actually a fairly decent selection of places to eat in Jerome. Restaurants in town include options like mouthwatering BBQ, pizza, and, of course, Mexican.
But as this outing was all about finding the strange and unique in Jerome, the Haunted Hamburger, which sits near the top of the hill, seemed like the logical choice. It supposedly got its name after some hammers mysteriously went missing during renovations. While a forgetful construction crew is probably at fault (at least if you ask a skeptic like myself), a haunted restaurant makes for a much better story in a community that was almost a ghost town.
I didn’t experience any paranormal activity while I was there, but I did enjoy some incredible views from the Haunted Hamburger’s balcony seating and a deliciously juicy burger.
Jerome State Historic Park
Looking out from Jerome’s Main Street toward the red rocks of Sedona, there’s a solitary building sitting on a small hill apart from the rest of town – the Douglas Mansion. In Jerome’s copper baron days, the mansion was a hotel where mine executives and investors could be wined and dined. Complete with marble showers and a central vacuum cleaning system, it was a far cry from the squalor that many of the miners lived in just a short distance away.
Today, the mansion houses a museum on the history of Jerome and the town’s journey from mining camp to funky tourist town. Admission is $7 for adults and $4 for kids.
Down the road from the Douglas Mansion is another fascinating structure, the Audrey Headframe. This was once the entrance to Jerome’s most profitable mine, and beneath its iron towers is a 1900-foot-deep shaft (meaning it’s nearly 250 feet deeper than One World Trade Center is tall).
A Funky Main Street Experience
Don’t leave town without exploring Main Street, where you’ll find most of the galleries and unique shops in Jerome. Perhaps the best place to start is the New State Motor Building at the north end of Main Street. In earlier times, it was a machine shop and the very first Chrysler dealership in Arizona.
But in its current form, it’s home to a few souvenir shops and the Jerome Bible Art Museum – a gallery comprised of hand-sculpted ceramic figurines depicting scenes from the New Testament. I didn’t know about the museum until I got there, but it fit in perfectly on my itinerary of weird attractions in Jerome.
I’m guessing it wasn’t the artist’s intention, but the statues are sort of terrifying, like a Claymation acid trip where everyone’s skin is melting. But once you get over the initial shock, their soft imperfections reveal the time and effort that goes into making them. There are a few non-biblical sculptures for sale in the shop next door too, if you want to take a piece home.
If you’re up for a drink, several places on Main Street advertise wine tastings. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Arizona, good wine is not the first thing that pops into my mind. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Verde Valley has over twenty wineries.
One of them, Caduceus Cellars, is owned by Maynard James Keenan, the frontman of Tool and A Perfect Circle. When he’s not out on a tour or working in the studio, he’s living in Jerome, making great wine, and promoting Arizona’s viticulture industry.
Places to Stay in Jerome, AZ
While Jerome is easily explored as a day trip from Phoenix, you can also spend the night there if you’re not thrilled about driving four hours in one day.
Airbnb lists a plethora of great places to stay in Jerome, with unique options for any budget. For example, you could sleep in an adobe house, a modern mansion above the town, or a luxury cottage complete with a stone fireplace and a clawfoot tub. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, sign up here to get 15 percent off your first stay!
There are only a few hotels in Jerome itself, and the Mile High Inn and the Conner Hotel are two of the main options. Both are located in magnificent historic buildings and, like many places in town, both are thought to be haunted. There are plenty of other hotels near Jerome as well, mainly down the road in Cottonwood.
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Jerome makes a great offbeat alternative to the expensive galleries and cafés in Sedona, and it offers a healthy dose of culture and history. If you’re looking for a true ghost town in Arizona, this isn’t it – it’s far from abandoned at this point.
But the potentially haunted buildings and the oddball collection at the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town are perfect if you’re looking for an unconventional adventure. Besides, these kinds of unique experiences are what road trips are all about!
What’s the quirkiest place you’ve been?
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