35 miles NE of Prescott; 28 miles W of Sedona; 130 miles N of Phoenix
I’ll put it simply: You have to go to Jerome. Few towns anywhere in Arizona make more of an impression on visitors than this historic mining town, clinging to the slopes of Cleopatra Hill 2,000 feet above the Verde Valley.
On a clear day, the view from Jerome is stupendous—it’s possible to see for more than 50 miles, with the red rocks of Sedona, the Mogollon Rim, and the San Francisco Peaks all visible in the distance. What’s more, in the past decade this iconoclastic arts enclave has come into its own; there are galleries, good restaurants, engrossing museums, and a new wine industry that should intrigue oenophiles of any stripe. Families, couples, and singles will all enjoy maneuvering the streets, which are rugged without being annoyingly so.
Once called the billion-dollar copper camp, Jerome was founded in 1883 and by the 1920s was the fourth-largest city in Arizona. In the early years, Jerome’s ore was mined using an 88-mile-long network of underground railroads. But the town’s (and the mining industry’s) biggest nemesis those days were fires: Jerome burned down with some regularity, and fires in the mines smouldered uncontrollably. Eventually, the mining companies were forced to abandon the tunnels in favor of open-pit mining.
Northeast of Jerome, the Verde Valley is so named by early Spanish explorers, impressed by the sight of such a verdant valley in an otherwise brown desert landscape. Cottonwood and Clarkdale, the valley’s two largest towns, are old copper-smelting centers, while Camp Verde was an army post during the Indian Wars. Most visitors here focus on the valley’s two national monuments—Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle, both remarkable Native American ruins, preserving the vestiges of Sinagua villages that date from long before the first European explorers entered the Verde Valley. By the time the first pioneers began settling in this region, the Sinaguas had long since moved on, and Apaches had claimed the valley as part of their territory; Fort Verde, now a state park, was established to deal with settlers’ conflicts with the Apaches. Between this state park and the two national monuments, hundreds of years of Verde Valley history and prehistory can be explored.
Between 1883 and 1953, Jerome experienced an economic roller-coaster ride as the price of copper rose and fell. By the early 1950s, it was no longer profitable to mine the copper ore of Cleopatra Hill, and the last mining company shut down operations. Almost everyone left town. By the early 1960s, Jerome was on its way to becoming just another ghost town. But then artists discovered the phenomenal views and dirt-cheap rents and began moving in; slowly the near-ghost town developed a reputation as an artists’ community. Soon tourists began visiting to see and buy the artwork being created in Jerome, and old storefronts turned into galleries.
As the state has pulled out of the recession of the late 2000s, Jerome has blossomed. On summer weekends its streets are packed with visitors browsing the galleries and crafts shops. The ghost town image lingers, but only in a string of shops playing up the haunted theme.
One unforeseen hazard of open-pit mining next to a town built on a 30-degree slope was the effect dynamiting would have on Jerome. Mine explosions would regularly rock Jerome’s world, and eventually buildings in town began sliding downhill. Even the town jail broke loose. With no brakes to stop it, the jail slid 225 feet downhill. (Now that’s a jailbreak.)