Sometimes getting “lost” can be the key to discovery. When the pioneers of this country pressed out onto the frontier they had a plan, but essentially they were lost. What they found was a beautiful land full of culture and splendor. Now, I am not saying we are even in the same realm as the early pioneers, but we can be explorers in our own right.
Random banter aside, there is a place out there that when found has the potential to inspire, entertain, and offer a thoughtful, relaxing experience. The place you ask, is Greenlee County. The county is four hours due east of Phoenix bordering New Mexico and three hours from Tucson, conservatively. It is a small county, relative to other Arizona counties, but it’s still larger than Rhode Island. The northern half of the county is covered by the Apache National Forest, high in the White Mountains where Hannagan Meadow resides at 9,000ft. To the south are the communities of Morenci and Clifton steeped in mining activity and history, and further down, farming is king in Duncan at a mere 4,000ft.
Journey Down Route 191
On a recent trip I had the opportunity to explore the history and culture of Greenlee County. The drive from Phoenix is scenic, to say the least. From desert to pines to grassland, and tight canyons to expansive views, it is the open road at its best. After driving through the agricultural fields of Pima, Thatcher and Safford I turned onto US Route 191. This is where things got interesting. For me, this was a new stretch of road that would connect me with unknown places. But don’t let me fool you, I was far from lost. I had multiple maps, two navigation systems, and instructions from a local Cliftonian. I know what you are thinking…sounds counterproductive for someone looking to get lost.
My plan was to drive through Clifton and head up the hill to the Morenci Mine Overlook. The “hill” ended up being a nearly 2000 ft ascent, climbing switchback after switchback alongside carved out cavities in the earth. The mine is shockingly massive; reportedly, it produces over two million pounds of copper annually, and has existed since the late 1800s. Ten minutes into my ascent, I started looking for the overlook, not knowing what to expect. I followed a sign for the mine and soon found myself approaching a guard booth. When I stopped, the guard confirmed what I already knew— I was lost.
Beyond the Morenci Mine
After some guidance I was back on track and at the overlook shortly after. A lone motorcyclist pulled in after me. As he peered down he asked,
“What did they take out of this hole?” “Copper,” I replied.
He was from Phoenix on a ride that took him on a loop of eastern Arizona. He was headed south, just having traveled the long and winding Coronado Trail National Scenic Byway. I turned around and headed back down the hill anxious to explore the architecture I had passed earlier in Clifton.
Where Morenci is atop the hills, Clifton is within them. The town resides along the San Francisco River and was the original company town for the mine prior to the construction of Morenci, and many of the historic buildings are still standing. My first stop was Chase Creek, Clifton’s historic main street. Entering Chase Creek is like walking into the past. It is a narrow street that feels even narrower due to the row of two story brick buildings on either side. After snapping a few photos I stopped in at the Chase Creek Marketplace. They offer local hand-made creations, art, jewelry, and even some salsa. I left with a better understanding of the area and the salsa.
My last stop in Clifton was at the Railway Passenger Station. The oversized station was built in 1913 in anticipation of population growth that never materialized. Conveniently, now it houses the local visitor information center. With brochures in hand I headed south to Duncan.
Local Flavor in Duncan
I followed the green belt of agricultural fields and cottonwood trees that led me to the heart of Duncan. Duncan is located on the banks of the Gila River. The main street is small but the shops are active. The visitor center, which also doubles as an artisit co-op, was open so I decided to stop there first. Not a bad way to learn about the local flavor. Speaking of flavor, I was starving.
Just down the street I found 3 Sisters Bakery. Walking in the door I was quickly welcomed with a smile. I will say everyone I encountered in Greenlee was really nice. I had missed lunch (apparently it was good), but the ladies offered to heat up a meat pocket for me. Despite how it sounds it was delicious, similar to a Jamaican Pasty. I got a few donut holes and cookies to go. I may drive the eight hours roundtrip to Duncan again just to get some more donut holes.
I left Greenlee County with the feeling like I had found something special. Whether it is Greenlee County or another destination that you are yet to explore, I encourage you to get a little lost and see what you discover!
Glenn Schlottman serves as the Community Relations Manager for the Arizona Office of Tourism. He conducts education and outreach programs for communities around the state. When he is not watching romantic comedies he enjoys traveling to cool towns and secluded wilderness.