Ajo - The Heart of the Sonoran Desert

A popular gas-and-go stop for road-trippers, the town of Ajo offers more than just fuel and snacks. Here’s your guide to one of Arizona’s best-kept secrets.

Many historic mining towns in Arizona went up fast, notching bunkhouses and essential services into hillsides connected by narrow, steep streets. These historic pop-ups often became ghost towns when the mining operations closed.

In Ajo, however, the mining company took a different approach, creating a town where miners and their families could build generational pride. Today, commercial spaces line the public square built in 1917 and spacious streets spoke off the plaza into historic neighborhoods. It’s worth it to set aside an hour or two to explore this Southern Arizona gem. Park in the plaza and set off on foot to see all Ajo’s charms.

Admire the architecture

Ajo - The Heart of the Sonoran Desert
Curley School, Ajo. Credit: An Pham.

In the plaza, Ajo’s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture lends a feel to the place as one of an oasis in the desert. Rows of symmetrical arches adorn the fronts of businesses and the historic train depot, which flank a U-shaped green space. Across from this bustling center, two historic churches glimmer as their whitewashed stucco reflect the desert’s intense light. Many of the homes adjacent to the plaza preserve their architectural details and whitewashed walls, too.

The architectural details carry over to the Curley School, Ajo’s public school built in 1919. The ornate building with a bell tower is in full view from the plaza and has been converted to artist-in-residence studios. Visitors are invited to step inside the school’s main corridors to view artworks on display.

Shop for unique gifts

Step inside the shops and art galleries on the plaza to browse for art, crafts and jewelry from local makers. Art Under the Arches gallery is staffed by local artists who are glad to share stories about their hometown.

Eat like a local

Wide boulevards give visitors room to meander on Ajo time. But first, sustenance. In the plaza, pop into Oasis Coffee for a pick-me-up or try the crispy tacos at Tacos el Terasco. The coffee shop is located inside a former theater with patio seating overlooking the plaza; the taco shop sits on the other side of the plaza, where the front door creaks and the dining room wears its patina with pride.

See the murals

Ajo - The Heart of the Sonoran Desert
Street art in Ajo. Credit: An Pham

When the mining operation ceased in Ajo in 1985, many residents were content to stay put. Over the years, artists discovered Ajo and a creative hub took root. Approaching from the north or the south, visitors will spot the colorful Ajo murals the second they reach town. Stroll through Artists Alley to see murals created over the years by local creatives. Find more murals on outlying businesses, including one painting that covers the entire façade of the Ajo Copper News building and multiple murals in Triangle Park that honor the region’s multicultural influences.

Step back in time

Ajo - The Heart of the Sonoran Desert
Ajo Historical Society Museum, Ajo. Credit: An Pham.

Fans of history are in their element in Ajo, with 100 homes and the entire downtown district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Before heading out of town, drive toward “A” mountain on the edge of town to see the old mine hospital plus the Ajo Historical Society Museum located inside a former mission overlooking the massive open-pit mine.


Electric Vehicle Charging Stations near Ajo

  • In Ajo, Olsen’s Marketplace (1911 N. Ajo Gila Bend Hwy.) has 2 stations.
  • In Gila Bend, about 40 miles north of Ajo, a Tesla Supercharger hub (826 W. Pima St.) has 16 stations.

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About the Author

Jeff Atwell

Longtime Arizona resident and travel writer Jeff Atwell is in his element on road trips to small towns, on hikes through astonishing backcountry and on architecture tours that reveal the state’s heritage.

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