Ajo, AZ: A Small Town With A Big Back Yard
This article was first published in 2015. Ajo? To my under-educated mind, Ajo was just a little Sonoran Desert burg somewhere way, way west of Tucson. Having spent a weekend there (October 2015), I have a far greater appreciation of this place that Ajo-ites refer to as “A Small Town With A Big Back Yard”. And what a “backyard” it is.
Had I not been invited to Ajo for a tour of this quaint old town and its magnificent surrounding scenery, I’m not sure I would have ever gone. That would have been a big mistake.
Included on this tour from Tucson was Tom Moulton, Pima County Director of Economic Development & Tourism and Anne Maxon, who has managed the Downtown Tucson Visitor Center since the Old Pueblo was a small Hohokam village on the banks of the perennially flowing Santa Cruz River. It was good to spend some quality time with them, particularly since we 3 have something in common … Southern Arizona tourism.
For two days we were escorted about like royalty by some of the nicest people you will ever meet. So thanks to Bety Allen with the Ajo Chamber; Aaron Cooper, Executive Director of Economic Development Programs for International Sonoran Desert Alliance and Caitlyn Allen, a VISTA volunteer. Along the way, we met National Park Service Rangers Charlie, James & Scott from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Sid who manages the Visitor Center at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
Things To See & Do In & Near Ajo
First, the town of Ajo is worth a good walkabout. Most of the town, and in particular the central plaza, was created by John Campbell Greenway to be a good place for his New Cornelia miners to raise their families. Visitors can pick up a walking tour map/brochure at the Visitor Center located at the old train depot.
Greenway, formerly a Rough Rider with Theodore Roosevelt, was the highly successful general manager and an owner of the Calumet & Arizona Mining Company that included the Lavender Pit Mine at Bisbee and the New Cornelia Mine at Ajo. He was the second husband of Isabella who, following John’s death in 1926, founded the Arizona Inn in Tucson and became Arizona’s first U.S. Congresswoman.
For Ajo’s architecture, Mr. Greenway chose Spanish Colonial Revival, a Mediterranean style with Moorish (Islamic) influences: high arches, white stucco surfaces, tile roofs, and considerable decoration.
Across the street from the plaza, the most prominent features are two white churches. The Federated Church, while visually interesting, has almost no ornamentation. The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church follows the more ornate architectural style of the central plaza. Both are eminently photogenic.
From Curley School to Sonoran Desert Conference Center
Just beyond the churches is the historic Curley School, named for mine superintendent Mike Curley, and built-in classical Spanish Colonial Revival style with a copper (now tarnished) bell tower. What once was the K-12 school is now, a working artists accommodations, Sonoran Desert Inn, and re-purposed Sonoran Desert Conference Center.
The Desert Inn and Conference Center is where we stayed. Classrooms have been converted to modern, comfortable guest rooms. Stuart and Emily are the managers and excellent hosts. This is a fine facility for conferences, retreats, reunions, workshops, and special events such as weddings. To the extent it might matter to some, I noted that there was no TV in my room. Nor does the Conference Center have a swimming pool or spa.
In the courtyard, you will find the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s productive vegetable garden, fruit orchard and, out back, a modern “green” chicken coop. Many of the plants here are heirloom species from Father Kino’s era.
Nina Altshul, who is with Ajo Regional Food Partnership, is developing a sustainable local food system to promote a healthy way of dining for all of the area residents. They do this through something called the “distributed agriculture model”, which is pretentious academic language for growing food in many backyards throughout the community, conducting gardening & cooking workshops, and organizing a twice-monthly Authentically Ajo Farmers Market. At the Visitor Center, you can pick up a map for a self-guided tour of the local gardens. If you go, I think you will meet a lot of people who are very enthusiastic about good food and organic gardening.
So knowledgeable about food in general and gardening in particular, I assumed Nina had an advanced degree in farming. I found out that she, like me, has a degree in Anthropology, with only one slight difference. Mine is an undergraduate degree and hers is a Ph.D.
Nevertheless, Nina knows a lot about food gardening and I know enough to leave gardening to the experts. If you go to Ajo, be sure to find a way to meet Nina and her community gardeners. It will be a most enjoyable experience. (Hint: be in Ajo on the 2nd or 4th Saturday of the month for their Farmers’ Market.)
Over the weekend we were introduced to many Ajo artists and patrons of the arts. Ajo has so much public art that they have a self-guided tour. Again you can pick up the brochure/map at the Visitor Center.
Ajo Ten-Mile Loop
This is an easy scenic drive around the backside of the open pit New Cornelia mine. Along the way you can stop at the overlook and little museum about the mine. Also, in the St. Catherine’s Indian Mission, the Ajo Historical Society has a small museum out here. To no surprise, it too is mostly about Ajo’s glory days sporting one of the world’s largest copper mines. Out here you will learn that until fairly recently (the mine closed in 1985) there were two separate towns; one Mexican, the other Tohono O’odham. The men worked together, but their lives were otherwise segregated.
Assuming that a place as remote as Ajo would support only one greasy spoon, I had low expectations for our weekend meals. I could not have been more wrong. Among the local restaurants supplying our exceptional meals were:
- Granny’s Kitchen in nearby Why, AZ (on the road to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument)
- 100 Estrella Restaurant (one of the best burgers I have ever enjoyed. Also excellent fresh chips and guacamole.)
- Desert Rain Café in Sells in the Tohono O’odham Nation. They specialize in Native American foods from our Sonoran Desert. Most original.
- Oasis Café on the Plaza in what once was the village movie theater.
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge
This is a very large wildlife refuge; almost 900,000 acres of Sonoran Desert wilderness. With a keen eye, patience, and local knowledge, you can spot or photograph many desert critters here. Cabeza Prieta is home to 275 species of animals, including endangered big horn sheep and Sonoran pronghorn. Capable of 60 MPH, pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America.
Ajo has numerous RV parks, motels, and B&B Inns. You can also enjoy the solitude of primitive camping in designated areas of the Refuge.
On Saturday night, we were escorted to the top of Childs Mountain to enjoy the desert sunset. In addition to the setting sun, we could see maybe 50 miles in all directions. To the north is the Barry Goldwater Air Force Bombing Range and to the SE the town of Ajo sparkles in the distance.
On the second Saturday of each month the Refuge offers an auto tour to the top of Childs Mountain. Contact the refuge to learn more about tours, programs and other ways you can enjoy Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
The Visitor Center for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is about a 20-minute drive south of Ajo. Start here for a worthwhile orientation to the 331,000-acre Monument. (February 2020 Travel Alert: Given the Border Wall construction, it is best to check with the Monument before traveling there. )
There are many hiking trails, but only 2 main scenic drives. The Puerto Blanco Drive is a four-hour, 41 mile loop that connects the North and South sections of the Puerto Blanco Drive, and includes Quitobaquito Springs, a true oasis that is home to an endangered subspecies of desert pupfish. Many birds are attracted to the Springs, such as vermilion flycatchers, phainopepla and killdeer.
The Ajo Mountain Drive is 2.5 hour, 21-mile one-way gravel road with several picnic areas and hiking trails. If you decide to do the Ajo Mountain Drive, be sure to stop by the Kris Eggle Visitor Center and pick up a guidebook for the road. Both drives offer many opportunities for scenic beauty, solitude, and exploration.
Do we at Southern Arizona Guide wholeheartedly recommend you visit the small town of Ajo, Arizona and its big backyard? Indeed we do! Contact the Ajo Chamber of Commerce for more information.