Dec 29 2011

Greenlee County: Copper, history, scenery

Originally published by The Arizona Republic
by Roger Naylor – Dec. 29, 2011 11:53 AM, Special for The Republic

Original Story Here

Greenlee is a scenic sliver of a county, peeled away from neighboring Graham and tucked up against New Mexico.

Greenlee stretches from the broad, fertile Gila River Valley in the south, where virtually every level acre is under cultivation, to the narrow canyon that frames Clifton, over to the sprawling open-pit diggings of Morenci, then up, up, up to the subalpine meadows and peaks of the White Mountains in the north. All that’s missing is anything urban.

Greenlee County’s remoteness instills it with a pace of its own. This is a far-flung landscape populated by small towns and wisps of communities. The main road through the county, U.S. 191, is a twisted corkscrew that’s considered the nation’s least traveled federal highway. Greenlee is not meant to be hurried through.

If you’re looking for crowds and a bustling nightlife, steer clear. But if you’re seeking vast swaths of wrenching scenery and an aching stillness, interrupted only by small-town hospitality, Greenlee will be a most comfortable fit.

What to see and do

Most of U.S. 191, also known as the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, slithers south to north through Greenlee County like a writhing python of pavement. With more than 450 sharp curves, switchbacks and hairpin turns along its 123-mile length, 6,000 feet of elevation change and endless views, this is a road that motorcyclists dream about and RVers have nightmares over.

The route is named for Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, the 16th-century Spanish explorer who traversed this wilderness of peaks and canyons in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola. With sparse traffic, no gas stations and non-existent cellphone reception, this is not your typical Sunday drive. Be prepared. Snow is not plowed on weekends or at night. Call the Arizona Department of Traffic at 511 to check conditions.

Arizona has been a booming copper producer, with legendary mines from Jerome to Bisbee. But the undisputed champ is in Morenci, where the Freeport-McMoRan complex includes one of the world’s ‘ largest copper mines. Tours are not offered at this time, although they may start up again in the spring. The best views of the mine are from overlooks on U.S. 191.

Housed in a 1913 brick building that once served as City Hall, the Greenlee County Historical Society Museum hasexhibits detailing the mining and ranching history of the area, paintings by artists Ted DeGrazia and Hal Empie, both of whom hailed from the area, and the high chair of another local made good, Sandra Day O’Connor. Free. Open 2-4:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays or by appointment.

Details: 299 Chase Creek St., Clifton. 928-865-3115 or 928-865-2056.

Alcatraz was “the Rock,” but that nickname could also be applied to the little hoosegow in Clifton. In 1878, the Cliff Jail was gouged out of solid stone. Enough room for two cells was hacked and blasted out of a cliff face by stone worker Margarito Varela. Legend has it that when the job was finished, Varela went on a well-earned bender, shot up the saloon and, yes, became the first guest of his own prison.

Details: Near the Chamber of Commerce, 66 Coronado Blvd., Clifton. 928-965-8124

Like many small-town cores, the historic district of Clifton has taken a beating over the years. But it’s springing to life again. Grant money has been channeled into repairing and restoring the territorial buildings along a three- to four-block stretch of Chase Creek Street. Several new businesses soon will be joining the handful of galleries, gift shops and antiques stores already open. Grab a walking-tour brochure at the museum or at Chase Creek Marketplace, 215 Chase Creek St.

Wildlife watchers don’t have to travel far afield. A herd of desert bighorn sheep resides in the hills near Clifton. The sheep can be seen almost daily on the roadside between Clifton and Morenci, on the banks of Chase Creek and even on lawns in town. Birders will spot plenty of feathered favorites in the east end of the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area and along the Gila River near Duncan, a stretch favored by sandhill cranes. For a map of birding locations, stop at Country Chic, which also serves as the Duncan Tourist Information Center.

Details: Gila Box, 928-348-4400, Country Chic, 205 SW Old West Highway, 928-359-1955.

Where to eat

Only open since July, 3 Sisters Bakery in Duncan has been a smashing success. More than a restaurant, it’s where the community gathers. Folks stop by in the morning for meltingly sweet fresh doughnuts (50 cents each; $5 for a dozen) and warm cinnamon rolls (75 cents).

Lunchtime brings a rush for from-scratch soups and heavenly pocket pies with fruit or meat fillings ($1.50). Hot dogs are baked in homemade buns with a special sauce. The sisters range in age from the 60s to 80s. No wonder everyone in town hangs out here. Who wouldn’t want to be fussed over in the cozy confines of a warm bakery by a trio of grandmothers in matching floral aprons?

Details: 113 SE Old West Highway, Duncan. 928-359-2253.

The Salsa Trail dips into Greenlee County, and one of the popular stops is Gi’Mee’s in York. Ed Scott built his small eatery nearly a quarter century ago and has earned a following for his homemade grub and hearty portions. Combo plates, such as the two-cheese enchilada, one taco, one chile relleno plus beans and rice ($9.85), aren’t for those with timid appetites. Or try a burger (half-pounder, $6.95; quarter-pounder, $4.95) and run it through the intriguing 30-item topping bar to design your own towering creation.

Details: 360 Frontage Road, York. 928-687-1517. More on Salsa Trail eateries:

Where to stay

It’s one thing simply to save a grand old building; it’s another thing entirely to recapture the past glory of a place and an era. Deborah Mendelsohn’s thorough but graceful restoration of the Simpson Hotel in Duncan pulls off that nifty trick, retaining historical charm while creating a comfortable getaway.

Although it feels as though you’re stepping back in time upon entering, the vintage hotel is now an eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast, with Mendelsohn graciously catering to her guests. The Simpson offers five beautifully decorated rooms filled with antiques. Rates start at $80 per night and include a gourmet breakfast.

Details: 116 Main St., Duncan. 928-359-3590,

One of the amazements of last summer’s devastating Wallow Fire is not what it took but what it spared. That high-mountain jewel, the Hannagan Meadow Lodge, went unscathed. In fact, no evidence of fire damage can be seen from the lodge or its cabins. So if you’re looking for a winter playground, beautiful Hannagan Meadow awaits.

At an elevation of 9,100 feet, the historic lodge receives a healthy blanket of snow. Families can enjoy sledding, cross-country skiing and old-fashioned snowball fights before thawing out in front of a crackling fire. During the winter, the restaurant normally serves guests only. But the non-guest who calls ahead and makes a reservation may be squeezed in. Rooms cost $85-$125 per night; cabins, $150-$200.

Details: About 22 miles south of Alpine on U.S. 191. 928-339-4370,

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