The buildings perched on Cleopatra Hill in Jerome, Arizona, look like Christmas ornaments dangling from an evergreen. Driving into town via a winding highway, you’ll wonder why anyone ever settled here. The answer’s easy – copper. Gold and silver too. Jerome was a mining boom town. When the mines closed, Jerome was on its way to becoming a deserted ghost town. Here’s why it’s worth a visit if you’re touring Northern Arizona’s Verde Valley.
The night sky in the Sedona/Verde Valley region is stunning. Because of limited light pollution, you can see thousands of stars on a clear evening. What I didn’t expect to see in the distance, as I was driving back to Cottonwood from Sedona along Highway 89A, was a band of lights floating mid-way between the ground and the sky.
The next morning I quizzed my fellow guests in the lodge at the Verde Valley Thousand Trails campground. “Oh, that’s Jerome,” said a gentleman from Oregon. “It’s a ghost town.”
That’s all I needed to hear. I thanked them for the tip and headed out to explore Jerome, AZ – a former mining camp that became a boom town that went bust. Thanks to some passionate residents, volunteers and business owners, it’s not dead yet. And it’s worth a detour if you’re exploring the area between Phoenix, Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.
Things to Do in Jerome AZ
Tour Jerome State Historic Park
Pick up a Map at the Visitor’s Center
Snap the Sliding Jail
Visit The Mine Museum
Take a Ghost or History Tour
Eat Lunch at the English Kitchen
Check out the Cars and Bikes
Shop for a Kaleidescope at Nelly Bly
Wander the Gold King Mine
1. Tour Jerome State Historic Park
I recommend stopping first at the Jerome State Historic Park. It was once the home of James S. Douglas, who developed the Little Daisy Mine in 1912. The mine operated successfully until 1938. Douglas also constructed the nearby Little Daisy Hotel as a dormitory for miners. Today, it’s a private home.
There’s a mother lode of historical mining information in the mansion as well as facts about the Douglas family. The real draw for me was the museum’s video; it’s an entertaining overview of the history of Jerome, from a ghost’s perspective. Every time I come out west, I think about the early settlers and how brave they were to face the weather, the terrain and in the case of Jerome, Apache Indian attacks! I would have quit heading west about 5 miles from my house!
The Mining History of Jerome AZ
The initial mining claims in Jerome were staked in 1876 and the United Verde Copper Company was formed in 1883, but did not enjoy success until William Clark became the owner in 1888. He constructed a railroad line and turned Jerome into a boomtown. The company was later sold to Phelps Dodge who ran the mine until operations ended in the 1950’s. It is estimated that through the years millions of tons of copper, gold, silver and other heavy metal ore was mined in Jerome, giving the town one of its nicknames: Jerome, the Billion Dollar Copper Camp.
Another must see while at the Jerome State Historic Park is the view of San Francisco peak in Flagstaff, over 70 miles away, if the weather’s clear.
2. Pick up a Map at the Jerome AZ Visitor’s Center
Continue winding your way up the face of Cleopatra Hill to the center of Jerome; like Denver Colorado, it’s located a mile above sea level, perched precipitously in Arizona’s Black Hills. There are several free public parking lots along the streets. If there’s room in the lot across from the Visitor’s Center on Hull Avenue, snag a spot there, then stop in and get a map of the town. The map has an index listing the current and historical owners of the buildings. If you’d like any information about tours, the friendly staff will provide assistance.
3. Snap the Sliding Jail
Walk below the Visitor’s Center to Sliding Jail Park. One of Jerome’s curiosities, the town jail began relocating itself during the 1930’s, sliding slowly downhill and resting at various locations until it landed in its current spot, 225 feet from where it started. Jerome is located on the Verde Valley fault. That, combined with the fact that over 88 miles of excavated tunnels lie beneath the one square mile of town, make it an unstable location at best.
4. Visit the Mine Museum
The Jerome Historical Society formed in 1953, and became a crusading force determined to keep Jerome from becoming another Old West ghost town. Not an easy feat, considering the population had dwindled from a peak of 15,000 to 50 residents. The Society operates the Mine Museum, located at the corner of Jerome Avenue and Main Street. The building was formerly the Fountain, one of many saloons that operated in the town.
The Mine Museum gives visitors a sense of what the Jerome community was like, with exhibits dedicated to the schools and emergency services as well as the town’s seedy underbelly. Proclaimed the “Wickedest Town in the West” in 1905, Jerome earned its notorious reputation because of bordellos, saloons, gambling and gunfights.
TravelingMom Tip: Many of Jerome’s notorious characters, including the wealthiest madam, Jennie Bauters, did not meet pleasant ends. Wall displays at the Mine Museum include grim statistics about prostitution. Your child may or may not be ready to digest this type of info.
5. Take a Ghost or History Tour
I didn’t have time to take a guided tour of Jerome during my visit but I did check on available options. The Visitor’s Center recommended two companies: Tours of Jerome and Ghost Town Tours. Both offer a variety of tours; detailed information is available on the company websites. I would definitely recommend calling in advance of your trip to discuss the options. Depending on the ages of your children, you’ll want to find out whether the material on the tour is G-rated or not, considering that Jerome’s history is fairly racy. Tours of Jerome advertises custom tours as an option, so it might be worthwhile to hire a guide to tailor the content for your family.
6. Lunch at the English Kitchen
There are a number of restaurants in Jerome; I chose The English Kitchen, the oldest restaurant in Northern Arizona. Original owner Charley Hong operated the restaurant from 1899 until he passed away in one of the booths where he regularly napped. Despite its name, The English Kitchen served chop suey and noodles back in the day. Today, it’s an excellent barbeque restuarant. You can smell the yummy as you’re walking along Main Street. I had a pulled pork sandwich with pasta salad. My waitress brought over a number of different sauces to dress the sandwich. She recommended a combo of mustard and jalapeno molasses. It was perfect. Always listen to the waitress.
7. Check out the Cars and Bikes
By the time I got out of the restaurant, Jerome was humming with crowds and live music spilled out of the Connor Hotel. Jerome is popular with bikers and car enthusiasts. Crowds gathered to take selfies with two vehicles – a motorcycle trimmed to resemble something out of the Mad Max movies and a classic Corvette Stingray. Apparently the affection between cars and Jerome goes back to the early history of the town. An annual event was a Monte Carlo-style road rally through the winding city streets – there are clips of it in the video at the Jerome State Historic Park.
8. Visit the World’s Largest Kaleidoscope Store
No trip to Jerome is complete until you visit Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes, billed as the world’s largest kaleidoscope store. Open since 1988, the shop is located on Main Street in the former brothel operated by the notorious town madam, Jennie Bauters. Co-owner Mary Wills is a passionate collector of kaleidoscopes. She and partner Sally Dryer (fun fact – as a child, Sally was the voice of Lucy in the Peanuts cartoons!) feature the work of 90 talented kaleidoscope artists.
I spoke with one of the artists, Lori Riley, who crafts charming kaleidoscope necklaces. Lori was born into a kaleidoscope family; her mother Janice founded famous Chesnik Scopes. I asked Lori why Mary chose quirky Jerome instead of nearby and very popular Sedona. Lori said Mary lives in Jerome and believes the community is a “very large dysfunctional family” in the sense that you might not always get along, but when you need anything, everyone’s there to help. Support like that is hard to find.
Nelly Bly Kaleidoscopes is a “please touch the merchandise” store. The friendly clerks are happy to show you how to operate the different styles of kaleidoscopes. And don’t leave without having someone take your kaleidoscope selfie!
9. Visit Gold King Mine
Just above Jerome is the curious Gold King Mine. Known as Haynes, it was home to about 300 miners during the boom years. The current attraction was developed over the course of 30 years by owner Don Robertson. He acquired a lot of stuff: trucks, cars, buildings – even a sawmill. Robertson passed away in 2016 and the Gold King Mine is now operated by his daughter and son-in-law. They’re continuing the family tradition. This year, they’ll be heading cross country to retrieve a pre-World War II, 35,000 pound hammer called Neil’s Bemont Pond. And Thor thinks he’s got a might hammer!
I enjoyed wandering around, taking photographs of the old, rusty vehicles and the buildings that looked like a strong wind would blow them down. At the Gold King Mine, kids can pan for gold, feed animals in the petting zoo and hop on dad’s shoulders for a peek down the original gold mine shaft. And there’s a gift shop with silly souvenirs begging to be bought with allowance money.
If you think you have hoarding tendencies, one trip to the Gold King Mine will cure you.
Where to Stay
You can stay in Jerome at the historic (and allegedly haunted) Grand Hotel, if you dare. Because I was exploring the Verde Valley and nearby Sedona and I didn’t want to deal with going up and down the winding mile every day, I stayed in Cottonwood, Arizona, at the Verde Valley RV and Camping Resort, a Thousand Trails property.
I never considered staying at a campground because I don’t camp and I don’t own an RV. But I encourage you to investigate, particularly if you’re traveling with small children. The Verde Valley RV and Camping Resort has several small cabins and tiny houses available to rent. And average nightly rates are a very budget-friendly $150. Plus you get the convenience of an equipped kitchen, living room, covered outdoor space with fire pit and access to the campground’s clubhouse, pool, hot tub, playground and mini golf course.
Benefits of a Campground Cabin Rental
I was traveling solo, so I appreciated the fact that the campground was secured with a staffed guardhouse. My cabin was very clean and comfortable as were the public grounds and facilities. Every morning, I’d head over to the clubhouse to have a cup of coffee and take advantage of the free WiFi. I enjoyed eavesdropping on the groups of RVers who gathered to swap their road warrior stories. I’ve spent a lot of time in hotel lobbies, and I’ve never heard animated discussions about the pros and cons of visiting the San Juan Islands or horror stories about RV septic systems!
TravelingMom Tip: Thousand Trails has a membership program to access discounted rates. If you’re planning a long summer road trip and plan to stay at a number of campgrounds along the way, you’ll definitely want to check out the potential savings.