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Plenty of Arizona mining towns that lived through boom and bust cycles have found other paths forward to survive. Some, like Jerome and Bisbee, flourish by carving out entirely new identities.
Superior hasn’t quite gotten there yet. But the little burg seems to be heading in a good direction. All the pieces are in place for a great day trip or weekend getaway.
Situated on U.S. 60, part of the Gila-Pinal Scenic Road, Superior is about an hour east of Phoenix. As you make that beautiful drive, you’ll arrive first at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, 3 miles west of Superior, in the shadow of Picketpost Mountain.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
Set aside any notion you might have of the desert being stark. Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a shady sanctuary, a peaceful oasis where cactuses rub spiny elbows with a stunning collection of drought-tolerant trees. More than 4,000 types of plants from arid regions of the world are spread across the landscape. Three miles of trails weave through themed gardens.
The Main Trail makes a 1.5-mile loop, a wide smooth path suitable for wheelchairs, at least until you reach Ayer Lake. (The Demonstration Garden, the Hummingbird-Butterfly Garden and Children’s Garden are also wheelchair-accessible.) Tucked at the base of a ridge of ragged, jagged bare rock and fringed by cattails, Ayer Lake is home for the endangered desert pupfish and the Gila topminnow.
Past the lake, the Main Trail makes a steeper twisting climb amid thrusts of eerie stone columns and towers, the remnants of ancient volcanic ash. That imposing mansion perched on the high ledge overhead is the Picket Post House. It was built from 1923-24 and used as a winter home by Col. William Boyce Thompson, the wealthy mining engineer who founded the arboretum.
Bird walks, geology walks, history tours, photography workshops and more are regular events. Check the calendar for specific dates.
Details: $12.50, $5 for ages 5-12. 520-689-2811, azstateparks.com/boyce-thompson.
Once you hit town, Superior Tours can show you around. It offers a wide selection of packages, starting with an introductory golf-cart tour. The informative ride lasts an hour ($20 per person) and covers Superior’s history. The town started as a camp for silver mines that later turned into large-scale copper producers.
Or pile into a jeep and head into the desert outback. When making a reservation, just let them know the sort of stuff you’re interested in. Popular destinations include the abandoned Silver King Mine and the remains of Pinal City, including the cemetery where Mattie Blaylock, the common-law wife of Wyatt Earp, is buried. The 90-minute jeep tours cost $45 per person.
Night tours, ghost hunts and custom outings are also available.
Details: 480-892-5505, www.superiortierra.com.
Take a hike
Even non-hikers will enjoy a stroll on the Legends of Superior Trails. Starting downtown at the corner of Main and Magma, this wide interpretive path meanders along Queen Creek as it follows the original alignment of U.S. 60. You’ll enjoy views of the high canyon walls, a unique perspective of Queen Creek Bridge and informational signs. The trail climbs through the old highway tunnel. Return the way you came for a 4-mile round trip.
Another segment of the trail stretches from the airport to Pinal City but recent roadwork has made it a little trickier to follow. Get the latest info and a map at the visitor center before starting out.
A third segment through beautiful Arnett Canyon to connect to the Arizona Trail at Picketpost Mountain is under construction. When completed, this will be a spectacular trail system combining history and scenery, all easily accessed.
Nestled at the base of Apache Leap Mountain and filled with historic buildings, Superior features one of Arizona’s most picturesque downtowns. Several new businesses have opened, and the Chamber of Commerce has initiated a program to spruce up dilapidated properties. Fresh paint and new murals have been added. The historic Magma Hotel is being renovated with plans to once again offer lodging.
Be sure to check out the Bob Jones Museum, the former home of Arizona’s sixth governor. Shaded by big palm trees, the cozy museum is filled with artifacts and photos detailing the history of the region, the mining industry and a diorama of the nearby ghost town of Pinal City.
Details: 300 Main St. 520-689-1969.
When you need refreshment, SunFlour Market offers fresh pastries, made-to-order sandwiches and tasty morsels to satisfy an appetite or a sweet tooth. The menu items go great with the many coffees, teas, Italian sodas and other beverages. The eclectic décor includes lots of locally made products and eye-catching gift items.
Details: 149 Main St. 520-689-0201 www.facebook.com/sunflourmarket.
At Porter’s Café local artwork, vintage signs and antiques adorn the wooden walls. A long bar flows through the room and is ringed by tables. The big juicy burgers are stars on this menu but there’s a supporting cast of sandwiches, tacos, salads and plenty more to choose from. Your four-legged pal will enjoy the large dog-friendly patio.
Details: 404 Main St. 520-689-5003.
Superior is 63 miles east of Phoenix on U.S. 60. There are two visitor centers. The Red Caboose is at the park on U.S. 60 west of downtown. While there, stroll the Superior History Trail, which is lined with mining equipment. The other visitor center is at 165 Main St. It’s open weekdays.
Details: 520-689-0200, www.superiorarizonachamer.org.
• On Second Friday shops and businesses stay open later and there are food vendors and live music in the downtown park. It takes place from 5-8 p.m. on the second Friday of every month.
• The Superior Home Tour & Antique Show gives visitors a peek at some remarkable transformations, everything from renovated miners shacks to historic cottages. There are nine stops on the tour. Two guest speakers will give talks, including Wyatt Earp, a descendant of the famous lawman. The tour is 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Jan. 27-28, and tickets are $15 ($12 in advance). 602-625-3151.
• The Legends of Superior Trail festival takes place 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, in downtown Superior. It features guided hikes, beginning rock-climbing tutorials, speakers, vendors and more. Free. www.lostinsuperioraz.com.
• The Apache Leap Mining Festival takes over downtown Friday-Sunday, March 16-18. It has a parade, a hard-core mining competition with four events, live entertainment, a kids zone, carnival, speakers and beer garden. The theme this year is Women in Mining. Free. www.superiorarizonachamber.org.