Experience Tombstone AZ – The Most Authentic Western Town in the US
As a strong lover of the old west era, I’m always on the hunt for the best historical mining and ghost towns to explore. Amazingly, there are tons of old mining towns just in the western region of the United States alone! Many left behind to decay while others have been rebuilt and brought back to life thanks to local tourism.
Gotta say, I do love both types and for different reasons! Seeing an abandoned mining town does fill me with curiosity as we roam desolate streets, wondering exactly what happened here so many years ago. Although, refurbished towns paint a better picture of the past back in those chaotic gunslinger days.
With a close tie to Calico Ghost Town, Tombstone AZ definitely has given the best and most lively representation of what an old western town felt like. Known by the public as “The Most Authentic Western Town Left in the United States.”
I think it’s safe to say that this will always be my favorite spot to fulfill my western cravings.
Where Is This Old West Town Called Tombstone?
The small town Tombstone is located in the far southeast region of Arizona, just 40 minutes from the US/Mexico border. Despite the long drive south from the main city of Phoenix, this excursion has always been worth the trip.
Tombstone sits between Tucson and the historic (and slightly hipster) town of Bisbee. Also nearby is Chiricahua National Monument and the famous Kartchner Caverns State Park.
All popular destinations to visit for anyone sightseeing in Arizona, making Tombstone a good middle point if you’re traveling through the area. We were able to make a solid 4 day road trip just from these places alone!
A Brief(ish) History of Tombstone AZ
Tombstone was founded in 1877 by prospector Ed Schieffelin. Before Tombstone, this was a scouting expedition camp against the Chiricahua Apaches. Ed would search the area “looking for rocks” and ignored warnings from the soldiers about the native Apaches in the area. They literally would tell him, “Ed, the only stone you will find out there will be your Tombstone.”
Eventually Ed ended up finding silver which would be the start of the silver strike in this region. Humorously, Ed named his first mine “The Tombstone” based on what he remembered from the words of the soldiers.
Before long, word quickly spread about the findings of silver. Prospectors, cowboys, gunmen, homesteaders, and businessmen all swarmed to the area to reap the benefits of the land. By 1879, a mining town was born and was named Tombstone after Ed’s first mining claim.
Over time, the town grew immensely. In 1881, they say the population reached a peak of 15,000 to 20,000 people. From this, all kinds of businesses, residents, and entertainment for the town erupted.
Establishments like restaurants, schools, churches, theaters, a red-light district, and over 100 saloons. One of the most popular theaters being the Bird Cage Theater which I will talk about later.
“The Town Too Tough to Die”
Surprisingly there were 2 large fires, one in 1881 and another in 1882, which destroyed most of the town. Normally this would be the end of any other mining town. But after each fire, Tombstone was rebuilt and continued to keep growing.
Outside of fires, Tombstone was also the most lawless mining camp in the American west and was eventually named “The Town Too Tough to Die.”
On October 26, 1881, a historic event involving Wyatt Earp, Virgil and Morgan Earp, and friend Doc Holliday occurred known as the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. A bloody but memorable event which eventually lead to the creation of the popular western film Tombstone (1993).
What’s funny is many people say this event is what has kept Tombstone alive to this day. Bringing in history buffs, western lovers, and those who just love the film, to come visit the site of the notorious gunfight.
It was in the early 1930’s when the town started to decline. Mine shafts were dug too deep which reached the water table resulting in flooding of the mines. There were attempts to remove the water by pumps, but over a few years, the work became too costly. Soon, the mines were no longer in use and the population decreased to around only 150 people.
Today, Tombstone is home to 1,350 residents and remains open to the public. Considered one of the most popular and lively ghost towns of the country, fueled by tourism and by those who visit looking to experience the old west.
8 BEST THINGS TO DO IN TOMBSTONE AZ
Seeing the old west portrayed through the film is great, but it’s a whole different story actually walking along the infamous dusty streets of Tombstone. Amazingly, there is so much to see and do in this little town. Here’s a list of the main activities you can expect to do when roaming the streets.
1. Walk The Historic Rows
My favorite activity here (which is also the most simple and cheap), is just walking along the historic rows and streets of Tombstone. The main street of the town is known as Allen Street, parallel to the 2nd busiest street of town, Toughnut St.
Take in the old west architecture, see the historic markers, and transcend yourself back in time while you walk along the clunky wooden platforms.
Across the rows are numerous shops if you’re looking for western knick-knacks, leather attire, old west photos, and other memorabilia from Tombstone’s history. Window shopping or not, there is a lot of sightseeing and history to take in just by cruising along the streets.
2. Eat or Drink at the Local Restaurants or Saloons
For a more immersive experience, you can grab food and drink at one of the many restaurants and saloons of the town.
Currently, there are around 5-6 saloons and restaurants within Tombstone. Doc Holliday’s Saloon, Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, and the Crystal Palace Saloon being the most popular.
We tried “Doc’s Favorite Whiskey” at Doc Holliday’s Saloon, which was his preferred drink according to the bars history. There’s something really neat (pun intended) about visiting these old saloons knowing that they once served outlaws and gunmen back in the day.
3. Watch A Gun Show
If you’re looking for something more exciting than restaurants and shopping, you can pop in at one of the many scheduled gun shows. The OK Corral is the most popular gun show of Tombstone due to the historic event which once happened here.
Outside of OK Corral, you can also see reenacted gunfights at The Gunfight Palace and the Saloon Theater.
Wanting something more hands on? You can even partake in the Big Iron Shooting Gallery which allows you to shoot real cold 45 caliber cowboy guns! Seeing the gun show was enough for me, but I’m sure there’s those who would love an opportunity at this.
4. Ride Along in the Horse Drawn Carriages
The first thing you may notice when you step outside of your car is the smell. Yep, the strong smell of horse droppings. Honestly, I didn’t mind this at all, if anything it adds so much more to the authenticity of Tombstone. Plus you get used to it after little while.
Once in town, you’ll immediately see multiple horse drawn carriages wandering up and down the streets. You can pay to ride in one of the many carriages and receive a narrated tour from your coachmen. However, it doesn’t look like you travel too far and they probably just take you along a few streets.
Even though this may be more up the alley for children, it still offers a new and fun way to see the town.
5. Visit The Famous Bird Cage Theater
The Bird Cage Theater holds a strong reputation for being the wildest and wickedest night spot in the west.
For 8 years, the theater operated continuously 24 hours a day, all year round. It was commonly visited by cowboys and travelers looking to gamble, drink, and enjoy some fun with the “soiled doves,” which we know today as prostitutes.
According to historical records, a shocking number of 26 people have died within the Bird Cage Theater. Which is also what some say contribute to the strong paranormal activity within the building.
Inside, there are over 140 bullet holes that remain in the walls of the theater. Some claim to be pushed by unseen forces, or hear sounds of laughter, yelling, gunshots, and music at night.
Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, we still highly recommend visiting the theater to see many of the historic artifacts, old gambling tables, and the bird cages where the prostitutes once worked.
6. Chat With The Cowboys Wandering The Streets
Unlike other ghost towns we’ve visited, Tombstone actually has costumed cowboys which drift throughout the streets. Some costumed as part of the towns entertainment, others dressed up as a hobby and with love of the old west.
Either way, it really does add a unique charm to the town seeing old west style characters walking the rows.
If you’re not intimated by the real guns harnessed on their sides, be sure to strike up a conversation with some of them! Many actually do love talking to the locals to share their passion of Tombstone and the old west era. An awesome perk to Tombstone that adds even more to the overall authenticity.
7. Don’t Miss The Boothill Cemetery
About 5 minutes up the road, you can visit the old Boothill Cemetery. Mainly used to bury outlaws, this small cemetery holds at least 250 people from the olden days of Tombstone. The term “Boot Hill” refers to the number of men who died with their boots on.
Even though there is a small fee to enter, it’s something we recommend you to see at least once. Take a self guided tour of the grounds to learn about the men who died here while walking along their graves.
8. Sign Up for a Ghost Tour or Guided History Tour
If you’re curious to discover more about the history or paranormal events of Tombstone, you should then sign up for one of the many tours offered.
Guided ghost tours leave nightly at dusk from Big Nose Kate’s Saloon and are about one hour long. Visit the 10 most haunted spots in Tombstone including the Bird Cage Theater, China Mary’s, Tombstone’s General Hospital, and the OK Corral.
For those looking for a less chilling experience, there are historic tours you can take by stagecoach or by walking tour from Dr. Jay. These offer a more intimate explanation of Tombstone’s history outside of the paranormal.
Other tours nearby are the Tombstone Trolley Tour, Jeep Tours, and the Good Enough Mine Underground Tours.
As you can see there are many different types of tours to choose from depending on your personal preference!
Pro-Tip: Visit Tombstone at Night for a More Secluded Experience
If you happen to visit Tombstone during the weekend or holidays, you’ll find it can be pretty crowded. Streets are bustling with carriages, handfuls of people are wandering the rows, and there is an overall sense of busyness in the air.
Of course, this is a good thing if you’ve never experienced Tombstone before. Although, to connect with Tombstone without the crowds, we highly recommend visiting at night.
Know beforehand that all the shops, attractions, and majority of the restaurants will be closed. The only thing really open is one or two of the saloons.
Nightly Accommodation in Tombstone
During our last visit, we stayed overnight in one of the nearby motels to Tombstone so we would be walking distance to the town once night fell. Our favorite motel we’ve stayed in was the Larian Motel. Each room was themed as one of the popular gunslingers of the time.
We stayed in Wyatt Earp’s room which also included the movie Tombstone on DVD. It was so fun to watch the film again and then literally walk right across the street to stand in the same place it all went down.
Once in town, we cruised over to Doc Holliday’s saloon which was open till 2:00am. Perfect!
After a few brewskies, we were ready to cruise the town once again but this time, with no one around. Walking the empty streets is a completely different experience compared to before.
Honestly, visiting Tombstone at night is my all time favorite! A much more intimate and personal experience where I can fully indulge in my western hankerings. Also a perfect time for ghost hunting if you’re into that sort of thing.
Tombstone AZ – A Satisfying Adventure Into The Old West
After you visit Tombstone for the first time, you’ll easily understand why this is considered the most authentic western town in America.
Tombstone is a legendary town full of intense history, famous gunslingers and outlaws, a violent past, and even paranormal encounters that make this one of the best old mining towns to see to this day.
Either take in Tombstone the simple way by roaming the timeworn streets, or dive deeper and immerse yourself in a gun show or one of the many tours. No matter what you choose, it’s easy to get lost in time at Tombstone, The Town That’s Too Tough To Die.
Have you been to Tombstone before? What did you enjoy doing most here? Share with us in the comments below!
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