It easy to overlook Ajo. It’s far from the metro tourism markets of Phoenix and Tucson, and the popular destinations of Sedona, Jerome and Grand Canyon.
The town is just 40 miles north of the border on the road to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point). But those travelers, in a hurry to get to the beach, pass right through the former mining town.
They’re missing out. Ajo has one of the prettiest town plazas in Arizona and the Southwest. USA Today readers in 2017 voted Ajo the Best Small Town in the Southwest.
The town’s charm starts with its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the plaza, two beautiful desert churches and a stately school that’s been beautifully restored.
Just over a century ago, New Cornelia Mine owner John Campbell Greenway and his wife Isabella tapped into the City Beautiful Movement to design and plan their company town. Reformers believed that building beautiful urban centers would inspire civil pride and lift up the lower social classes. Keep in mind, that Ajo and other mining towns were segregated with neighborhoods for Mexican and working class residents, and the better areas for mine managers, merchants and professionals.
In any case, the Greenways invested in creating a wide plaza with a band stand and lush lawn. It was surrounded by a train depot, now converted to a visitor center, a theater that’s been transformed into a coffee shop, the post office and a handful of shops.
The surrounding streets are lined with modest bungalows and cottages on well-kept street a short walk from the plaza.
Ajo functioned well until the mid-1980s when the massive open pit copper mine closed. Laid-off workers packed their pickups and fled.
Fortunately, in the past decade, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance bought much of the historic community architecture. The nonprofit group has been restoring it and working to bring artists, entrepreneurs and investment to Ajo.
Artists work and live at the magnificent Curley School. A school annex has been converted to the Sonoran Desert Conference
Center with school rooms converted to hotel rooms and meeting space. Murals decorate alleys and warehouse walls in a vibrant display of a renaissance that’s going on in Ajo.
Keep in mind it’s still got a ways to go. Winter, spring and fall are busy with seasonal visitors and residents. Organ Pipe National Monument, south of Ajo attracts 260,000 visitors annually but
most come during mild-weather months from October to April. Everything slows down when triple-digit temperatures arrive in May and don’t let up until well into September.
Ajo is close enough to Phoenix and Tucson for a day trip but I’m anxious to try an overnight trip combined with some time to explore Organ Pipe, the open pit mine, Ajo Historical Museum and the Greenway mansion on a hill. There are also loop trails around the town for mountain bikers and a driving trip.
The Tohono O’odham tribe operates a Desert Diamond Casino in Why just 15 minutes from Ajo. Meanwhile, it’s a 20-minute drive to Organ Pipe National Monument. The park has camping with developed sites but no reservations.
From 1916 to 1998, Ajo was served by the Tucson, Cornelia & Gila Bend Railroad, a branch line carrying copper and passengers. In 1977, Arizona Highways noted that the T.C. & G.B carried up to 18 passengers on its daily roundtrip for a fare of $1.94.
Travelers rode in a "30-year-old wooden-slat caboose, with ice water provided out of a a galvanized bucket in paper cups. In this part of the world, that's luxury."
The T.C. & G.B. is but a memory. But the old freight warehouse
is a beautifully weathered relic of the Iron Horse age and the depot is still welcoming Ajo visitors.
Elevation: 1,749 feet
Population: 3,696 (2016 estimate)