Arizona is a land of extremes — not only when it comes to weather, climate, and geography, but also in terms of its cities and towns. The majority of the state’s 7.3 million inhabitants might live within the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas, but outside those densely populated cities are dozens of small towns that make for great weekend trips for locals and visitors alike. While some are thriving contemporary communities, others are historic ghost towns with Wild West panache — and both warrant a visit.
To help guide your exploration of the Grand Canyon State, here are eight of the best small towns in Arizona, each with a population of 11,000 people or less. Whether you’re looking for adventure with hiking and zip lining or a rich history with fascinating museums, there’s a small town for you.
Like many of Arizona’s small towns, Bisbee in the Mule Mountains was founded as a mining town in the late 19th century, and that means there’s lots of history to sift through during a visit. Start by heading underground to tour the Copper Queen Mine, which not only produced copper, but also a rare form of turquoise named Bisbee Blue. Then, drop by the massive Lavender Pit to experience an entirely different type of mine: an open-pit copper mine. After your immersive experience, make your way downtown to learn even more about mining at the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum — or, if you’ve had enough, drop by the Old Bisbee Brewing Company for a cold pint. As you stroll around town, pop into galleries and boutiques, peep the Victorian-style houses and Art Deco county courthouse, and perhaps even brave an evening ghost tour.
Arguably the most famous of Arizona’s small towns, Sedona is known for its hiking trails, spa retreats, and stargazing from wilderness areas. That said, not many of those activities happen in the town itself. But Uptown Sedona (the more touristy side of town) and West Sedona (the more local side of town) are worthy of a visit on an afternoon when you’re not scrambling over red rocks or being pampered with a massage — particularly, if you’re big into shopping or arts and crafts. There’s a vibrant cultural scene here, with artists and craftspeople peddling their wares in the town’s boutiques, plus a slew of restaurants and bars for post-hike refueling.
Named for the concept of “arcology,” a portmanteau of architecture and ecology, the experimental town of Arcosanti was conceived by architect Paolo Soleri, who began construction on his utopia in 1970. The sci-fi-looking place, which is managed by the Cosanti Foundation, is an active architectural laboratory studying how to minimize human impact on the environment. More than 50 years after its groundbreaking introduction, Arcosanti is only 5% complete, but it’s still under construction today — residents are students and volunteers who spend six-week stints developing the city further, or working in the bronze foundry, casting Soleri’s famous bells. Visitors are welcome to the town’s public areas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; resident-led tours are also available, as are overnight stays.
In the early 1920s, the mining town of Jerome led the state in gold, silver, and copper production. Its boom in wealth led to an increase in, well, unsavory behavior, with dozens of bars and bordellos spread throughout its streets, earning it the nickname “the Wickedest City in the West.” By the mid-1950s, however, the mines had closed, and Jerome was deserted. But not for long — in the 1960s, a major restoration project revived the town and gained it National Historic Landmark status in 1967. Now, it’s a little community of historic buildings filled with shops, restaurants, and bars. Though 450 people live here now, Jerome’s ghost town days aren’t over — some say this is one of Arizona’s most haunted destinations.
If you’re visiting the Grand Canyon, but want to stay somewhere with a little more action than Grand Canyon Village or Tusayan, head a bit further south to the town of Williams, known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon. As the last city on Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40, Williams still proudly shows off its Mother Road heritage; the historic highway is lined with retro details, from street lamps to an old gas station–turned-museum. But the destination has some Wild West history, too — stay at the Red Garter Inn, a former saloon and bordello built in 1897, to get a taste. Williams is also the terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway, which departs from the historic Williams Depot. But there are plenty of modern attractions here as well, from adventure activities like a zip line and the Canyon Coaster (due to open later this year) to local breweries and wineries.
If you’re a fan of the Eagles — the band, not the football team — you might recall a lyric from “Take It Easy” that mentions “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.” It turns out Winslow is a real place (Eagles singer-songwriter Jackson Browne once visited on a road trip), and because of that song reference, it’s home to Standin’ on the Corner Park and the Standin’ on the Corner Festival each year, when Eagles fans descend upon the destination for live music. Beyond its musical legacy, Winslow is known as an old Route 66 town; visit the historic La Posada Hotel for a throwback to the old railway days, and have a drink and bite to eat at its Turquoise Room restaurant.
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the most famous shoot-out in American frontier history, took place right here in Tombstone, a 19th-century silver-mining boomtown filled with more than 100 saloons, a bowling alley, and even an opera house. (Interestingly, the deadly fight didn’t actually happen at the O.K. Corral, but in a lot a few doors down.) After the mines flooded in 1886, Tombstone was headed for its grave — but it hung onto life as a Wild West ghost town, eventually becoming a popular historic attraction. These days, you can witness gunfight reenactments around town, stroll a restored version of the boomtown’s main drag, Allen Street, and pop into museums to dig deeper into Tombstone’s history.
Carefree takes its name pretty seriously. The town is known for leisure, from laid-back yet upscale resorts to golf clubs to the names of its streets (two examples: Ho Hum Road and Tranquil Trail). It’s also known for its scenic hiking opportunities. But Carefree’s biggest claim to fame — and we mean that literally — is what’s claimed to be the largest sundial in the United States. Built by engineer John Yellott and architect Joe Wong in 1959 to honor Carefree’s founder, K.T. Palmer, the sundial has a diameter of 95 feet. The gnomon, or the shadow-casting protrusion, is 35 feet tall with a shadow twice that length.
Stefanie Waldek is a freelance space, travel, and design journalist who loves a small town-filled road trip. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @stefaniewaldek.