Exploring Old Jerome & Scenic Backcountry
Our weekend adventure to the Smiley Rock trail was to take us into the Prescott National Forest, nearly the dead center of Arizona. Here we would find both scenic 'wheeling and intriguing history from the early days of the Wild West.
We started in the town of Jerome to explore this revived western ghost town before putting our tires in the dirt. Perched on an expansive hilltop in central Arizona lies a town like many others across the Southwest that went through boom and bust. It was a wild town back in the day. Before it became a bustling mining town, the Yavapai Indians mined here and Spanish Conquistadores roamed the area in search of mythic treasures. Its livelier times started in the late 1870s, when a handful of pioneers began exploring the area and filed mining claims to look for precious metals.
Jerome incorporated in 1898 as a town in the then Arizona Territory. It was once known as “The Wickedest Town in America” due to the lawlessness and general mayhem that existed here throughout its community. Gunfights, gambling, alcohol, and drugs were common here as the town ballooned in population.
While there was gold and silver in the area, there was also ample copper ore, and when WWI started, copper prices shot up and the race was on to fill the needs for the industrial metal. Workers continued to pour into the town from all over the world, and the town reached a peak population of about 15,000 in the Roaring '20s. As the high-grade ore started to dwindle and copper prices declined, the town shriveled during the Depression, and the mines closed in 1930.
Phelps Dodge bought up many of the mining rights in 1935 and began heavy blasting to gain access to deeper ore deposits. The blasting was so extreme at times that a good number of buildings in Jerome were knocked from their foundations and slid down the hillsides. The town briefly resurged during WWII but then dipped back into a dying phase until Phelps Dodge ceased mining operations in 1952 for good. Many of the occupants, with no chance of employment, packed up what they could and left town. Jerome quickly turned into a modern-day ghost town.
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The town has struggled over the past four decades or so but has been repopulated in fits and spurts by individuals determined to bring back some of the town's past glory. Today it stands as a new community with a mix of Old West tradition and the eclectic influences of our modern society. We spent some time wandering Jerome, taking in some of the old town sites and looking at the relics of the past. We couldn't help but marvel at how time builds and then drains a community.
We stopped into the old Gold King Mine Museum, which is dedicated to the past mining and mechanized history of the area. Then it was time to hit the trail outside town, so we locked hubs and followed the road marked as primitive.
Our trail for the day left Jerome, headed west encircling the Woodchute Wilderness area, a 6,000-acre expanse spanning elevations from about 5,500 to 7,800 feet. Much of the 'wheeling was fairly easy, but we found a bit of rock crawling when we entered scenic Martin Canyon. Recent rains had left the entire area wet, and we found the canyon to be green and picturesque.
We camped overnight in the pines to the east of the canyon at about 7,100 feet. The high elevation offered us some escape from the high temperatures of late summer in the desert to the south of us. We had the chance to visit an old western town, check out some interesting mining artifacts, and enjoy some good 'wheeling and camping on a scenic trail. Not a bad weekend at all!