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Ajo is a community finding new ways to thrive using its history to fuel a creative future. It’s quietly becoming a must-visit spot for anyone who appreciates history, culture, and the rugged, honest character of Arizona’s beautiful desert landscape.

I love old, dusty desert towns. 

Most people see derelict structures, sun-leached colors, and places with their best days behind them. 

But I find despair in manicured lawns and cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs. And see nothing but character in the mining, ranching, and railroad towns of the American Southwest.

So when Levi suggested we go camping on public land south of Ajo, Arizona, I was all in.

From where we live in Tucson, getting to Ajo requires a 2-hour drive west. And it’s a trek that’ll recalibrate your sense of “middle of nowhere.” 

The southwest corner of Arizona between Tucson and Yuma is surrounded by areas that are off-limits for development, including Tohono O’odham Nation, Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

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Stars and saguaros in our camp near Ajo, Arizona • Photo taken by the author

The rest of the vast land around Ajo is under the care of the Bureau of Land Management. One such area is Darby Well Road — an unpaved route southeast of Ajo that winds past a 1.5-mile-wide copper mine into a dizzying network of paths leading to the international border. 

And that’s where we decided to camp on New Year’s Eve.

The desert around Ajo is devastatingly beautiful. During the day, endless stretches of deep blue sky complement a rugged landscape dotted by cacti and other desert plants in every shade of green imaginable. 

Each saguaro seems to have its own personality, and the only sounds come from a cast of diverse wildlife one might not expect to find in a desert. 

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A cactus wren, Arizona’s state bird, perching on a cholla in our campsite near Ajo • Photo taken by the author

Without city lights to blast out the sky at night, it’s just you and the stars. 

The Milky Way, plainly visible with the naked eye, cut a swath across the sky behind the Little Ajo Mountains, heralding the appearance of my favorite winter constellation — Orion.

As we sat around the campfire with border patrol trucks racing down the road, we couldn’t help thinking about the area’s remarkable history. And its modern troubles as well.

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A New Year’s Eve sunset in the desert around Ajo, Arizona. We joked that this was 2023’s way of apologizing to us for being challenging. • Photo taken by the author

A Short History of Ajo

Ajo is a small town with a big past. Due to its remote location 40-some miles from the border with México in Arizona’s low desert, living and working in the region is challenging.

But despite the hot summer days and scarce water, Native Americans mined the area’s mineral wealth long before the arrival of explorers and settlers.

Before Ajo was settled, the Tohono O’odham called it Mu’i Wawhia, or “many wells,” because of the water holes they found there. It’s thought the name Ajo comes from the O’odham word for the red pigment they found in the rocks — au-auho.

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Ajo’s Plaza was built in 1917 by copper mine owners to provide amenities for their workers and a train depot for the town. Today, it houses shops and restaurants and serves as a hub for events and activities. • Photo taken by the author

The story of the massive copper mine you see in Ajo today started in 1847 when a frontiersman named Tom Childs, Sr. stumbled upon ore deposits in the area¹. 

This led to the formation of the Arizona Mining & Trading Company, which shipped the ore to Wales for smelting in the mid-1850s. Challenges like shipwrecks and long supply lines eventually caused the original commercial mine to close.

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The old train depot in Ajo. Built in 1916 to provide rail service to Gila Bend, it’s now home to the Chamber of Commerce. • Photo taken by the author

In 1890, mining promoters A.J. Shotwell and John R. Bodie started the New Cornelia Mine. But their operations were hindered by a bad investment in the McGahan Vacuum Smelter device, which falsely claimed it could extract copper efficiently².

In 1911, the Calumet and Arizona Copper Company bought stock in the New Cornelia Copper Company. 

Manager John Campbell Greenway and mining engineer Dr. L.D. Ricketts devised a leaching process that set Ajo up to have a profitable open-pit mine until 1985 when a labor strike and falling copper prices shuttered operations.

An Arizona mining town reinvents itself as an arts destination
Ajo reminded me of Bisbee, another southern Arizona mining town fusing its storied history with a future in arts and tourism • Video by PBS NewsHour

Today, Ajo is turning itself into a destination for arts and culture. Far from a dead and forgotten mining ghost town, the community uses its historical spaces, like the old Curley High School, to attract artists.

This transformation is not just about colorful murals and farmers’ markets — a more profound change is taking root. Ajo is becoming a place where creativity, history, and culture thrive, inviting artists and visitors alike to be part of its new chapter.

What It’s Like to Visit Ajo Today

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If the sensational headlines are accurate and there’s a war at the border, Ajo is on the front lines. But despite its proximity to México, I found no polarizing political signs. 

Instead, I saw murals about peace, humanitarian aid, and nature.

Migration, for all living creatures, is a move from scarcity toward plenty — from despair toward hope. Humans have their own migratory impulse based on the same fundamental desire coded within all living things: survival.

— Mural in Ajo, Arizona (artist unknown)

As we drove around in our unfamiliar vehicle as two strangers, people waved. No one stared or treated us like we didn’t belong there.

With its copper mine silenced since the ’80s, the town’s source of survival is tourism, retirees, and border patrol. Ajo sits along the only sensible route from Phoenix and Tucson to Puerto Peñasco, a resort town and popular vacation destination in Sonora, México.

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We engaged in what’s possibly one of the most southern Arizona activities possible — eating chorizo and egg burritos with green salsa while parked at Ajo’s mine overlook • Photo taken by the author

Sadly for both Puerto Peñasco and Ajo, when we visited the Lukeville port of entry had been closed for a month due to a surge of migrants seeking asylum. 

Both towns suffered from the United States and Mexico’s inability to work together effectively on border issues.

In this area of the United States, these issues manifest as more than just political talking points and scores for one’s “team.” They affect regular people in tangible ways. 

The towering steel border wall, raised across sacred O’odham sites like Quitobaquito Springs, has caused environmental damage and cultural disruption. Native people have seen their history challenged and, in some ways, erased. 

Mural at the Ajo Copper news building on Pajaro Street. The newspaper started in 1916 and has been published weekly since. • Photo taken by the author

I don’t claim to know better or have answers for these problems. I just know what I experienced in Ajo and how it made me feel.

Sometimes, the most extraordinary places are hidden in plain sight. Towns like Ajo don’t just preserve history. They breathe new life into it.

What I saw in that quaint town no one’s ever heard of in the middle of the desert is the United States I want to live in. One where we set aside tribalism, acknowledge complicated issues without black-and-white thinking, and treat each other with dignity and respect.

Ajo may not be widely known, but its story highlights how a community can redefine itself without losing its soul.


[1]: Hoy, B. (1999). DON TOMÁS AND TOMASITO: The Childs Family Legacy in Southern Arizona. The Journal of Arizona History, 40(1), 1–28.

[2]: Ascarza, W. (2017, May 7). Mine Tales: Ajo had Arizona’s first open-pit copper mine. Arizona Daily Star. Retrieved from

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