Clifton, Arizona: Cliffside Jail


Day 7 will be spent almost exclusively on one amazing highway, US 191, the Coronado Trail.  Take I-10 east from Willcox to the 191 turnoff, then head north.  The road is a bit boring at first, until you reach Clifton.

Clifton, Arizona is a tiny town that’s barely hanging on to life, thanks mostly to the Phelps Dodge Copper Mine just north of town. The town’s rails helped it thrive in the past.  Now, they’re fairly quiet. You’ll find the chamber of commerce visitor information inside the train station.

Just up the road from the train station you’ll pull off the road again, to see a couple of interesting attractions.  First is this locomotive from the Coronado Railroad.  Let the kids climb aboard and play for a while.

The kids may lose interest in the train when they see this: Clifton’s first jail, carved out of the mountainside!  The jail has two cells, one with a window, and one without.  Most of the time, the town leaves the jail unlocked, so can venture (if you dare — bring your flashlight!) down into the dark cells.  It appears the jail is wired with electricity, but I searched everywhere for a switch, with no luck.

To enter the cells you first must descend a flight of stairs, which takes you underground.  Then you go into the mountain, into a central room, where the doors to both cells are located.  I made it that far, but didn’t go into the cells themselves.  It was just too dark and spooky.

Take time to read the interpretive plaque outside the jail, which explains why the jail’s builder also ended up its first resident.

Cross the bridge to find one more attraction in Clifton: this giant excavator used in the open-pit copper mines.  Like the jail and the locomotive, this machine is also open for exploration.  You can climb inside, underneath, or perhaps with some ingenuity and a disregard for safety, even climb to the top of it.

For a little perspective on just how massive this machine is, you can visit my other website,

Although it is not completely abandoned, Clifton’s downtown feels a lot like a ghost town.  A few people still live above the storefronts, but most windows are boarded up, and doors locked tight.

I guess this used to be a store.  Even though some of the walls still stand, it’s now a parking lot.

Here’s another view of the narrow street.

You can still find old advertisements, probably from half a century ago, painted on the walls in alleyways.

I can only imagine what the locals thought of me taking a picture of their one way sign.

Once you’re done walking around downtown, get back on US 191 and head north.


As you head north, it’s at least 90 miles until the next services, and the towns of Clifton and Morenci are your last chance.  So check the gas tank and the cooler before moving on.

Note: This trip was first published in 2005.

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