Canyons, Cacti and Southwest Charm in Superior, AZ
Prepared by Nick Cote in Partnership with Visit USA Parks.
Southwest kitsch, mining history, and rugged desert landscapes are all at the doorstep of this historic town. Make it a stop on your Southwest road trip this spring or plan a weekend getaway from nearby Phoenix or Tucson.
Seventy miles and a world away from Arizona’s two largest cities, this town of 3,000 people has survived the brutal boom-and-bust cycle that’s churned out so many ghost towns to become a destination for outdoor recreation. Surrounded by desert peaks, shaded canyons and shear cliffs, there’s plenty to explore just steps away from town.
Not literally–the Legends of Superior Trails (LOST Trails) begin right in the town center, leading hikers, bikers, and equestrians for 11.65 miles through the Sonoran Desert to connect to the Arizona Trail. The system is split up into segments, each offering a slightly different character. Along the Pinal City Panther segment you’ll pass by the crumbling town site of Pinal City, which was abandoned in 1891 after the silver market crashed. An old mill, a few foundations and some mine tailing piles are about all that remains of the town as it slowly becomes reclaimed by the desert. For a respite from the heat, take a hike through the desert riparian forests in Arnett Canyon or Queen Creek Canyon. At the eastern terminus of the latter, you’ll come across an old section of Highway 60 and the Claypool Tunnel, which was abandoned in 1952 when the highway was re-routed.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum
This is not your average botanical garden—at over 340 acres and with 5 miles of walking trails, you can easily spend a day here going down a rabbit hole of rare cacti and succulents from all over the world. Not only is this the largest botanical garden in Arizona, it’s also the oldest. Established in 1924, it’s been growing (no pun intended) ever since, most recently with the addition of the Wallace Desert Garden, adding over 5,000 plants to the repertoire. While the rare and exotic plants get most of the attention, spend some time learning about the plants native to the region. You’ll never look at the surrounding desert the same way again when you understand the incredible amount of biodiversity it can support.
The Town that Lived
If it weren’t for the discovery of copper nearby, Superior likely would’ve succumbed to the same fate as Pinal City. Despite the closure of the Magma copper mine in 1996, the town has survived as a draw for city-dwellers looking for an escape and a new crop of eco-minded artisans and history enthusiasts. Start off with a stop at the Red Caboose Visitor Center (yes, it’s in an actual caboose) to learn about the town’s history and get your bearings. Then make your way downtown to stroll through boutique shops, art galleries, and restaurants, stopping to take in the town’s historic architecture (or a bottle of wine at the Bruzzi Vineyard tasting room). Next to the Buckboard City Cafe you’ll find the World’s Smallest Museum, which houses a collection of oddities ranging from random collectibles to the world’s largest piece of Apache Tear, a type of obsidian stone.
On the outskirts of town, pay your respects to Mattie Earp, Wyatt Earp’s common-law wife, at the Historic Pinal Cemetery. At the end of the day, post up at the Hotel Magma, a 1912 boarding house that was restored and reopened in 2019 as a boutique hotel. If you’re lucky enough to get a room with a balcony, it’s one of the best spots in town to catch the sunset, a fitting end to a day in one of Arizona’s best small towns.