Bisbee staircase / © Kathy Lautz

1,000 Steps at 5,500 Feet

Sprinting and strolling through Arizona’s most eccentric mining town

BYKim Jakubowski
Arizona has yielded more than its fair share of mining camps turned buzzing artists’ colonies. Since its mining operations ceased in the mid-1970s, former “Copper Queen” Bisbee has cultivated a unique brand of tourist-tempting honey, attracting folk singers and history buffs, gallery hoppers and ghost hunters, beer snobs and foodies — and since 1991, runners.
 
The recent spike in Nike-clad feet on Bisbee’s streets can be explained in part by the town’s pre-automobile roots. With a growing need for homes near the booming copper mine and no room to spread outward, the canyon-cradled city climbed upward. Switchback-heavy dirt paths provided access to the town’s hillside homes before evolving into wooden ladder-like thoroughfares. Thanks to a Works Progress Administration effort to put miners back to work during the Depression, concrete staircases were built over the paths, becoming one of Bisbee’s defining architectural features and, later, inspiration for one of the country’s most spirited fitness challenges. 
 
The 4.5-mile Bisbee 1,000 race — named for the 1,034 stairs its runners surmount — takes place the third weekend in October every year. It’s the only outdoor stair climb in the United States, and thanks to 140-year-old Bisbee’s historic charm, it’s arguably the most scenic. The race begins in front of the “Iron Man,” a 9-foot tall Depression-era concrete sculpture plated with a layer of copper to immortalize the town’s miners. Runners then wind past live musicians, puzzlingly stacked turquoise and poppy-colored homes, and Mule Mountain overlooks that almost make the sprint to the top of each staircase worth the pain.
 
The Iron Man Ice Challenge, originally tacked onto the Bisbee 1,000 in 1993 to entertain participants awaiting the awards ceremony, has evolved to become a central race day tradition. Participants shoulder the duties of yesteryear’s ice deliverymen, sprinting up 155 steps while gripping a 10-pound block of ice in a pair of antique tongs. 
 
For runners craving a well-earned post-race beer, the Bisbee 1,000 also shares the weekend with the town’s craft brew festival.
 
Stroll
Peppered with galleries, shops, and ample evidence of its early years as one of the most cultured cities in the western United States, Bisbee’s streets are worth revisiting at a slower pace. The town is home to several Arizona firsts, including Warren Ballpark, purported to be the nation’s oldest ballfield; Turquoise Valley, Arizona’s first golf course; and Copper Queen Library, the state’s first public library. The fascinating Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum is the country’s first rural affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
 
Sip and Savor
During Bisbee’s mining heyday, Brewery Gulch was allegedly home to more than 50 saloons. Though the number of drinking establishments has dwindled with the population, the area offers more than a few praiseworthy options for indulgence.
 
Less masochistic travel companions will find the front patio at Screaming Banshee Pizza an ideal sideline spot on race day. Its bar opens early to accommodate spectators with breakfast margaritas and Bloody Marys. Wait for the kitchen to open for a satisfying (and atypically topped) wood-fired pizza. High Desert Market and Cafe makes for another perfect patio vantage point, with homemade pastries and a gourmet grocery featuring imported and local cheeses, wine, and crafts.
 
For a post-race breakfast or lunch, stop by Ana’s Seasonal Kitchen. True to its name, the menu changes regularly, but October might find your plate topped with caramel- and honey-drizzled ricotta pumpkin pancakes. Make dinner reservations at Café Roka for upscale dining that fuels international flavors with locally sourced ingredients.
 
Fittingly, tiny Bisbee also is home to Arizona’s smallest bar: Room 4. Located in the Silver King Hotel’s second floor lobby, the three-stool, 100-square-foot space enforces an atmosphere of familiarity and conversation. Just outside the lobby, the bar hosts live music on a spacious outdoor patio overlooking Brewery Avenue. Should you find yourself perched there on race night, take a moment to size up the stairs you summited, prop up your aching calves, and toast the mile-high view.
KIM JAKUBOWSKI is the associate editor of Highroads and a 2016 Bisbee 1,000 participant.
If You Go
Bisbee 1,000 registration: 2017’s race is slated for Saturday, Oct. 21. Registration is limited to 1,500 participants, so grab your spot early. For details and to register, visit Bisbee1000.org.
 
Hotel availability: If you’re visiting Bisbee during a popular festival weekend, it’s best to book your room several months prior to the event. For the Bisbee 1,000, it’s not uncommon for every vacancy to be filled by July.
 
Explore Arizona
Find out about more Arizona trips by visiting AAA.com or calling your local AAA Travel agent toll-free at 1-888-870-9392.
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