We left Monday, February 5, 2018, with San Diego in the rearview mirrors and the GPS pointed toward Arizona’s Gila Bend KOA. Along Interstate 8, we drove through hills populated with huge boulders, similar to what we saw at Jumbo Rocks in Joshua Tree National Park. The hills gave way to agricultural areas in the valleys. One field contained sheep clustered together in small groups as if they were in breakout sessions at a conference.
We made a pit stop at the multi-directional Sand Hills Rest Area located in the median and accessed from the fast lane. A group of ATVs on the sand hills caught my attention.
We lucked out getting reservations for a week during this trip at Gila Bend KOA when someone had to delay his arrival. The owners recently completed a two-year renovation project that has enticed other winter visitors to this location, filling the park on most nights. We ended our day sitting out under the awning, sipping beers, munching chips and salsa, and enjoying the amazing sunset and calm winds.
With the park so full, I expected a noisy morning. However, the loudest noises came from the cooing doves and the clicking hummingbirds that serenaded us throughout the day. An occasional boom and shake of the earth from air-to-ground bombing practice at the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range and a far-off freight train had little effect on the sounds of nature.
After two days relaxing and catching up on the wash and house cleaning duties, it was time to venture out. Here are a few places in and around Gila Bend that we managed to see.
Big Horn Station
Big Horn Station sits twenty miles east of Gila Bend on Interstate 8. We found a closed gate across the road with a chain in place, but no lock prevented our access to the property.
The Bender family established the station in the mid-1920s and became a stopping point for weary travelers between Casa Grande and Gila Bend on what once was Highway 84.
A. O. Bender and his son A. L. Bender made their living in the ranching industry, diversifying interests by selling gas, food, and other items to visitors.
The property is now in the hands of BLM who has partially restored the station and plans to add interpretive signs that will tell the history of the property and the people who called the station their home.
The bright colors on the building that houses Sofia’s enticed us to give it a try.
The 6-pack with three tacos and three enchiladas was the perfect sized lunch-for-two. The enchilada sauce infused with a mild spicy flavor was one of the best I ever tasted. Cleanliness is a priority at Sofia’s. Not a speck of dust coated the windowsills and even the ceiling air vents sparkled.
Gila Bend Visitor Center and Museum
The visitor center and museum found a clever way to draw travelers to visit. Geocaches point to various pieces of information or artifacts to attract searchers to the location. For the hour we were there, four groups of people came in on the hunt to find their next cache. The lady onsite even helped some of the visitors find the few obscure items. The museum contains several display cases of artifacts and small dioramas that depict the town’s early history. It’s worth a stop to visit for an hour or so.
9/11 Memorial Park
The 9/11 Memorial Park is the location of a 4,000-pound steel beam salvaged from the New York Twin Towers Ground Zero site. A concrete marquee nearby is engraved with names of men and women who gave their lives and service in the military.
The Rest of the Town
Once a thriving community, Gila Bend has experienced economic difficulties. There are plenty for-lease buildings available for enterprising individuals who are considering starting or bringing a business to town.
For grocery shopping, there is a Carniceria, Family Dollar, and Dollar General. The one food market that was in town remains closed, although, the Watermill Express kiosk does a brisk business.
A Circle K was close to completion with five or six pump lanes and a large building that looks like it will hold more than snack items and drinks. Perhaps this is a sign the town will soon experience an uptick in its economy.
The Ajo visitor center had a historic map with descriptions of various sites along a walking tour.
On the tour, we saw the Ajo Copper News building,
Then the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church built in 1925 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style came next. Many houses built in a similar fashion surrounded the church.
Also referred to as territorial houses, the most notable feature of this style is the clean horizontal lines.
Artist Alley was an interesting place with its bright colorful paintings.
Our server at Estrella Restaurant & Bar christened me Miss Picky Pants for asking so many questions about the menu.
I only wanted to know about the ingredients in the paninis in case I needed to break out the Zantac. My veggie sandwich turned out yummy (and easy on the tummy) and Jon’s ½-lb. cheeseburger was enough food for two people to eat. We washed our meals down with Arnold Palmers that were not overly sweet.
The Ajo Museum and Historical Society is housed in an old Catholic church and consists of period household items, military pieces, numerous documents including school yearbooks, various historical newspaper articles, and much more.
The docent, Louie Walters introduced himself as a retired mathematics teacher who has lived in Ajo since the 1960s.
He told us that Native Americans, Spaniards, and Americans all extracted minerals from Ajo’s rich ore deposits, and how the copper mining company, New Cornelia Branch of Phelps Dodge, and the town of Ajo was established and developed in the early 1900s.
He also used visual aids to show where Mexican Town and Indian Town had been located before the copper mining pit expansion encroached on the communities.
The company did compensate the people to leave their homes.
The copper mine pit overlook was a bit disappointing. The visitor center was closed by the time we left the museum, but I don’t think it would have made much difference. The view would still have been through a fence.
Our week was up and time to move on. Willcox, Arizona was our next stop so we could take a look at Fort Bowie National Historic Site, a place we had driven past two years in a row on our way to and from other places.