Forgotten Treasures of the Old West
If you blink, you’ll miss it. If you stop, you won’t forget it.
The high desert of Arizona is one of the most deceptive and surprising areas in the world. Hidden in the seemingly endless planes of scrub grass and junipers is a network of ancient canyons, flourishing riparian zones, and cultural sites that attract photographers, hikers, and historians alike.
Some of the most spectacular hideaways of this secretive area are the lost towns of Canyon Diablo and Two Guns located on Interstate 40 between Winslow and Flagstaff at the abandoned Exit 230.
While not as well-known as Tombstone, Arizona, or Dodge City, Kansas, the city of Canyon Diablo was no less terrible. Its sordid ascension can be likened to a dust devil: fast, destructive, and short-lived. In fact, during its two-year heyday, Canyon Diablo accounted for more violent deaths than Tombstone, Dodge City, or Abilene, Kansas, combined. In the dusty air, you can nearly still smell the gunpowder.
The ruins themselves sit just east of the steep walls of Canyon Diablo for which the town was named and the 1946 railway bridge that spans it. With the tallest mountains in the state forming a formidable background, the location is ideal for rustic photoshoots, exploration, and satisfying your history-buff side. Watch for sharp debris and barbed wire. Decent into the Canyon Diablo gorge is possible from the western wall for skilled Class 3-4 climbers. There is no trail.
Settled along the same canyon system to the south, Two Guns rose up over half a century after its sister to the north. Visitors can move freely through large and impressive ruins including a zoo, a two-story tower, and a tiered hotel that cascades towards the base of the cliffs on which it was built. The native stone construction and desert preservation that only Arizona can provide create a breathtaking experience through time and once-in-a-lifetime photographs. Look down and try to spot a giant, blue-collared lizard sunning himself on the rocks – and try not a yelp if a jackrabbit suddenly springs from a tumbleweed.
The area also offers a hidden – and allegedly cursed – cave nestled in the canyons walls below the town’s Hopi-style dwelling. The first 100 or so feet offer natural skylights that create resplendent shafts and stones that appear to glow. In the two caverns beyond, the cave requires artificial light. Paying close attention to the walls, one might even find a pair of furry bats nestled into the limestone grooves, awaiting the onset of twilight. Tread cautiously as there is man-made debris has fallen from the ruins into the initial turns of the cavern.
Two Guns is the perfect destination for desert photography of the Old West, beginner cavers, sightseers, and those wanting to unearth their inner Indiana Jones. Two Guns is accessed by dirt road but does not require high clearance. It is also a fantastic add-on to visitors seeing the world-renown Meteor Crater (I-40 Exit 233) or vacationers staying at the luxurious Twin Arrows Casino (I-40 Exit 219).
For Canyon Diablo, take Exit 230 on Interstate 40 to the north. The pavement will immediately drop off into an unmaintained road of dust, limestone stabs, and sharp rock. High clearance vehicles are recommended for this destination though cautiously driven lower-clearance vehicles may be successful. Although storms are rare in the desert, be mindful of mud and standing pools. The limestone road extends through the brush for roughly two miles before running against the still-active railway. Access to the canyon and bridge is to the west on the road that parallels the tracks. The ruins are also to the west but north of the tracks.
Two Guns is at Exit 230 immediately to the south.