Bagdad, Arizona

A trip to Bagdad and some other places not in Iraq

by Gordon Burhop

Awhile back, before the pandemic, my eight-year-old grandson Matthew and I decided that we would take an easygoing three-day trip from our hometown of Phoenix and explore some back roads in the north central part of Arizona, in the Sonoran and Mojave Desert areas.  We set out to just wander around and see some sights during the day and to stop and camp and catch some fish during the evenings and early mornings.  We traveled well together because our attention spans were about the same. 

We headed northwest out of Phoenix bound for a back road that would take us through the ghost towns of Congress and Hillside into Bagdad, communities located north of Wickenburg and east of U. S. Highway 93.  This is a drive of roughly 100 miles. 

Congress and Hillside, connected by an easily traveled dirt road, were mining towns that boomed in the wake of late 19th century finds and faded just as quickly during the 1930s.  In both communities, you can still see the trappings and headstones that serve as reminders of the hard lives of miners and their families in such an isolated region.  Like most of the ghost towns in the Southwest, Congress and Hillside have their quirkiness. 

Bagdad, Arizona Frog Rock
Frog Rock, Bagdad, Arizona

Just north of downtown Congress, you’ll find a boulder – in fact, a 16-foot high, 60-some-odd-ton boulder – that is shaped like a frog.  No one paid much attention to it until about 1928, when Sara Perkins, wife of an Arizona newspaper publisher and state politician, and her two sons painted the boulder green, like a real frog, with slanty frog eyes and a smiling frog mouth and a white frog belly.  Local residents have kept Frog Rock painted, maintained and content ever since.  Matthew and I have the pictures to prove it. 

North of Congress, just off the dirt road to Hillside, you’ll find another strange boulder, this one shaped like a skull.  Someone – I don’t know who – painted this boulder white, with vacant skull eyes and smiling skull teeth.  Locals also keep Skull Rock painted, maintained and content.  Matthew and I have the pictures to prove that, too. 

After visiting ghost towns, stone frogs and stone skulls, Matthew and I headed on up to Bagdad, which we decided to make our destination for the day.  Bagdad, located on Bridle Creek at an elevation of some 4100 feet, lies at the Sonoran and Mojave Desert transition zone, which you can see in the mix of plants.  It has, for instance, the towering saguaro, a cactus that is a signature plant of the Sonoran Desert, and the fantastically shaped Joshua tree, a yucca that is a signature plant of the Mojave Desert.  You also find various cholla and prickly pear cacti and mesquite and palo verde shrubs that grow in both deserts. 

Coors Lake Bagdad, Arizona
Coors Lake was pretty dried up.

Bagdad’s origins can be traced back to 1880, when a man named John Lawler discovered copper near the town site.  Bagdad took root slowly, however, primarily because the location was remote and the copper was low grade.  It was not until the 1920s that mining operations really got traction, and it was not until the 1940s that mining became very profitable, primarily as a result of a government loan, new equipment and innovative open pit mining.  In 1999, Phelps Dodge acquired the Bagdad mining operation, and in 2002, the company introduced the world’s first commercial-scale concentrate leach facility at the Bagdad copper mining complex—a surprisingly high tech operation in an isolated and distinctly low-tech area. 

As Matthew and I discovered, Bagdad, a historic old mining community with a population of about 1800, is a true “company town.”  Phelps Dodge once owned all of the mining land, most of the local housing, and quite a few of the local businesses. Phelps Dodge was bought by Freeport-McMoRan in 2007; now that company owns the mines, housing and most businesses in Bagdad.

Bagdad, Arizona
Matt examining copper ore

After inquiring about fishing, camping and mine tours at the company office, we drove about two miles out of town to check out Coors Lake (the name reflects one of the weekend activities in the area).  We discovered that Coors Lake had shrunk to no more than a few acres.  It offered little in the way of fishing.

We drove back into Bagdad and found a local trailer park, where the supervisor said that we could camp for nothing, provided that we didn’t bother anyone.  We set up our tent and didn’t bother a soul all night.  

We went to eat over at Miner’s Diner, (now called Diner on Main) where the motto seemed to be, “ If you can’t wait, don’t order.”  While there, we heard a few yarns about the origin of the town’s name.  According to one tale, a father and his son came to Bagdad to mine the gold.  Every time the son got his bag filled, he would say, “Bag, Dad.”  Well, you can see where that’s going.  According to another, possibly more plausible story since copper, not gold, is the mineral that is mined here, Bagdad is simply a misspelling of the Iraqi capital.  We don’t know, however, what the connection is between Bagdad, Arizona, and Baghdad, Iraq.  We didn’t see any terrorists, though.

Author with old air drilling machine
Author with old air drilling machine

The next morning, after we picked up some staples at the grocery store, which is located on company land, and bought gas by credit card at the local, unmanned gas station, we went over to meet a guide who would take us on an “in-depth” tour of the 2000-foot deep open pit copper mine—the reason for Bagdad’s existence.  Matthew and I both paid attention for the whole tour through this enormous man-made chasm.

Leaving Bagdad, we wandered westward over to U. S. Highway 93 and to Nothing, Arizona, a community with its own electric generator, a gas stop and, at the time, all of four citizens.  Its principal claim to fame was its location at the middle of the Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway, roughly 20 miles south of Wickiup, the “rattlesnake capitol of Arizona.” 

The town of Nothing now really has nothing and is abandoned.
By Aantich - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Matthew and I decided that we’d leave Nothing and head for Something, specifically, the bottom of Grand Canyon.  We drove about 100 miles up to Peach Springs, a 1930s-looking town located on the fabled old Route 66, at the edge of the Hualapai Indian Reservation.  After obtaining a permit at the Hualapai Lodge, we headed north on a dirt road to the point where Diamond Creek empties into Grand Canyon’s Colorado River and its soft brown turbulent waters.  This is one of the least-developed sections of the canyon.  We visited with a few locals.  We tried a little fishing, drowning several worms without catching very much. 

Our truck at the Colorado River

Dipping our wheels in the Colorado River, Grand Canyon

We headed back to Peach Springs, luckily as it turned out.  The sky put on a first rate high-desert thunderstorm, complete with a light show and booming sound effects.  We missed the possibility of encountering a flash flood on Diamond Creek. 

We headed southeast now, driving about 35 or 40 miles on old Route 66 to camp at Seligman, where we discovered a celebration of the historic highway along with a potpourri of vintage Detroit iron.  That was fun and commanded the attention of both of us.  The next day, our last of the trip, we drove down to Prescott, the old territorial capitol, where we stopped for one last try at catching some fish, this time successfully! 

Finally, Matthew and I turned south toward Phoenix and home, already talking about our next desert adventure. 


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