What would a route 66 road trip be without visiting a cursed ghost town?
Just 30 miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona, drivers can visit the remains Two Guns, Arizona. As ghost towns in the USA go, this one appears to be fairly recent — though if you look more closely, there’s a deeper past.
Once, it provided Route 66 travelers with a gas station, campground, swimming pool, and even a small zoo. Before that, it was a seedy railroad town. Prior to that it was the site of confrontations between the Navajo and the Apache.
These days, it has fallen into complete disrepair, drawing the interest of graffiti artists and curious road trippers. If you find yourself driving from Albuquerque to Flagstaff (or anywhere in between), it’s a worthwhile pitstop for the sake of exploration.
Let’s start off with a little history, shall we? Trust me, it’s a doozy of a story.
The Curse of Two Guns
Long before it was a highway stop, the area of Canyon Diablo near Two Guns was far from abandoned.
Back in the 1800s the area was inhabited by both Navajo and Apache Native Americans. The canyon itself hosts a number of caves, which are convenient for hiding in during conflict. One such conflict ended poorly, with 42 Apache men meeting their death in what would become known as the Apache Death Cave.
Now, at this point, Two Guns may have already been cursed. In the late 1800s, a small trading post popped up, which eventually grew into the town of Canyon Diablo. This railroad town was not particularly lucky (with a name like that, what do you expect?). It was a seedy place, full of brothels and robbery, with no real law enforcement. Though it did have a pretty spectacular view.
Eventually, as the town’s population swelled, law enforcement was needed. According to Wikipedia:
Within its first year, the town received its first marshal. He was sworn in at 3:00pm, and was being buried at 8:00pm that same night. Five more town marshals would follow, the longest lasting one month, and all were killed in the line of duty. A “Boot Hill” cemetery sprouted up at the end of town, which in less than a decade had 35 graves, all of whom had been killed by way of violent death. The 36th grave was that of former trading post owner Herman Wolfe, who died in 1899, the only one to have died a nonviolent death.
Eventually, the town died (can’t imagine why). All that remained was a Navajo trading post, until the 1920s when Harry “Two Guns” Miller would lease the land.
Miller took the success of the small, existing trading post and used it as a jumping off point to found Two Guns. Right around this time Route 66 was really kicking off, and Miller saw a lot of early success, creating a major tourist attraction.
Remember that cave I mentioned before? The Apache Death Cave?
Whatever curse may have been on the area was certainly not helped by Miller’s desecration of this cave. Miller didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the tragic history, repurposing the cave to suit his needs.
Atlas Obscura tells the tale best:
The story of the cave was interesting in its own right, but Miller believed that the tale needed something… more. He cleaned up the remaining bones he found in the cave, built fake ruins, and repurposed the tomb into a “cave dwelling.” In a macabre commercial stroke of genius, he saved the skulls of the ill-fated Apache and sold them as souvenirs. In order to make the cave a bit more tourist-friendly, he also strung up some electric lighting, threw in a soda stand, and renamed the death cave the “Mystery Cave.”
If there wasn’t a curse before, this desecration meant that all bets were off. In the years following his creation of the Mystery Cave, Miller endured various hardships, including robbery, not one but two mountain lion attacks, being bitten by a gila monster (yeah, they’re venemous) and a fire.
Moral of the story: Don’t mess with death caves. It’s just not a good idea.
Oh, and Miller also shot and killed the owner of the land, from whom he was leasing, then claimed he owned it all along.
Not a nice guy, Mr. Two Guns.
Eventually (after a lot of money and time in court) Miller hit the road, leaving the widow of the land’s owner in charge. Around that time Route 66 was rerouted to the other side of the canyon, and she and her new husband were forced to reconstruct everything on the new site.
This new set-up lasted until the 1950s, when they finally packed up shop and sold the land.
Since then, various owners have tried to bring Two Guns back to life, all failing spectacularly. The most successful attempt was in the 1960s. It seemed to be going well, with Two Guns even receiving its own exit off of the new Interstate 40, until disaster struck. A fire demolished the vast majority of the place in the early 1970s, and it was abandoned for good.
Some reports say that the land is currently owned by Russell Crowe, who will use the site as a filming location. There was no evidence of future filming when we were there (and the reports all date back to 2011, so I’m not sure how reliable they are), but who knows. Two Guns may see another attempt at revitalization.
What Remains of Two Guns, Arizona
There is no welcome center here, and whether or not you’re technically allowed to visit is up for debate. There are no gates or signs to ward curious visitors off, though the road is bumpy. My poor little compact car had a fun time trying to maneuver the potholes and cattle guards.
Beyond the general disrepair of the road, though, there’s nothing stopping you from driving right in.
Once, there was evidently a landlord who protected the property from intruders. This no longer seems to be the case. His former home, a trailer situated near the entrance, has clearly been abandoned.
As you drive into Two Guns, the most noticeable structure is the old gas station. It’s a hollow shell of what it once was, pillaged and covered in graffiti. Watch out for broken glass if you choose to explore.
From the gas station you have two choices. Continue on straight to the old campground, or turn right and visit the old zoo. There’s plenty of time to see both — just make sure you drive carefully!
Despite being slowly overtaken by the desert, the campground still has visible campsites, with some of the old hookups still in place.
The bathhouse is crumbling, and the main building has turned into a canvas for graffiti, but it is still recognizable for what it once was.
The graffiti may actually be the most interesting visible part of Two Guns. It’s ever-changing, bringing vibrant color (and sometimes crass messages) to an otherwise faded ruin.
The abandoned swimming pool is a good example of this:
If you’re interested in seeing just how quickly the art can change, head on over to Marie’s post at Ardent Camper. She was in Two Guns just a few months before me, and her pictures capture a completely different canvas.
Continuing onto the zoo, there is even less remaining. The most notable structure is the old mountain lion exhibit, which you can now walk right into.
From the zoo, it’s easy to see across Canyon Diablo. This canyon is exactly what made Two Guns (and the town of Canyon Diablo that came before it) so appealing.
The bridge that spans it is part of the original Route 66 highway (and was standing before that). Back then, anyone traveling along the route had no choice but to cross directly through Two Guns.
Visiting Two Guns, Arizona
As ghost towns go, Two Guns is not difficult to find. It has its own freeway exit along I-40, and is the only possible destination once you’re there.
You’ll want to take exit 230. If you’re heading westbound on 40, this will be the exit immediately following Meteor Crater (you can read all about that fascinating place too, and visit it on the same day!). You’ll be able to see the site from the freeway — there are enough standing structures that it’s hard to miss.
Make sure you’re careful. This is not a place that is set up for tourism (not anymore at least). Don’t visit after dark, and look out for debris that may harm you or your car.