There is scarcely a saloon inside Tombstone, Arizona, that doesn't have its namesake film playing in a continual loop. Among the dozen or so television shows and movies referencing the town's infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone with Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp), Val Kilmer (Doc Holliday), Sam Elliott (Virgil Earp), and Bill Paxton (Morgan Earp) remains the town's favorite.
The reason is simple. Of all the references and reenactments, the 1993 movie does one of the best jobs immortalizing several historic moments with a flash of fact and fiction. And although the movie clearly sides with the testimony of Wyatt Earp, not everyone in the town of Tombstone agrees. Even today, there is considerable confusion in regard to who was armed and who shot whom.
The infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral.
Shortly after a prospector discovered an outcropping of high grade silver around Goose Flats in 1877, Ed Schieffelin began prospecting in the area and renamed the town Tombstone (reportedly after a solider warned him that a tombstone would be the only rock he would find). Within four years, it would grow from a population of 100 to the largest city in the Southwest.
The stage was dressed for a gunfight at the O.K. Corral as tensions grew between miners and cowboys (rustlers) with the Earps on one side and the Clantons and McLaurys on the other. The long-lasting feud between these families would culminate in making Tombstone one of the most famous boom towns in the United States.
It wouldn't end with the shootout either. Even the two competing papers in town took sides, with the Tombstone Epitaph praising the exoneration of the Earps and the Tombstone Nugget calling the judge's decision contemptible. In the months that followed, there were several assignation attempts, including one that rendered Virgil Earp disabled and another that killed Morgan Earp. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday would respond to the killings with what is now known as the Vendetta Ride.
Tombstone is the town that wouldn't die.
While the shootout at the O.K. Corral ensured the town would retain its historic relevance after most of the silver had been mined, Tombstone earned its slogan "The Town That Wouldn't Die" for different reasons. The town survived two major fires, which destroyed most of the downtown area. After both devastating fires, the townspeople rebuilt.
Today, the living town is an historic attraction. Many of the buildings that were rebuilt after the fires in the 1880s are still standing. Several have been transformed into shops, but other notables such as the Crystal Palace Saloon (best steaks), the Longhorn Restaurant (formerly the Bucket of Blood Saloon), the Big Nose Kate's Saloon (formally The Grand Hotel and best burgers and pizza) still serve meals.
Attractions in Tombstone include an array of walking, self-guided, and motor tours. Highlights include the Birdcage Theater, the Tombstone Courthouse, Epitaph Museum, and Boothill Cemetery. But before visiting those locations, quick guided tours around town on the Old Butterfield Stagecoach or Tombstone Trolley will help you become familiar with the town.
There are also two gunfight shows held several times a day. The first is the Helldorado Town Gunfight, which is a comedically historical take on life in the wild west performed by stunt actors. The second is a recreation of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, which attempts to provide a balanced, if not Clanton sympathetic, perspective.
Most hotels are short on frills, but fun.
There are a variety of motels and bed/breakfast choices that can place you within walking distance of the town, including Crazy Annie's Bordello and the Silver Nugget, which are located on Fremont Street. A short drive out of town, just past Boothill Cemetery, there is Tombstone Holiday Inn Express and pet-friendly Best Western Lookout Lodge. We stayed at the latter.
If you are staying in Tombstone for closer to a week, make plans to visit some neighboring towns, including Bisbee for its small but informative mining and historic museum and the Copper Queen Mine Tour. The historic mountain mining town will change your perspective of the area compared to the more rugged and dusty town of Tombstone, which can be experienced fully over the course of two days.
Nearby, sprawling Sierra Vista has some history too. Specifically, the two museums at Fort Huachuca and the stunning limestone caves at Kartchner Caverns, which is north of Sierra Vista. (The most striking natural exhibit is not open to children under 7.)
Tombstone Steps Up At 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
As a tourist attraction, there are portions of Tombstone that feel closer to tourist entrapments while others remain an authentic part of history. Yet, it remains one of those experiences that places you face to face with a sense of the American West. When you visit, do your best to sync your schedule to the town. The day starts late and ends early, with dinner service ending at 8 p.m. (and the Best Western Lookout Lodge only serves breakfast).
Traveling to Tombstone requires some planning in that the closest commercial airport is in Tucson. Tombstone is approximately 1 to 1-1/2 hours from Tucson and you can make most booking arrangements via Fare Buzz, which has a number of weekend travel deals.
If you schedule a return flight late enough in the day, visiting the Pima Air & Space Museum on the way back from the former boomtown is well worth it. It's one of the largest aviation museums in the world.
The two lower shots are recent photos that happen to line up with two historic photos. The first is the Tombstone Courthouse, 1882 and 2011. The second is Fremont Street, Tombstone, 1881 and 2001.