Mike and I were driving along Highway 40 in Arizona a few months back when I glanced out the passenger window and saw a grouping of old stone ruins. “Hmm. I wonder what that is?” A sign indicated the exit was for Two Guns, so I decided to do some research and plan a visit to explore.
Two Guns, Arizona, has a violent and turbulent history. It’s part of the Diablo Canyon and is the location of a desecrated burial site from a battle between rival Apache and Navajo tribes, a cold blooded murder over land rights, and the rise and fall of commerce with the re-routing of Old Route 66 and construction of I40. It was a hideout stop for Billy The Kid and the gang, a zoo in ruins from the 1920s, and home to abandoned buildings of a gas station and KOA campground from the 1960s.
The land and surrounding buildings are now private property (supposedly owned by actor Russell Crowe), but exploration in the daylight hours isn’t discouraged. It was listed as a free boondocking campsite, but people have been asked to vacate in the wee hours of the morning in the last several months. I personally would not feel safe in the area after nightfall and even got spooked during the day on my solo trip.
I’ll give an amateur photographic tour of the site with paraphrased tidbits of the history I’ve read from several sources. If you’re an obscure history person like me, explore the links I provided above to see more in-depth versions of the colorful story of Two Guns, Arizona.
THE ZOO RUINS
This was the entrance to the zoo in bygone days:
This is what it looks like today.
The abandoned buildings once held animals such as lions, eagles, Gila monsters, and lynx. The deserted stone buildings were once enclosures for the animals. The land for the zoo was rented and constructed in the 1920s by Harry “Two Guns” Miller. He not only constructed the zoo, but he also capitalized on the site of the Apache Death Cave by claiming himself as Native American, taking walking tours into the cave, and selling the skulls of the dead as souvenirs. He then murdered his landlord in cold blood over land rights. Because of his disrespectful desecration of the death cave and getting acquitted on his cold-blooded murder, he was said to be cursed. This seemed to be true as he was attacked by his own lions on two different occasions, bitten by a Gila monster causing him to become extremely ill, and a was victim to a massive theft and eventual fire destroying his trading store. All of this devastated him financially, and Miller left the area shortly thereafter. I couldn’t find any reference to where the animals were placed once he deserted the zoo or Mr. Miller’s eventual demise.
THE APACHE DEATH CAVE
The cave was creepy. There was no safe entry to the entrance, so only photos from outside could be taken (I don’t think I’d want to go down there anyway). It was here Apache warriors with their horses hid after marauding a neighboring Navajo tribe. The Navajo discovered the Apache hideaway and surrounded it with lighted fires, which caused the Apache warriors and horses inside the cave to burn alive. It’s rumored the area became sacred ground by the Native Americans and the Apache or Navajo won’t come near.
“Two Guns” Miller opened the cave to tours for price of admission in the 1920s, dishonestly claiming himself as Apache descendant. He even went so far as to sell the skulls and bones of the fallen warriors as souvenirs in his trading store.
Over the last hundred or so years, many of the early settlers in the area and temporary residents of the abandoned campground made claims of hearing unearthly screams and howls in the wee nighttime hours.
The area has the deserted feel of bygone days, as most stops do along I40 due to the rerouting of Route 66. A gas station and store thrived in the 1960s until a mysterious explosion closed the station in the early 1970s. Now, the old station stands empty and falling apart. Walls have been “tagged” by grafitti–both artistic and destructive.
These are the interior walls of the gas station building taken from the front entrance area. Lots of trash and used drug paraphernalia was littered on the floor and the darkened door leads to a back room I didn’t feel comfortable exploring. The graffiti was interesting to study–everything from vile curse words and slurs to artistic and philosophical statements.
REMNANTS OF A DESERTED CAMPGROUND
This deserted KOA campground from the 1960s is still standing, albeit falling apart as nature slowly overtakes it. Well, nature and people wielding spray paint.
The following photos are the inside of the pool, which is completely covered in layers and layers of graffiti. I’d appreciate the artwork a lot more if the artists wouldn’t leave behind their tools to rot as trash (in the last photograph).
Despite the sad and tumultuous history of the area, it is an interesting place to visit. Along with old zoo ruins, abandoned and colorful buildings, and a spooky death cave, there are beautiful views.
Two Guns is an area where the imagination can run wild. There are whispers on the wind, eyes hidden in the rocks, and mystery in the shadows. There’s also a simple appreciation for the beautiful and unique Arizona landscape.
I hope Mr. Crowe respects the area and uses it to fuel creativity and imagination, either as a film set or place to safely explore. Currently, it continues to decline and return to nature since the alleged purchase in 2011. It also keeps the local police busy clearing out trespassers in the dark hours of the night.
Do you think the “curse of Two Guns” will continue?
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