Lodging Review: The Shady Dell in Bisbee, Arizona

Step back in time for an overnight or two

By Johnny Zapp

With springtime in full swing in Arizona, saddling up my 1964 Pan, strapping my vintage Canon camera across my chest and hitting the road for a few days is a must. If you’re like me, then you’re familiar with the need to get out of Dodge and escape the trappings of modern day life; the longing for the opportunity to go primitive and get back to America’s roots, all to clear your head and reboot. If only more Americans saw the value in this.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona 1964 Panhead
Starting to come alive just outside of the city.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona couple smiling
The characters for this tale: the Lady and the Zapp.

Unlike myself, my lovely lady, Anna, is much more attached to modern day technology (and travel accommodations), however she was up for a weekend getaway with her man given one stipulation: she’d be driving her beloved chili-red Mini Cooper. You see, she broke up with my chopper after a 250-mile ride a few years back. It seems the beating she received by the hard-tail frame, the exhaust fumes expelled from the nearly 50-year-old engine, and the inevitable morning-after hair-do the ride can give a lady are all too much for mine. No sweat! Now she could toss my guitar in the back seat for the weekend.

The journey took us to the small southern Arizona town of Bisbee (population 5,500). Here we would take refuge in the vintage inspired campground, the Shady Dell. The Shady Dell is home to eight pre-1959 beautifully restored and functional travel trailers, one 1947 Chris Craft yacht and a 1947 Airporter Tiki Bus all available for nightly or weekly stays. This place is definitely in my wheelhouse, though my bride prefers the finer things in life, as in a comfortable bed and a bathroom big enough that the door doesn’t close against your knees!

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona office
Everything is retro at the Shady Dell, even the registration office.

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A row of vintage American travel trailers, including a 1949 Airstream and our 1957 El Rey.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona chris craft yacht
Ahoy matey! One of the lodging options is this old Chris Craft yacht.

The trek from Phoenix takes you to Bisbee via Historic Route 80. Route 80 was originally a cross-country route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all the way down to the Mexican border where it cuts northeast into New Mexico. With tons of rich history and character in the small towns of Benson and Tombstone, cruising Route 80 provides fantastic opportunities for black and white film photography.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona Benson Motel black and white
The Benson Motel captured on T-Max 100 film with my late 1970s Canon AE-1 and a 50mm lens
at a shutter speed of 125 at f/16.

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Packard hearse outside Boothill Graveyard in Benson. Too cool not to stop and shoot on film.

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Pulled over outside the now defunct Benson Motel on Route 80 to capture some of the historical setting in black and white.

While I’d like to say the ride was uneventful, what’s a half-day road trip on a 1964 motorcycle without some kind of mechanical issue? Just as I pulled into the turning lane to enter the Dell, the motorcycle quit. Ironically, who is standing at the filling station on the corner? None other than Deputy “Barney Fife” and Sherriff “Andy Griffith.” After convincing the two to spare me a ticket for an illegal left turn (seriously), “Barney” blocked the sole car coming through the town while “Andy” helped me push my scooter off the road 10 yards to the Shady Dell entrance.

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The stunning mountain view from just inside the Shady Dell.

Walking through the doors of the vintage registration building, I was graciously greeted by owners Jennifer and Justin. After discovering the park on a day trip in search of pie and coffee the couple purchased the grounds in 2007 and have made it what it is today. From Justin’s 1955 Chevy step-side and the Packard taxi parked out front, to the friendly demeanor, the authenticity and vibe of the Shady Dell is a welcome disconnect from the modern world.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona motorcycle taxi pick-up
My 1964 Harley feeling at home with a 1950s Packard taxi and a 1955 Chevy pick-up.

The Shady Dell began as a trailer park in the late 1920s. Travelers using Route 80 would rest and park their Model A cars overnight before continuing on their way. The Shady Dell is closed during winter months so Jennifer and Justin can tackle all the required maintenance and make necessary repairs to ensure the best possible experience for their guests. Its always a good idea to call ahead for the season’s schedule and to secure a reservation as this park tends to sell out months in advance.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona airporter tiki bus
Chatting it up with Shady Dell owner Jennifer as campers prepare their dinner and enjoy the company. In the background: the blue 1947 Airporter Tiki Bus, one of the lodging options.

Our accommodations for the evening consisted of a 17-foot 1957 El Rey travel trailer complete with a rumbling refrigerator, electric coffee percolator and transistor radio. The park was at capacity with outgoing people engaging in idle chit-chat, grilling and inviting each other into their trailers for a peek. That said, the Shady Dell isn’t necessarily ideal if you are looking for a private getaway; a warm, extroverted personality is required.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona airstream trailer
The lovely Mrs. Zapp modeling our weekend accommodations.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona el rey kitchen interior
Keepin’ it simple with burgers and dogs.

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The road-weary traveler and his monster burger.

After my baby and I put down some hefty charcoal grilled cheeseburgers, we spent the evening playing cards and listening to on-point period music on the transistor radio.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona transistor radio
Our source of entertainment for the evening.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona national geographic magazine 1952
A little light reading circa 1952.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona el rey bedroom
Our bedroom in the El Rey.

Having no experience camping in a travel trailer, my sweetie was a little shocked, and frankly none too thrilled about the antiquated and tight quarters. The bed wasn’t quite long enough for my 6-foot frame, and not much better for my wife’s delicious 5-foot-3 figure. However, the linens were fresh and adequate. There was a functioning toilet, but its size made it impossible for me to stand and close the door behind me to take care of business. There are spacious and clean communal restrooms complete with showers located just a few yards away from the trailers.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona phone booth
My wife whispered she wished there was a Hyatt near by. Ironically, this phone booth is an original relocated from a 1950s Hyatt property. There ya go sweetie!

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona dining area
The dining area. Lovin’ the period green.
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All original on the inside of the El Rey.
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Outside the grounds consist of a spacious grilling area and gazebo.

Keep in mind these details are not bad things as long as you have the right spirit. Growing up, my parents had campers and trailers so it brought back fond memories for me. Something to consider, particularly those with little to no experience “roughing it,” is not to count on a good night’s sleep, plush beds and spa-like bathroom facilities. The idea is to dive in with an open mind and embrace the concept of how many American families spent their vacations in the 1950s and earlier.

Arising from a less than stellar night’s sleep, my lady was a bit disgruntled about what I had gotten her into. The only rocking coming from our trailer that night was from our restless tossing and turning. Again, it’s not for everybody. After some sweet talkin’ and sugar coatin’, we enjoyed a cup of coffee brewed with the classic electric coffee percolator. A far cry from the Keurig we’ve become accustomed to!

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona perculator
Coffee time! Just like mom and dad used to have.

Now it was time to deal with the bike issue. Justin informed me of a motorcycle shop across the street on Erie. Erie Street is adorned with 60-year-old gas pumps, vintage taxis and plenty of personality including Jim, the owner of the local motorcycle shop, Arizona Thunder.

Jim’s shop is packed with vintage bikes and a wealth of motorcycle nostalgia. With a welcoming smile, Jim walked across the street to assist me with what turned out to be a broken ground wire connector, easily fixed and soon ready-to-roll. Before he allowed me to leave, he introduced me to his buddy Jay, at the adjacent Texaco shop. Turns out  he’s one of Bisbee’s well known residents: motorcycle personality Jay Allen of The Broken Spoke Saloon fame. He, too, had a shop full of killer rides of both two and four wheel classic American descent. Two genuinely nice guys that I would have never met had it not been for a minor bike malfunction.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona Texaco Erie Street
Jay Allen’s home and shop in Bisbee.

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The Bisbee Breakfast Club located at the top of the hill on Erie Street. A favorite for local bikers to enjoy Sunday morning breakfast.

The Shady Dell does an excellent job paying homage to a classic period by providing a retro experience and vibe. The place is often sought out for music videos, pinup photo shoots and a host of similar events.

Overnight rates range from $87 up to $145, depending on which travel accommodations you reserve. It’s definitely a worthwhile experience for those with an open mind and an old soul. If you make the trip to the Shady Dell, be sure to walk over to Erie Street, stop and say hi to Jim and Jay (if you catch him at home) and don’t leave without having breakfast at the Bisbee Breakfast Club. Best country fried steak, eggs and gravy I have had in years. Visit TheShadyDell.com.

Review Shady Dell Bisbee Arizona man motorcycle road
Heading home.

To find out more about Johnny Zapp, visit the WRN Contributor’s page.

4 thoughts on Lodging Review: The Shady Dell in Bisbee, Arizona

  1. Glad you enjoyed the column! Thanks for the feedback!

  2. I have heard of The Shady Dell before, and always thought it would be a fun place to stay. Reminds me of camping with my grandparents many years ago. We would ride Gramp’s Honda 90 trail around the deserts of Arizona. This looks like a destination spot. Twenty-two-hundred-plus miles. Sounds like a great ride. Thanks.

  3. What a fun trip! What made it come alive though is the uptempo, optimistic view on life! Resort stays, bah humbug, all the same. This is a “one of a kind” out of the ordinary spot. Wish I lived close enough to spend this weekend there.

  4. Great article! If I ever get down to Bisbee, I will check out the Shady Dell campground. Thanks for telling us all about it.

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