More and more visitors to this state are hitting the pits.

Lured by its climate, geographical beauty and facilities, tourists also are beginning to show a keen interest in the area's open-pit copper mining operations, according to the Arizona Department of Tourism. The state is the country's largest copper producer.

"I'm not sure what the reason is, maybe the oil crisis, but we've been getting a growing number of inquiries about tours to our copper mines," a department spokesperson said. "Natural resources seem to be on everyone's mind."

Its natural resources - mainly gold, silver and copper - have shaped Arizona's destiny. It was the vision of "streets paved with gold and silver" that caused Coronado to march north out of Mexico in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola more than four centuries ago.

What he found were seven Indian villages void of metallic riches. Dejectedly, he and his men marched back to Mexico - walking right over some of the richest copper fields in the hemisphere. Since then, precious metals have paid off for many in the region.

In 1736, a rich silver deposit was discovered in northern Sonora, and in the mid-19th century, discovery of gold in Mohave County brought great numbers of settlers to Arizona, as did major finds of silver in the Patagonia Mountains and the Globe-Miami region of Gila County.

During this time copper was found, but it wasn't mined in earnest until 1879, the year Thomas Edison perfected his electric light. In the years that followed, the demand for copper wire created another boom in the mineral-rich state.

Over the years, settlers flocked to the area with every find. Towns and legends that shaped Western lore appeared tonight. Most of the towns died just as quickly as the rich strikes ran out - but the legends remain. Today the Arizona landscape is dotted with ghost towns.

However, there are other towns that haven't given up the ghost, and they're enjoying another type of boom even though the precious metals are gone. They've hit varying amounts of paydirt with tourism.

Such towns as Bisbee, Jerome, Oatman and Tombstone are keeping the spirit of the Old West alive.

Jerome, located 33 miles northeast of Prescott, was established in 1876 and in its heyday of rich copper strikes had a population of 15,000, making it the third-largest city in Arizona. That was 50 years ago. The mining companies called it quits in 1953 and the population dwindled to 20. Today there are about 300 residents, most of whom are artists, businessmen, writers and prospectors who are determined to keep the town from becoming another dead relic of the Old West's roaring past.

Shops, saloons and restaurants reminiscent of the time when the city was a billion-dollar copper camp have been recreated. Two turn-of-the-century hotels have been restored. There is also an art museum and mine museum as well as art galleries and rock and antique shops. Designated a national historic landmark, many of Jerome's other buildings are being restored.

Oatman, a gold-mining boom town of the early 1900s, once had a population of 10,000. Though mining operations ceased in 1942, it wasn't until 10 years later that many residents boarded up their homes and businesses. That was the year that Highway 66, which brought millions of tourists to Arizona, was rerouted to bypass Oatman, which was eking out a living on the traffic. Oatman was left a ghost town on a ghost highway.

Today, the little cup-shaped town located 32 miles southwest of Kingman has a population of nearly 200 retirees, artists, rockhounds and shopkeepers. Intermingled with the ghost buildings along the streets are gem, pottery, antique and curio shops, a restaurant, bar and art gallery. There's also a museum in the old Oatman Hotel with a special "Clark Gable Room," a recreation of the room where Gable and Carole Lombard were said to have stayed. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, there's an Old West shootout staged twice daily every weekend.

Tombstone is one of the Old West's most famous towns. It was here during the silver-mining boom days of the 1880s that the Clanton and McLowry clans met their end during a shootout at the O.K. Corral. Their adversaries were the famous Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday.

It took just eight years for Tombstone to prosper (it had a population of 10,000) and fade, but not before riding to fame because of its cast of legendary figures including the Earps, Holliday, Bat Masterson, Luke Short and Johnny Ringo.

Tombstone's landmarks remain, including the O.K. Corral and Boot Hill, while much of the town, located 69 miles southeast of Tucson, has been restored or recreated. Each October "The Town Too Tough To Die" relives its rowdy past during Helldorado Days featuring shootouts, fast-draw contests, old-fashioned shows and parades.

Though the memory of the Old West mining days lingers on, visitors to Arizona are interested in Today's mining ways. Because of this, many of the copper companies offer free tours.

They include Inspiration Consolidated Copper, located on U.S. 6/ between the towns of Miami and Globe; Duval Corp. at the Espernza-Sierrita Mines on Interstate 19 south of Tucson; Kennecott Copper at the Ray Open Pit mine on State Highway 177 north of Kearny; Phelps Dodge at Morenci Mine along Rt. 666 in the eastern part of the state and the smelter in Douglas in southeastern Arizona; and Anamax Mining, off Interstate 19 south of Tucson. Other Companies - Ascaro, Cities Service, Cyprus Bagdad, Cuprus Johnson, Magma Copper and Ranchers Exploration - offer group tours with advance reservations.

If you're the more adventurous type of travelers, you can search for the fabled Lost Dutchman gold mine in the Superstition Mountains near Wickenburg, some 35 miles east of Phoenix. Each winter, the Dons Club of Phoenix, a nonprofit organization "dedicated to the perpetuation of the lore and legends of the Old West," conducts a guided trek into the mountains in quest of the fabled and elusive mine of "almost pure nuggets."

Although no one has found much gold during the Dons Club excursions, a few years ago it was though the Lost Dutchman mine may have been found. According to a local newspaper article, an old, dusty, bewhiskered prospector "wandered off the desert into a plushly decorated dining room of the Superstition Inn at Apache Junction. He ordered a sumptious meal, causing some to worry whether he would be able to pay his check."

After dessert, the prospector took out his "poke" and shook it over the table. Out fell a book of traveler's checks. "He settled his account, left a tip, slund his pack and walked off into the desert." The search of the Lost Dutchman goes on.

You can get information on Arizona vacations, along with a booklet on ghost towns and mining companies that offer tours, by writing to the Arizona Office by Tourism, 1700 West Washington, Phoenix, Ariz.