Ride ‘Em Cowboy
Arizona is a land of wide-open spaces, ranching and mining history and a rich Western heritage of cowboy traditions. The rough ‘n’ tumble landscape attracted those hardy individuals seeking fortunes in the new frontier. Peppered across the state are remnants of mining camps and ghost towns, stagecoach stops, ranches, historic railway lines, trail riding operations and dude ranches from basic to luxurious.
Towns like Prescott, Bisbee and Jerome still maintain the territorial feel, giving a glimpse into life for the Western frontiersmen who settled the area in the early 1900s. Many of these small towns had their roots in the mining rush that opened up the West. Get a first hand look on a mining train deep into the tunnels on the Queen Mine Tour in Bisbee.
In Tombstone – site of the Gunfight at the OK Corral – visitors can stroll along wooden sidewalks and soak up the atmosphere of one of Arizona’s oldest Western towns. The new Virgil’s Corner B&B has opened on the former homesite of famed Tombstone police chief, Virgil Earp. Earp is best known as the brother of Wyatt Earp, a lawman who went down in history as the toughest and deadliest gunman of his day.
At Estrella Mountain Regional Park riders can don chaps, boots and a cowboy hat and experience the Sonoran Desert cowboy style on the back of a gentle trail horse. Ranches and trail ride operations can be found across the state.
Visitors can experience a horse of a different kind – the “steel horse” of the steam engine railroad that first brought pioneers to Arizona in the late 1800s. The new Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza in Yuma features a restored 1907 Baldwin steam locomotive and the magic of a little 21st century technology to tell the story of how the West was opened up when the railway came through.
Two other vintage railways in the state have become popular tourist attractions. The Grand Canyon Railway operates between Williams and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The historic rail line has been shuttling visitors to see the Grand Canyon since 1901. The fully restored rail cars of the Verde Canyon Railroad (near Sedona) make the voyage from the old mining town of Clarkdale to the Perkinsville ghost ranch, travelling a scenic route once used by the copper industry.
Each February, the town of Wickenburg celebrates Gold Rush Days, a celebration of the area’s rich Wild West heritage. Festivities include a shoot-out on Frontier Street, and a rodeo that attracts cowboys from across the country.
The annual Wyatt Earp Days in the town of Tombstone (“The Town Too Tough to Die”) feature a re-enactment competition of the famous shoot-out at the OK Corral. Locals dress in Old West fashion of the 1880s and there are stagecoach rides, a chili cook-off, and mock gunfights.
Mix a little Hollywood with the Old West feel at Old Tucson Studios, an entertainment venue and working film shoot location voted “Best Western Movie Set” by True West magazine. The studio is a re-creation of a Western town, complete with rustic storefronts. Visitors can see saloon musicals, gunfights and stunt shows, Old West dramas, head out on a trail ride or try their hand at panning for gold.
For something completely different, every year the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering in Prescott draws dozens of performers who bring their cowboy poetry and music to the stage to share the culture of the American cowboy.
Rodeos are a long-held tradition in Arizona – once a way for cowboys to showcase their skills, today rodeo has achieved the status of an international sport, with competitions being held across the state. Prescott Frontier Days – the World’s Oldest Rodeo – is a century-old Arizona tradition. The Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo in Window Rock is an important part of Native American tribal culture and includes bull riding, team roping and steer wrestling competitions.
There is no better way to enjoy a true western experience than to stay at one of Arizona’s many guest ranches. The area around Wickenburg has several ranches that open their doors – and gates – to visitors looking for a little desert solitude and relaxation, a romantic getaway, a family reunion, or a trail riding vacation.
The Apache Spirit Ranch, on the site of a former working ranch just east of Tombstone, brings together the atmosphere of the old west and the luxuries of a contemporary resort. Themed accommodations, romantic campfires and spectacular sunsets are all part of the Old West experience.
Rancho de los Caballeros honours the skilful riding and gracious living style of the Spanish caballeros. Many guests come for the rugged trail rides (8,000 hectares of lush open range, 100 saddle horses and seasoned wranglers) but the resort also has an award-winning golf course and spa.
The smaller Flying E Ranch has been a dude and working cattle ranch since 1946, offering a more home-like atmosphere to ranch living, wrangler guided trial rides, chuck wagon feeds and hay wagon trips.
One of the oldest ranches in southern Arizona is Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Today, the ranch has moved a bit upscale from its authentic ranching roots – guests stay in private casitas decorated in vintage style, dine at The Grill, the resort’s award-winning restaurant, and saddle up for trail rides, including moonlight rides and daytime trips to explore the desert terrain.
The riches that lay beneath the ground were the magnets for many who came to explore the region. The displays at the Arizona Historical Society trace history from the Spanish conquistadors to statehood. Displays include recreations of underground mine tunnels and 18th-century Spanish silver artifacts.
To the east of Phoenix, the rugged spires of the Superstition Mountains are home to Lost Dutchman State Park, named after a fabled lost gold mine, which, according to legend is rich in gold ore. Hiking trails are a popular way to explore the park.
At Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park visit a slice of Western history at the Arizona Territory’s first prison. Now a museum, the building houses photographs and colourful exhibits of the 3,069 prisoners who, a century ago, lived within the prison walls.