In 1931, a hardy band of business owners formed the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce. More than 50 years later, the organization moved into the town’s restored 1895 Santa Fe Depot, where they also opened up one of the first visitors’ centers in Arizona.
But Wickenburg’s story is much older than the Chamber’s 90 years. It is a past that endures today and inspires visitors to return again and again.
In 1863, a Prussian immigrant named Henry Wickenburg found gold in the desert hills not far from what is now the center of town. His Vulture Mine helped establish the town—named in his honor—and soon attracted more miners as well as ranchers. When the railroad came to town and better roads were established, Wickenburg attracted visitors who became enamored with this high desert community on the banks of the Hassayampa River. Working cattle ranches soon opened their bunk houses to guests, who came for vacations filled with horseback riding and experiencing the Western lifestyle. Wickenburg emerged as the dude ranch capitol of Arizona.
Set some 6o miles northwest of downtown Phoenix as the hawk flies, Wickenburg is still a treasure trove of the Old West and the ranch lifestyle, but with plenty of modern twists. Come for the cowboys or explore the culture. You’ll find plenty of things to do in Wickenburg.
Go back to Wickenburg’s beginnings with a guided tour of Vulture City, a ghost town that once boasted 5,000 residents, just steps from Henry Wickenburg’s original mine. You’ll see mining artifacts, explore about a dozen restored buildings—including Wickenburg’s personal cabin—and learn about life in the scrappy boomtown that arose in the 1860s and lasted through the early years of World War II. Sensing a presence during your tour? Try one of Vulture City’s ghost hunts and tours or sign up for an overnight experience to see who might be haunting the site.
Back in town, stop by the Chamber’s visitor center and pick up a brochure or download an app for the downtown Wickenburg walking tour, which leads you to historic buildings and six bronze Wickenburg “characters” that depict the town’s past.
No Arizona town does more to celebrate its cowboy roots. Rush hour here means pickup trucks pulling horse trailers from ranch to arena and back. Wickenburg is, after all, the team roping capital of the world, and, from fall through spring, arenas like Simpson Ranch, Rancho Rio and others host dozens of team roping and barrel racing events that attract thousands from all over the country. The Everett Bowman Rodeo Grounds is also the site of many equestrian events, including the annual Senior Pro Rodeo, held in conjunction with Wickenburg’s Gold Rush Days, which celebrates the area’s heritage.
Want to do your own Western event? Head to Boyd Ranch, a 160-acre, nonprofit equestrian and community park where you and your favorite riding club can spread out for fun. No hoofed members in your group? The ranch has also hosted hikers, weddings, concerts and other gatherings.
Of course, the best way to immerse yourself in Wickenburg’s cowboy lifestyle is to spend a few days at a dude — or guest — ranch. Kay El Bar’s historic adobe buildings date to the early 1900s when it was a working cattle ranch. Today, the vintage lodge rooms accommodate 25 guests, who come to the ranch’s 100 acres for trail riding, swimming, hiking, and target shooting and family-style meals. The Flying E Ranch — named for the founders’ love of flying — is still a working cattle ranch and offers guests seasonal cattle drives, horseback riding, and team penning, in addition to other pursuits like ATV treks, special concerts and outdoor events.
Rancho de los Caballeros offers luxe accommodations and a full-service spa, plus 20,000 acres where guests can spread out for horseback riding, golf, trap and skeet shooting and guided hikes with the ranch nature director.
Horseback riding is one way to get out and appreciate Wickenburg’s scenic desert setting, framed by distant mountains. Hiking, mountain biking, Jeep tours and rounds of golf at Wickenburg’s many courses are also great ways to enjoy year-round sunshine and clear air.
At Hassayampa River Preserve, you can hike the park’s many easy loop trails, which wind past a palm-shaded pond and along the banks of the river. Tall cottonwoods and brushy willows make this oasis an avian magnet, popular with bird watchers. In town, the Sunset Multi-Use Path runs along the north side of US 60—the perfect place for a power walk or bike ride. For something more challenging, head out to Vulture Peak trail, which takes a steady rise up the landmark mountain to a view-grabbing saddle. From there, a narrow chute leads to the 3,660-foot summit, perfect for that Instagram shot.
Prefer to enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of a vehicle? BC Jeep Tours take you out to a box canyon off the Hassayampa River. Drive your own car along Highway 71 west of town to see Arizona’s largest stand of saguaros outside of the Tucson area. These iconic Arizona cacti (Carnegiea gigantea) grow to be more than 40 feet tall and sport numerous “arms.”
Wickenburg is still a treasure trove of the Old West and the ranch lifestyle, but with plenty of modern twists.
After some desert dust, Wickenburg’s cultural offerings are a refreshing counterpoint. Desert Caballeros Western Museum ranks as one of the top Western museums in the country, showcasing works by notables like Maynard Dixon, Thomas Moran and Frederic Remington, as well as contemporary works. Head downstairs for historical vignettes tell the tale of Wickenburg’s past. In spring, the annual “Cowgirl Up!” exhibit puts a spotlight on women artists.
Across town, Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts is an airy, modern 587-seat theater that puts on a fall-through-spring season of concerts, dance productions, plays, lectures, movies and even circus performances. Sold-out shows have featured artists such as Pink Martini, Carlene Carter, Sons of Pioneers, Lily Tomlin, the Gatlin Brothers and the Glen Miller Orchestra. Get your tickets early.
In the historic downtown district, Saguaro Theater is one of the last vintage one-screen theaters left in Arizona. With its signature marquee, the cinema was built in 1948 and now shows first-run films and classic Westerns–as a tip of the Stetson to Wickenburg’s cowboy roots.
Online shopping has taken over our lives, but in Wickenburg, shopping is meant to be a leisurely, in-person pastime. Browse local retail stores to score finds for your wardrobe or home.
Sage Gallery is one of the newest additions to the town’s historic district, offering antique, vintage and authentic Navajo rugs, blankets and jewelry, as well as bronzes and Apache basketry. As part of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Ranch Dressing has Southwestern-themed items for the home, jewelry, gifts and Arizona-made foods. Serape Bleu spins Western fashions for women with a nonchalant boho style, offering gifts, clothing and accessories like hats, bags and silver and turquoise jewelry. Need something for your stay at a Wickenburg guest ranch or an appearance at a roping competition? Head to National Ropers Supply (NRS), a gigantic superstore, for cowboy boots, Wrangler jeans and maybe even a roping saddle.
Mexican or continental? Steaks or burgers? Wickenburg’s folksy restaurants serve up dishes to please all. Locals cruise out to Avi’s Screamers Drive In for burgers and Fifties nostalgia or relax on the patio at European Kitchen, where salmon tartine highlights the innovative menu in the morning, and a brown sugar-crusted skirt steak, shepherd’s pie and Konigsberger klopse (German-style meatballs) are among the lunch and dinner offerings. At family-run El Ranchero, it’s huevos rancheros, shrimp tacos, chimichangas and other Mexican classics. For steaks and seafood with a view, Jake’s Spoon at Wickenburg Ranch has a patio that overlooks golf course and desert hills.
Have a cocktail and toast to Wickenburg’s past and its evolving present. Then go ahead and plan your return visit.