Wickenburg, Arizona

Wickenburg Time

The scenery first drew me to Wickenburg. The relaxed pace keeps bringing me back.

By Roger Naylor

Wickenburg nestles on the banks of the Hassayampa River, a river so shy it flows mostly underground. Yet it’s still enough to create a lush riparian corridor. Surrounding that is a wide swath of upper Sonoran Desert, the most biologically diverse of all deserts. Low-shouldered mountain ranges form a skyline seemingly designed for lavish sunsets. Tall saguaros dot the valleys and march up the slopes. Vulture Peak adds a defiant vertical note to the landscape. Wide-open spaces are left just like they’re meant to be—wide and open.

This is an easy place to lose your heart. But if you do, don’t worry. The friendly folks of Wickenburg will help you look for it again.

That’s what keeps me coming back. Life is simpler here, quieter. It’s easy to relax and slow down. You have a chance to connect with people again and when you do, you’ll instantly recognize the Old West hospitality that still defines the town.

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Horses and heritage

Founded in 1863, Wickenburg is one of Arizona’s oldest towns. Its western heritage is never far from the surface. That’s especially evident from autumn through spring when cowboys and cowgirls spend their days throwing loops at steers in the soft sunshine. Wickenburg is known as the “Team Roping Capital of the World.” With six arenas around town, the action takes place every day of the week. It culminates when some of the best headers and heelers in the country show up in March to compete in the crowd-pleasing National Team Roping Finals

Horses have long been an essential part of the Wickenburg story. The guest ranches here are the stuff of legend. For years this is where city slickers have come to get in touch with their inner cowpoke. Four historic properties carry on that tradition.

There’s a reason that more than two-thirds of the guests at Flying E Ranch are repeat visitors. The personal attention given creates a strong bond between staff and guests. Spend a couple of nights and you’ll feel like part of the Flying E family. The big 20,000-acre spread offers a glimpse at an Arizona from days gone by, with a strong western flavor to the rooms and plenty of time in the saddle. It’s all balanced with a high level of comfort—excellent food, a heated swimming pool, Jacuzzi, an on-call masseuse, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, game room and more. 

The Kay El Bar is known for its intimate charm. A guest ranch since 1926, rooms have a western motif, and a large guesthouse is perfect for families or groups of friends. Two rides are scheduled daily, one on Sunday, and all experience levels are accommodated. Enjoy the home-style cooking and quiet time afforded at this historic ranch beneath the starry skies and you’ll understand why cowboys always had something to sing about.       

Rancho de los Caballeros translates loosely to “Ranch of the Gentlemen on Horseback” and that tells you a little of what to expect. This is part guest ranch, part resort where casual luxury is the norm. Rooms are scattered about the grounds in lovely casitas. Sumptuous meals are served in the festive dining room. The ranch features daily horseback rides, a full-service spa, trap and skeet range, tennis courts, swimming pool, and an 18-hole golf course considered one of the best in the state. In Arizona, that’s high praise indeed.

Another option is Rancho Casitas. With comfortable rooms, a swimming pool, laundry on-site, horse accommodations and monthly rates, you might find yourself wanting to stay longer than expected. The 120 acre ranch is located right next to state land, so the riding potential is nearly limitless, and the starts at night just can’t be beat.  

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Historic gold mine

Of course, the heart of the Wickenburg experience is downtown where century-old buildings line the streets. Grab a brochure from the visitor center and take the self-guided walking tour. Streetscape bronze sculptures of Old West characters are sprinkled through the town completing the time capsule feel. And a few bronze critters, too. Don’t jump if you see a Gila monster or a tarantula on the sidewalk. This is one walking tour the kids will love.

One stop on the downtown tour you don’t want to miss is the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. Cowboy life and art are well represented at Arizona’s Most Western Museum with works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and other heavyweights. Plenty of western memorabilia is on display, as well as historical dioramas and Native American artifacts. A Smithsonian Affiliate, Desert Caballeros Western Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019.

See the reason Wickenburg exists when you visit the ghost town of Vulture City. Located 12 miles outside of town, this is the site of one of Arizona’s most productive gold mines, discovered by Henry Wickenburg. The crucial piece of the past has been carefully preserved. Visitors can walk a graveled half-mile path to see the collection of weathered historic buildings surrounded by old mining equipment such as the stamp mill and headframe. Tour the remarkably preserved Assay House, furnace room, cookhouse and cabins. Informational signage offers a peek at this hardscrabble way of life on the Arizona frontier. It’s a must for history buffs. Guided tours are offered at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Stay awhile

No matter when you visit Wickenburg the welcome mat is always out. Plenty of annual events add a little extra spice to your time in town. One of the most popular is the Bluegrass Festival, which draws thousands of spectators in the fall. The three-day event serves up plenty of toe-tapping fun with nationally known bands, contests, jam sessions, and that high lonesome sound echoing through the desert. The festival celebrates its 40th year when it takes place November 9-11, 2019. 

Wickenburg makes a great day trip from the metro Phoenix area. But what’s your hurry? Hikers are going to want to scramble to the top of Vulture Peak, or mosey through the cactus gardens of Sophie’s Flat. Birders will lose themselves among the tangle of vegetation at the Hassayampa River Preserve. Off-roaders will want to visit old mining sights or explore Box Canyon. Photographers will have too many options to choose from.

Why not slow down? Fall into that comfortable Wickenburg rhythm. Turn a day trip into a weekend, or a week. Remember what those kind of vacations felt like? Spend time where the Old West meets the New West, where hospitality comes naturally, and where the spaces are still wide and open.

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