It’s morning in Wickenburg, and hawks circle their nest in a towering eucalyptus tree above the green lawns of the historic Kay El Bar Guest Ranch. As guests meander toward the adobe dining hall for breakfast, ranch cats Miss Kitty and Festus rub up against blue-jeaned legs, demanding attention. Beyond the gnarled salt cedars, a half-dozen horses in the corral wait patiently for saddles and riders, before the wrangler-led ride through the desert begins.
A few miles away in downtown Wickenburg, Desert Caballeros Western Museum is opening up its doors so visitors can enjoy a Southwestern art scene coup—the first retrospective of a major Arizona contemporary artist, Ed Mell, showcasing some 90 paintings, sketches and sculptures representing five decades of his career in a temporary exhibit. Named one of the best Western museums in the country, the facility’s galleries are also laden with works by masters such as Remington, Russell, and Bierstad.
This is Wickenburg in a nutshell—rustic yet sophisticated, historic but modern. It’s a place that celebrates its ranching and mining past, yet revels in the arts, as exemplified by other attractions such as Vulture City ghost town and the architecturally striking Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts. Soak up both sides of Wickenburg by spending a weekend or longer in this high-desert community northwest of Greater Phoenix.
One of several notable guest ranches in town, the Kay El Bar was founded in the early 1900s as a working cattle ranch by Romaine Lowdermilk, who later gained fame as a cowboy balladeer and songwriter. By 1926, Kay El Bar became a guest ranch, accommodating visitors in lodge rooms, a guest house and casitas, all built by hand from adobe blocks with the help of Native American craftsmen. Nearly a century later—and now on the National Historic Register—the 100-acre
ranch still focuses on activities like riding and hiking, offers three hearty family-style meals daily and has a cozy, vintage Western ambiance. In a nod to modern times, there’s WiFi in the living room, where you can also grab a sauvignon blanc or craft beer and enjoy happy hour on the patio, watching shadows lengthen over the pool and the nearby Hassayampa riverbed. More modern adjustments? The ranch is now open year-round and offers flexible bookings, like bed and breakfast packages and single-night stays.
Founded in 1969, Desert Caballeros Western Museum has long enjoyed community support—in fact, when the original building burned to the ground in 1972, the town rallied and helped the museum reopen in new digs three years later. Today, the ten galleries in two buildings draw art lovers from around the globe to see works by modern masters, traditionalists, and Native American artists. What can you see?
Desert scenes by Maynard Dixon, sweeping landscapes by Thomas Moran, a dazzling 200-pound silver-encrusted saddle by Edward Bohlin and an over-the-top rodeo outfit by Nudie. Each spring, the museum hosts its popular “Cowgirl Up!” exhibit, which showcases some 200 Western works by women artists. For those who like a trek to the past, lower-level galleries trace Wickenburg’s history through vignettes and dioramas. Before you leave the grounds, be sure to Instagram the museum’s signature cowboy sculpture, Joe Beeler’s “Thanks for the Rain.”
Trace more of Wickenburg’s past on the outskirts of town at Vulture City, a 30-acre ghost town that peaked in the late 1800s and early 20th century. Henry Wickenburg established a gold mine here in 1863, and, before long, a community of more than 1,000 people sprang up in this stretch of ironwood-dotted desert. In addition to typical mining-town buildings like an assay office, cookhouse,
and living quarters, Vulture City also offered a tennis court, brothel, doctor’s office, and a hanging tree, where 18 men are said to have met their maker. Ongoing restoration efforts allow you to walk through buildings like the workshop and Henry Wickenburg’s cabin on guided tours. If you’re looking for a more spirited adventure, Vulture City also has ghost tours two evenings a month.
If you’re seeking for a little yang to Vulture City’s yin, Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts will deliver on culture. Opened in 2000 with a cowboy poetry show , the 587-seat theater has thrilled audiences with sold-out performances by the likes of the Gatlin Brothers, Lily Tomlin, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Pink Martini, Sons of the Pioneers and Carlene Carter. Films, dance performances,
lectures and even circus shows have rounded out the calendar. Boasting the largest fly loft in Arizona, the state-of-the-art performing arts center offers a fall through spring season and has a robust artistic residency program. Insider tip—don’t put off buying tickets to see your favorite artists. Seats go fast.
How best to experience Wickenburg? Revel in the town’s dualities. Stay at a guest ranch. Put on cowboy boots and go on a trail ride. Ponder the artistry of a Western landscape painting. Mingle with the ghosts of ornery gold miners. Tap your toes to great music. At the end of your stay, take home great memories.