Do you have vacation time to burn? Looking to spend the last days of summer break with the kids? In the mood for something cozy, cultural, horse-friendly and very Western? If so, consider heading out Wickenburg way.
With a list of writing assignments concentrated in Central Arizona, I was thrilled to find myself on an airplane bound for Phoenix, camera in tote, for a working excursion. The decision to base out of Wickenburg was simple: I was curious about this once-obscure little hamlet that has exploded into one of America’s cowboy-culture and horseback-riding hotspots.
I decided the one way I could mingle work with pleasure was to pursue a familiar perspective—that of a vacationing cowgirl. My self-appointed agenda: Experience the genuine hospitality of a historic dude ranch, ride through the high-desert hills, sample my fill of Southwestern cuisine, hunt Western antiques, and take in as many museums, galleries and chic Western boutiques as possible—all in four days.
AIR TRAVELERS DESTINED FOR WICKENBURG are usually routed through Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, although the town does have its own airstrip. The 60-mile drive from Phoenix to Wickenburg goes fairly quickly, until I reach downtown Wickenburg. At that point, the trip seems like 600 miles thanks to road construction and traffic congestion.
I quickly learn to avoid driving in town between 6 and 8 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., when everyone else is in a hurry to get to work or to go home. The consensus among locals is that a new bypass being built will help alleviate the congestion.
My first stop is the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce, located on historic Frontier Street in the old Santa Fe Railroad Depot. Armed with a bundle of free brochures, I head to my bunkhouse at the Flying E Guest Ranch to map out my mission.
LODGING IN WICKENBURG ranges from quirky cottages and no-frills motels to quaint bed-and-breakfasts and deluxe accommodations. However, the town is best known for its guest ranches. Dubbed the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World,” Wickenburg once supported a dozen guest ranches. Confronted with drought and a depressed cattle market in the 1920s, local ranchers turned to tourists for income, starting guest ranches. With its inexhaustible supply of sunshine, Wickenburg become a popular tourist destination, which spurred the town’s economy.
Today, three of the original guest ranches remain in business: Flying E Ranch, Kay El Bar Ranch and Rancho de los Caballeros.
The Flying E, where I’m staying, is a middle-of-the-road ranch about four miles west of town. The 20,000-acre ranch was established in 1949 by Vi and George Wellik, and is currently operated by Steve and Andrea Taylor. The knotty-pine walls and vintage Western furnishings give the ranch a nostalgic feel. With a corral of stout horses, miles of trails and room for only about 35 guests, the Flying E is a perfect place to ride and rejuvenate.
When I arrive in the evening, the ranch crew and guests are gathered on the patio for an intimate acoustic performance by cowboy singer Ray Callaway. As the air chills, everyone moves onto the sofas in the great room until the last note is sung.
I START MY SECOND DAY with a family-style breakfast at the Flying E. Meals are simple and made-to-order, just like at home. But unlike home, ranch cooks Jeff Horanski and Nicki Hack prepare three full meals, the cookie jar is always full, and I don’t have to do dishes!
After breakfast, Steve has a horse saddled for me, and we set out riding across the high-desert hills. An exceptionally damp winter nourished the desert into a vibrant verde canvas dotted with delicate, yellow poppies. Prickly-pear and cholla cactus, and creosote bushes are reminders of the arid land’s harsher side. In the desert’s depths, mule deer and quail coexist with javelina, coyotes, gila monsters, rattlesnakes and other wildlife.
Once they arrive at the Flying E, many of the ranch guests choose not to leave the property for their entire stay. I, on the other hand, am on a mission, so I head to town after my ride.
My first stop is the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, “Arizona’s Most Western Museum.” Museum guests are greeted by Thanks for the Rain, a life-sized bronze sculpture by Cowboy Artists of America founding member Joe Beeler. Cast in 1988, the bronze depicts a cowboy bowing his head and kneeling beside his horse. Inside, the museum houses an extensive collection of Western art and hosts the annual Cowgirl Up! Art from the Other Half of the West Exhibition & Sale—one of the events I’m covering for the magazine. Held each spring, the event is the premier exhibition for women Western artists.
The art is incredible, but I’m also drawn to the extensive exhibit of authentic cowboy gear dating from the 1870s to 1950s. The gorgeous patina of the well-worn leather, rawhide and silver tack makes the memorabilia timeless.
Leaving the museum, I stroll through several shops within a two-block radius. My favorites are Ranch Dressing, an annex of the museum store, and Buckshot Babe’s, a small gift shop for “gals with grit.” Owned by friends Carrie Ward and Gail Walma, the shop is located in the historic Helm Barbershop & Bath House, built in 1910. You’ll find a selection of Garcia bits and spurs, sterling jewelry, vintage candy and other great gifts there.
Other interesting places to peruse include The Old Livery Mercantile, Ben’s Saddlery and Shoe Repair, and The Refried Bean for Southwestern-style decor.
During the day, I maintain a steady pace, relying on local fast-food chains for lunch. In the evening, when I’m ready to commit to a sit-down Western meal at a reasonable price, I head to the Bar 7 Restaurant. I’m glad I arrive early, because before long a line is snaking outside.
With its wild-West atmosphere, you wouldn’t think of Wickenburg as a hub for the performing arts, but the 600-seat Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts has enriched the community’s cultural offerings. Free program guides are available at the box office and on-line to help you select which shows to attend.
For this trip, I’m dedicated to finding Western entertainment, so I scan the schedule for a straight-shooting music and cowboy-poetry performance. I see Baxter Black has performed at the complex before, but this particular week I’m out of luck. However, the Spaghetti Western Orchestra and upcoming performance of the Tony Award-winning musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are appealing.
Also for entertainment, you can find dancing, billiards and great company at two of the town’s favorite watering holes, the Rancher Bar and the Bar 7 Lounge.
ON DAY THREE, feeling slightly underdressed at the art galas I’m covering, I decide to expand my shopping horizons beyond Frontier and Tegner Streets to find some new duds. My search leads me to Double D Western World on the west side of town. With two floors and 24,000 feet of retail space, the store is the area’s largest feed and tack supplier. Owners Creed and Berva Botts are both avid horse people and know exactly what to stock, from feed and pharmaceuticals to bridles and boots. The store also has an extensive selection of apparel, hats and Western furniture and decor.
On the east end of town, I happen upon Smith & Western, a chic boutique filled with all things Western. Full of life and creativity, owner Dolores Jiminez-Smith is always pushing the buttons on cowgirl couture. As Dolores carefully adjusts her displays, she shows me some of her husband Eric’s handiwork.
Attached to Smith & Western is Quarter Horse Antiques, owned by Dolores’ mother. Filled with eclectic treasures, the shop is a must-see stop.
Working my way toward the outskirts of town, I decide to visit a friend, Becky Soderberg, who winters at Horsepitality RV Resort and Board Stable.
Nowhere is Wickenburg’s evolution from a sleepy ranching community to a seasonal snowbird colony more evident than at Horsepitality. The river-front RV park caters to seasonal residents—both horses and humans.
Rows of covered horse pens, an arena and access to acres of public land and trails make this a rider’s retreat. In the winter, locals estimate that there are just as many horses as there are people in Wickenburg, due to the mild climate and ample trail-riding and roping opportunities.
Lonesome for my horses at home, I take a trail ride with Becky and her friends. Weaving through the towering saguaro cacti, Becky explains that you can tell its been a damp year by the wide ribs on the cactus. During dry times, the ribs become narrow. Farther along the trail, we come to a chute-like contraption I’ve never seen before. The cowboy in our group explains that it’s an Arizona Trigger Water Trap. Arizona cattle ranchers use these traps to catch their often-wild cattle in rough terrain. The trigger is built on a water source, with a corral opening into the trigger. When the cowboy wants to catch the cattle, he just closes the trigger once they enter to drink.
After riding, a big question looms: What’s for dinner? Well, how about Anita’s Cocina, Wickenburg’s oldest and best Mexican restaurant?
IT’S MY LAST FULL DAY IN WICKENBURG. Scanning my to-do list, I’ve accomplished just about everything I’d hoped to do on this journey. I have just enough time to check out the town’s most popular art gallery, then reconnect with nature.
Housed in a charming, five-room, 2,500-square-foot adobe building built in 1863, the Gold Nugget Art Gallery features the work of more than 40 Southwestern artists, including furniture, clay, gourd and jewelry artisans. Perhaps it’s the cowboy and horse subject matter, but I’m particularly drawn to paintings by Santos Barbosa, Leland Bearman and Beverly Bray. But there’s also a variety of landscape and Native American art.
The gallery staff is very knowledgeable and friendly, whether you’re an emerging collector, an art aficionado or someone who just appreciates good art and craftsmanship.
Next stop is Vulture Mine, 12 miles southwest of town. A self-guided tour, this activity allows you to see the setup and relics from what was once Arizona’s largest producing gold mine. Henry Wickenburg began the mine in 1863, but it never fully paid off for him. Through the years, the mine changed hands several times and had a series of financial scandals and setbacks before shutting down in 1942.
Continuing on my outdoor adventure, I take a narrow, rugged jeep trail into the Sonoran Desert, winding down to the Hassayampa River. There, I find several hiking trails, including one that leads to a beautiful box canyon. Hassayampa is a Yavapai word meaning “river that runs upside down.” The name is appropriate, because most of it runs underground.
The Sonoran Desert bursts with colorful flowers and an abundance of birds and wildlife, much of which crawls, bites and stings. Hiking shoes, long pants and bug spray are musts. This is no place for sandals.
If you prefer something a little more organized, check out the Hassayampa River Preserve. Self-guided or docent-led hikes take you along lush river bottoms, across flood plains and through cottonwood and mesquite groves. Along the way, you’ll see a variety of birds, lizards and wildlife. The spring-fed riparian areas provide the perfect habitat for species such as the great blue heron, white-faced ibis, pied-billed grebes and willow flycatchers.
A little sweaty and dusty from the day’s hiking, I choose to have my final meal at Custer’s Cowboy Cafe. Owned by Tina and JimBob Custer, the diner is decorated in bull-riding memorabilia. Locals pack in for breakfast, lunch and dinner, leaving their horses tied to the hitching post or trailer.
The Custers and their two daughters all work at the eatery, which serves hearty, plate-covering comfort food. According to JimBob, the menu features “all-American fare, nothing fancy, nothing you can’t pronounce and everything your mom made.”
IT’S WONDERFUL HOW A SERIES OF WRITING ASSIGNMENTS have afforded me an excellent taste of Wickenburg’s cowboy culture, and four days was just enough time to do the town justice. However, if I were able to stay another couple of days, I would’ve loved to have taken to the greens at the town’s top-rated golf courses, toured more guest ranches, including the luxurious Rancho de los Caballeros, and taken in more shops, shows and restaurants.
A cowboy code of ethics seems to rule in Wickenburg. Handshaking and smiles from strangers are the norm, and you can leave on your hats, boots and spurs just about anywhere. As cliché as it may sound, the town has to be the friendliest place in Arizona, and the range of things to do and see is virtually endless. So, if you find yourself out Wickenburg way, you might as well try to see it all, and have a wild, Western time doing it.