Wickenburg, known as the “Dude Ranch Capital of Arizona,” was listed last year among True West Magazine’s Top Ten True Western Towns. Western hospitality definitely sets the tone for this historic place along the Hassayampa River. Guided trail rides and chuck wagon cookouts are the norm at any of the many dude ranches; jeep and ATV adventures abound, and visitors can also enjoy the less dusty pursuits of the Historic District, the Desert Caballeros Western Museum and the Del Webb Center for the Performing Arts.
About 250 miles south of Las Vegas following US Highway 93, you’ll see the distinctive Vulture Mine Peak in the distance. Henry Heintzel Wickenburg, who came from Prussia, discovered gold almost in the peak’s shadow in 1863 and called it Vulture Mine. He founded the town of Wickenburg.
Now, nearly 150 years later, Wickenburg is a tourist town of roughly 7,000 people. To ease traffic congestion in downtown Wickenburg, it was necessary to construct a bypass to divert through-traffic, and that has been both a curse and a blessing. The trucks don’t stack up at the stoplight in midtown anymore, but travelers tend to whiz through on the bypass, missing Wickenburg’s many delights.
To make the most of your visit, you should start by picking up a walking tour book at the 1895 Santa Fe Depot that houses the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce on Frontier Street. Behind it you will find Santa Fe Railroad Engine No. 761 and the Southern Pacific Drover Caboose sitting on the 1893 “Peavine Line” tracks that ran from Phoenix to Prescott. A “Teacher with Luggage” bronze statue waits to climb aboard the train. She’ll be there for a while. Passenger trains stopped running in the 1960s. She is one of many figures representing Wickenburg’s past that are scattered throughout the Historic District, along with life-sized and startling rattlers, scorpions and Gila monsters.
Don’t expect to breeze through the Desert Caballeros Western Museum down the street. For such a small town, this museum is amazing. It offers over 400 works of Western art and a black-light exhibit in the Gem and Mineral Room plus, a Native American Room with tribal artifacts. Exhibits constantly change and the museum has a variety of programs and lectures throughout the year. Downstairs is a 19th century street scene with the Vulture Saloon, general store and a blacksmith shop.
In front is a small park with a life-sized Joe Beeler sculpture, “Thanks for the Rain,” a praying cowboy on bended knee beside his faithful steed. Across the street, you’ll see a man chained to the “Jail Tree.” Push the button for the story of how this gnarled old mesquite tree was the town’s jail once upon a time.
After visiting all the unique arts and crafts shops, art galleries and historical buildings downtown, you may find yourself on the banks of the Hassayampa River. Legend says that if you drink of the Hassayampa, you’ll never speak the truth again. First of all, drinking the water would be nearly impossible. Most of the time, you’d just get a mouth full of sand. This river has a sandy bed causing the water to seep underground. It is almost always dry under the bridge, but in rocky areas like Box Canyon, a popular hiking and ATVing oasis north of the bridge, the water can’t travel beneath the surface, so it runs above ground. Water also surfaces in the underused but delightful Hassayampa River Preserve south of the bridge, where you can walk through cottonwood-willow forests or around four-acre Palm Lake, a bird watcher’s paradise.
Yavapai Indians lived on this northern edge of the Sonoran Desert. They grew crops on the fertile soil of the Hassayampa’s flood plain and hunted along its riverbanks. The Yavapai were pushed from their traditional home territory by hunters, trappers, settlers, miners and then soldiers. After the Indian Wars of 1860-1869, the U. S. Army forced the Yavapai onto a reservation. Given inadequate provisions, the Yavapai began raiding stagecoaches. The Wickenburg Massacre, an ambush west of town in 1871, killed several passengers. This brought the wrath of Gen. George Crook against all Yavapai and within a year, they were crushed.
The Wickenburg area and much of the West didn’t become part of the United States until after the Mexican-American War of 1848. The Hispanic population who lived in this northern territory helped develop Wickenburg and are part of its heritage today.
An 1862 gold strike near Yuma brought prospectors and miners into central Arizona, among them Henry Wickenburg. Although a great deal of gold was removed from his Vulture Mine, it never paid off for poor Henry. Thinking that it would “play out” early, as did most of the mines, he sold it. Discouraged and disillusioned in later years, at age 85, he ended his life with a bullet on the banks of the Hassayampa.
The Vulture Mine’s self-guided loop tour takes you through the former boomtown of Vulture, with its dusty cobwebs, and creaking floors. You may even be accompanied by a ghost or two, maybe at the Glory Hole, where seven miners and twelve burros were “sent to glory” in a mining accident.
Close by is that Vulture Peak we see as we approach Wickenburg. This steep trail is a favorite, although the last several hundred feet to the 3,660-foot summit are best left to experienced hikers. While you might see roadrunners, javelina, coyotes and free-roaming cattle, rattlesnakes are there also, though you don’t necessarily see them. Remember that deserts are extreme territory. We never plan to get lost or injured or have vehicle problems. Always travel and hike prepared for emergencies.
The Del Webb Center for the Performing Arts has surprising theater for a small town. The Webb Center provides quality performances whether it is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or the Vienna Boys Choir. The Friends of Music regularly offers free Community Center concerts on Sunday afternoons, and one of the oldest Southwest bluegrass festivals is in November, a three-day event with fiddles, guitars, banjos and mandolins.
The annual Cowboy Christmas Poetry Gathering is held in December. Well-known cowboy poets and humorists perform at the Webb center. Free sessions at the Wickenburg Community Center offer poetry and stories told by working cowboys and ranchers. Their reality takes you where cattle graze under a moonlit sky and you hear the fire crackle. You can almost taste the beans and feel the hot coffee trickle down your throat. The Christmas Eve loneliness is palpable and you aren’t the only one with wet eyes when the storyteller brings you back home again.
Christmas is big in Wickenburg. Organizations and individuals go all out decorating bikes, antique cars, floats, and themselves for the annual Christmas Parade of Lights. Friday night finds them joyously parading through the streets hoping for that special prize, but the really big celebration is the February Gold Rush Days and Rodeo with a family carnival, a Webb Center production and a big parade. Classic cars are exhibited along with arts and crafts, and it wouldn’t be a western gathering without gunfights, gold panning, or a rodeo, which is held in the Everett Bowman Rodeo Arena. Melodramas and BBQ go hand in hand with the Gold Rush Rodeo Dance. The event is scheduled this year Feb. 12-14.
In the spring, an eclectic group of horsemen gather in Wickenburg. Friends and family line the streets to watch the Desert Caballero riders leave town. This all-male, father-brother-son-friend five-day annual adventure takes them on 60 miles of horseback riding, shared campfires, and the creation of memories to last a lifetime.
Whether you come to Wickenburg for a few days, a season or forever, that is what you’ll do: make memories to last a lifetime.
For more information on Wickenburg, visit outwickenburgway.com or call the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce at (800) 942-5242.
Sharlene Minshall is an RV columnist and author who lives in Arizona. For autographed copies of her 2009 fourth edition RVing Alaska and Canada ($19.95) and Adventures with the Silver Gypsy ($14.95), write to Sharlene Minshall, Box 1040, Congress, AZ 85332-1040, or visit full-time-rver.com or Amazon.com.
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