In the middle of the Arizona desert, 65 miles northwest of Phoenix and 130 miles southeast of Kingman, Wickenburg (pop. 6,806) grew up as a gold-mining camp in the 1860s and has survived as a low-key resort community. A few crusty prospectors still search for a strike, and cowboys are often seen riding through town, which makes Wickenburg a pleasant place to get a feel for the Old West, especially during the winter months when temperatures are mild and the sun shines nearly every day. If you wander around the compact town, keep an eye out for Gila monsters, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes, but don’t worry: If you see one, it’s likely made of bronze, part of an art installation that has also populated the streets with metal renditions of Wild West outlaws and schoolteachers.
Wickenburg’s Wild West ambience and reliably good winter weather account for the number of dude ranches dotting the surrounding desert, most of which are intended for longer stays rather than passing travelers.
Right where US-93 intersects cross-country US-60 at Wickenburg’s only stoplight, the Desert Caballeros Western Museum (928/684-2272, daily, $12) gives a broad overview of regional history and contains a surprisingly good collection of Western art and sculpture (from George Catlin to Charles “Charley” Russell), plus the usual rocks and rusty relics.
Most of the places to eat and sleep are lined up along east-west US-60 (Wickenburg Way). For breakfast and lunch, try the Horseshoe Café (207 E. Wickenburg Way, 928/684-7377).
Hassayampa River Preserve
One of Arizona’s few stretches of riverside ecology preserved in its natural state, the Hassayampa River Preserve, four miles southeast of Wickenburg on US-60/89, is a great place to break a journey. For most of its way, the Hassayampa River runs underground, but here it rises to irrigate a dense forest of willows and cottonwood trees, which in turn shelter an amazing variety of birds—over 200 species, from songbirds to raptors, are listed in the preserve’s birders’ guide. Lots of lizards are here too, along with bobcats.
The Nature Conservancy, which owns and operates the preserve, runs a small visitors center (928/684-2772, Wed.-Sun. 8am-5pm winter, limited hours summer, $5), where you can pick up trail guides and maybe join a guided walk.