As you walk along covered sidewalks in front of sturdy brick buildings and wood plank storefronts in Wickenburg’s historic downtown, you can imagine horses tied to railings and stagecoaches rumbling through the wide streets. It is easy to see why the tourism office calls Wickenburg “Arizona’s most western community.”
Although Wickenburg feels centuries removed from modern Phoenix, it is only a 54-mile freeway drive away, making it an ideal Phoenix day trip.
The area was home to the Native American Yavapai (“people of the sun”) for centuries. Miners and prospectors, mostly from California and Mexico, arrived in the 1860s looking for gold. Ranchers and farmers accompanied them. One of these fortune-seekers was Henry Wickenburg, who did indeed discover gold at Vulture Mine.
The community of Wickenburg was founded in 1863. Although the early town experienced a number of hardships, including Indian wars, drought, mine closures, and an 1890 flood resulting from a burst dam, Wickenburg grew. Today, in the historic district, buildings dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s create a western ambiance that reminds you of the town’s past.
Thumb photo credit: Eric Moreno/Flickr
Historic Walking Tour
The railway came to Wickenburg in 1895. The Santa Fe Railroad Depot is still standing on Depot Street and makes a fine place to start your tour of Wickenburg. The building houses Wickenburg’s Visitor Center, where you will find information about the town and can pick up a self-guided walking tour brochure with a map showing locations of historic buildings.
Original structures include an old post office, a 1906 barber shop, a 1905 brick schoolhouse, a railway hotel, a 1918 pharmacy, and several residences. Twenty-three Wickenburg structures are listed on the National Historic Register. It is the exterior of the historic buildings you’ll see on your walking tour; the interiors are used for modern purposes. Many house restaurants and specialty shops selling art, jewelry, collectibles, western wear, and souvenirs. Immerse yourself an interesting blend of old and new as you browse inside the shops during your walking tour.
One of the more unique features of Wickenburg’s downtown is its collection of “talking” statues, which bring history to life. The first one you’re likely to encounter is on the grounds of the railway depot. The statue is a young school teacher arriving in Wickenburg in the early 1900s. Push the button on the post beside the statue to activate an audio recording of the woman describing her experience.
Other Wickenburg Characters include a miner leading his donkey, a vaquero (cowboy) with a guitar providing an evening serenade, a rancher and dance hall girl depicting the evening social life in early Wickenburg, and a statue of Elizabeth Hudson Smith, a black American woman who owned and operated the Hotel Vernetta, the finest restaurant and hotel in town.
Jail Tree Felon, another Wickenburg Character, can be found chained to a large mesquite tree in Jail Tree Park on Tegner Street. In early Wickenburg days, prisoners were chained to the tree until they could be transported to the nearest jail in Prescott.
You may feel as if you’ve already spent the morning at a museum just by walking through Wickenburg’s historic downtown, but the Desert Caballeros Western Museum is not to be missed. It contains an impressive collection of art and artifacts and recreates the life of the early settlement.
The main floor of the museum houses more than 400 works of Western art, including sculptures by the famous artist Frederick Remmington, who specialized in depictions of the old American West, and by “cowboy artist” Charles Russell.
The lower level is a reconstruction of a Wickenburg street in the late 1800s and early 1900s. You’ll find a Victorian-era home, a general store, a saloon, a hotel, and a Western-style ranch. Exhibits and audio information delivered via headset provide information about how the people worked and lived.
One of the most interesting stories about the people of Wickenburg is that of Elizabeth Hudson Smith, whom we mentioned as one of the talking statues. A college-educated black American woman and former slave, she came to Wickenburg with her husband in 1897. She thrived in the more open society of the old west, co-founding the Presbyterian Church, establishing the opera house, teaching French lessons, and operating the popular Hotel Vernetta. By 1912, racial norms of the east had reached Arizona and her respected status in the community diminished as newcomers ostracized her. Nevertheless, she ran the Hotel Vernetta until her death in 1935.
The museum’s collection of bola ties may come as a surprise. Vic Cedarstaff invented the bola tie in 1949 in Wickenburg. In 1971, the Arizona Legislature declared the bola tie the official state neck wear.
Wickenburg is also known for calf-roping and dude ranches. Calf-roping events events are scheduled during the months of November through April. Various guest ranches offer the opportunity to extend your Old West day trip into a several day traditional ranch experience.
If you’re in Phoenix and looking for a trip to take you out of town for the day, saddle up and head into the new old west.