You still get a sense of the Old West in easygoing Wickenburg, where Western-style buildings line the downtown streets. Picturesque rocky hills all around invite exploration on foot or horseback. Local guest ranches will put you in the saddle and even let you join the cowboys to work the cattle. Not surprisingly, the town has a good selection of shops specializing in Western apparel, Western art, Native American arts and crafts, and antiques.
Wickenburg's pleasantly cool and sunny weather lasts from November to May. Summers at the town's 2,100-foot elevation can get very hot; average highs in July run 103ºF.
You'll find most of the places to stay and eat along the two highways that meet in the center, where US 93 (Tegner St.) turns north from US 60 (Wickenburg Way). The chamber of commerce makes a good place to start a visit; follow signs for "Tourist Info." Besides information on sights and services of the area, you can pick up a map of a historic walking tour that begins here. Wickenburg is 58 miles northwest of Phoenix via US 60 (Grand Ave.), but the less congested route via I-17 and AZ 74 past Lake Pleasant is quicker and easier. A bypass planned for 2007 will route US 93 traffic east of downtown Wickenburg.
Henry Wickenburg had roamed the hills of Arizona for a year in search of gold before striking it rich at the Vulture Mine in 1863. According to one legend, he noticed the shiny nuggets when reaching down to pick up a vulture he'd shot; others claim he glimpsed the gold while picking up a rock to throw at his burro. Either way, Wickenburg set off a frenzied gold rush.
The Vulture Mine lacked water needed for processing, so miners hauled the ore 14 miles northeast to the Hassayampa River. In just a few years, the town that grew up around the mills became Arizona's third-largest city. It missed becoming the territorial capital in 1866 by only two votes.
Prospectors discovered other gold deposits in the Wickenburg area until more than 80 mines operated at the height of the gold rush. A bit of gold fever lingers today, still drawing prospectors into the backcountry. Mining for gold and other minerals continues on a small scale.
Desert Caballeros Western Museum
This excellent museum (downtown at 21 N. Frontier St., 928/684-2272 or 684-7075, www.westernmuseum.org, noon-4 p.m. Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., $6 adults, $4.50 seniors 60 and over, $1 youth 6-16) presents many facets of Western art, culture, and history. A large art gallery features outstanding paintings and sculpture by Remington, Russell, and other inspired artists. The Native American Room displays a varied collection of prehistoric and modern crafts, including kachina dolls, pottery, baskets, and stone tools. Precious stones and minerals glitter in the Gem & Mineral Room. Temporary exhibits delve into intriguing topics.
Dioramas illustrate the history of the Vulture Mine and the early mining community. Downstairs you'll step into a street scene and period rooms that show how Wickenburg actually looked. Outside, walk over to a small park behind the museum to see Thanks for the Rain, a bronze sculpture by Joe Beeler. The museum store sells crafts and books.
Old Jail Tree
The town lacked a jail in the early days, so prisoners were shackled to this old mesquite tree. The tree stands behind the Circle-K store at the highway junction downtown.
Normally you'll see just a dry streambed through town. The river's Apache name means "river that runs upside down," because its waters flow beneath the sandy surface. A wishing well and sign at the west end of the highway bridge relate the legend that anyone drinking from the stream will never tell the truth again. See for yourself!
Hassayampa River Preserve
The river pops out of the ground along a five-mile section of riverbed below town, watering lush vegetation. The Goodding willow-Fremont cottonwood forest along the banks is one of the rarest forest types in North America. Spring-fed Palm Lake attracts many waterfowl not normally seen in the desert. Visitors have counted more than 280 species of birds, including zone-tailed and black hawks that fly up from Mexico to nest. The preserve, managed by the Arizona chapter of the Nature Conservancy, provides a sanctuary for these hawks and other wildlife. You can enjoy quiet walks through the natural settings, reflecting on the fact that of Arizona's streamside habitats existing a century ago, only 5-10% exist today. Hassayampa River Preserve lies three miles southeast of Wickenburg on US 60 near Milepost 114.
Check in at the visitor center (928/684-2772, http://nature.org/arizona, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sun., but only Fri.-Sun. in summer, $5, $3 members) to pick up trail information and to see exhibits. The four-room adobe core of the visitor center, built in the 1860s, has served as ranch, stagecoach way station, and one of Arizona's first guest ranches. A network of trails begins near the visitor center and wanders along the riverbank, through the woodlands, around Palm Lake, and up to a viewpoint. The preserve offers guided nature walks on the last Saturday of each month; call for time and reservations.
At rest now, the Vulture Mine (602/859-2743, $7 adults, $6 seniors 62+, and $5 children 6-12) saw a lot of activity from the time of Henry Wickenburg's discovery in 1863 until wartime priorities in 1942 shut it down. Today you have the opportunity to stroll through the remarkably well-preserved ghost town. Gold and silver still lie in underground veins and may be mined again.
The self-guided, quarter-mile loop stays on the surface past the assay office, glory hole, headframe and main shaft (more than 2,000 feet deep), blacksmith shop, ball mill, power plant, apartment houses, mess hall, and other structures. Be sure to keep to the marked trail—some areas and buildings are dangerous to enter—and wear sturdy shoes. It's open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily mid-Sept.-early May, then 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Fri.-Sun. early May-June, closed July-mid-September. Groups can schedule tours. From Wickenburg, head west 2.5 miles on Wickenburg Way, then turn south 12 miles on paved Vulture Mine Road; the mine is on your right.
Originally called Antelope Station, this settlement began in 1863 when prospectors found placer gold in Antelope Creek. Five years later, the population reached 3,500. The gold began to play out by the early 1900s, and Stanton started fading away. The stage stop, hotel, and opera house survive from the old days.
Members of the Lost Dutchman Mining Association now own the site, where they continue the tradition of gold mining in Antelope Creek as a hobby. Ask permission to look around Stanton; no charge, though you can make a donation.
From Wickenburg follow AZ 89 north 18 miles, two miles past Congress, then turn right 6.5 miles on a graded dirt road signed for Stanton. Along the road you'll see old shacks, mine tailings, rusting machinery, and some new operations, as well as a large dairy. After entering Stanton, turn left through the Lost Dutchman's Mining Association gate. The main road continues another mile to the site of Octave (signed No Trespassing), then becomes too rough for cars. On Rich Hill, between Stanton and Octave, prospectors reportedly picked up gold nuggets the size of potatoes, just lying on the ground.
Drivers with high-clearance vehicles can turn left just past Stanton and climb five miles up the valley past more mining operations to AZ 89 at the top of Yarnell Hill. (The road comes out just north of St. Mary's Catholic Church.) It's fun to search out some of the old gold mines and ghost towns surrounding Wickenburg. Caution is needed on these dirt roads; get local advice on conditions and avoid traveling after heavy rains.
Yarnell Hill Lookout
Southbound travelers can stop at a pullout for a sweeping view of the desert and distant mountains below. The lookout lies 25 miles north of Wickenburg and a half mile south of Yarnell on AZ 89. Northbound travelers don't have access to this stop.
Shrine of St. Joseph
A short trail with steps climbs past statues and plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross. Giant granite boulders weathered out of the hillside add to the beauty of the spot; donations welcome. Turn west one-half mile at the sign in central Yarnell. The Yarnell-Peeples Valley Chamber of Commerce (928/427-6582) can tell you about the area.
Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) line US 93 for 18 miles between Mileposts 180 and 162. You'll see the first ones about 22 miles northwest of Wickenburg. Large clusters of pale-green flowers appear from early February to early April.
Burro Creek Recreation Site
If you're driving between Wickenburg and Kingman, you'll pass this picturesque spot. A perennial stream flows through a scenic canyon area (elev. 1,960 feet), feeding deep blue pools and lush greenery in the desert. Open all year, it's a great place to take a break from the long drive on US 93; day use is free. Visitors enjoy camping, picnicking, birding, swimming, hiking, four-wheeling, and rockhounding for agates and Apache tears. A cactus garden and interpretive signs introduce life of the desert. Hikers can head up the creekbed if the water isn't too high—the creek extends some 40 miles upstream and goes through the heart of Burro Creek Wilderness; downstream is private land. The campground has drinking water, flush toilets, and a dump station, but no showers, $10 per night. For information and group campsite ($30) reservations, contact the Kingman Field Office of the BLM (2475 Beverly Ave., Kingman, AZ 86401, 928/692-4400, www.az.blm.gov). Head northwest 63 miles from Wickenburg on US 93 or southeast 65 miles from Kingman on I-40 and US 93, then turn west 1.3 miles at the sign. An overlook on the west side of the highway near the bridge provides a fine panorama of the area.
On to Wickenburg Practicalities
On to The Apache Trail