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Wickenburg Arizona Vacation: Cowboys, Cactus, Gold Mines and Western Art
Wickenburg, Arizona is a western-themed small town with a diverse history that includes cowboys, gold and silver miners, ranchers, Indians, dude ranches, and tons of natural scenery and wildlife. In the Sonoran desert, in central western Arizona, Wickenburg is a place where you can explore a completely unique ecosystem, have an outdoor hiking adventure, hang with colorful locals, view inspiring works of art, or just watch people as they pass by.
Wickenburg's downtown area meets at the intersection of state highways 60 and 89, and is about a 50-mile drive from Phoenix. Before Interstate Highways 10 and 20 were built, Wickenburg was one of the busiest highway towns in the United States, linking Phoenix to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Many people who grew up visiting Wickenburg's dude ranches as children have returned with their families over the years.
Points of Interest
Constellation Road Photos
Claret Cup Cactus
Teddy Bear Cholla
A Unique Look At Wickenburg
The Cowboy's Dream
Albert Bierstadt Painting
Points of Interest
Here are some of my favorite places to explore in and around Wickenburg.
- Desert Caballeros Western Museum. Wickenburg is home to a privately funded art and history museum that showcases the area's history and an excellent collection of Western-themed art and artifacts. Most visitors to this museum are astonished by what they find here. And what DO they find? Works by Bierstadt, Remington, Russell, and other iconic western artists from the 19th century, as well as contemporary western art that rivals what can be found in more established art communities like Taos, Tucson, Santa Fe...Most recently the Desert Caballeros Western Museum has hosted an increasingly prestigious art show called "Cowgirl Up!" The show exhibits new works by contemporary women western artists. In some ways it is an answer to the 35-year old men's club in Western Art: The Cowboy Artists of America. This organization has driven the Western Art scene for almost 35 years, and it doesn't admit women! The increasingly popular show exhibits in April and usually showcases the work of just under 50 artists. If you are an art fan, then this is your time to visit, but make sure to book your accommodations early! This is a must-see stop on your Wickenburg vacation to help you decide which parts of Wickenburg's varied local history interest you the most.
- Hassayampa River Preserve. Managed by the Nature Conservancy, the Hassayampa River Preserve is a riparian area on the Hassayampa River, which according to local legend, means "upside down" river. The Hassayampa is a seasonal river with areas along the river that also flow underground. Hence the name. At the preserve you will see wildlife, bats, rare birds--a great place for birdwatching. Riparian areas are becoming more and more endangered as part of America's ecological chain. Many of Arizona's riparian habitats have been destroyed or disappeared. The River Preserve offers beautiful views and an educational experience describing the river and its role in the surrounding desert.
- Vulture Peak. This natural area is a bonafide Saguaro forest. The saguaro (sa-wa-ro) is the state cactus of Arizona. Saguaros usually grow about 15 feet tall at full maturity and take over 200 years to grow. In May and June saguaros blossom and then produce edible fruit at the tips of the cactus arms. In case you are wondering, the fruit is very sour and only tastes good in jam and syrup where lots of sugar has sweetened it up. Vulture peak has a dedicated trail system with a primitive camping site, alternative road for 4-wheel vehicles, and a hiking route that will take you up to the saddle of the volcanic mountain. Plan at least three hours for your hike, and expect to traverse a lot of steep hills between your parked car and the peak. The reward of this hike is the superb views of natural desert plants that rival the Saguaro National Park in Tucson. It is a great place to see a sunrise or enjoy a sunset. Make sure to bring plenty of water, (don't do this hike in the summer!), and avoid the Teddy Bear Cholla (Choy-a) plants that sound deceptively cute. They are spiky and the plants propagate by sending "travelers" that can get stuck to your shoes and your pant legs. They are very painful!
- Historic Vulture Mine. Past Vulture Peak is the Historic Vulture Mine. This was one of the first gold mines in the area. It was started by Wickenburg's namesake founder, Henry Wickenburg. It is open seasonally for tours, but you need to call ahead for an appointment.
- Joshua Tree Scenic Highway. Joshua trees are large tree-sized yucca plants that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The plants have established themselves over miles of terrain about 12 miles northwest of Wickenburg. If you have never been to the Sonoran desert, make time to see this sight. It is an astounding natural wonder. Just make sure to use the restroom in town before you go, as the facilities are limited to construction-worker-type porta potties. If you are driving to Las Vegas after your trip to Wickenburg, you may want to wait to view this site as you leave town. There is plenty to see from the road.
- Congress, Arizona. Congress is a very rural Arizona town with a small school, a few businesses, a rich mining history, lots of abandoned (and very dangerous, I might add) mines, and a bizarre terrain of huge boulders set right against the mountains. On highway 89, this town is developing an interesting highway-frontage set of shops, including a produce stand that sells great honey. If you think Wickenburg is fascinating, and you have an imagination that doesn't require rigidly defined tourist sites, an additional jaunt to Congress might also be worth your while. Congress is also the site of one of many ghost towns left by mining operations in nearby mountains. Other ghost towns dot the Bradshaw Mountains nearby. If you keep driving up highway 89, you will ascend Yarnell "hill". This steep highway scales the side of the mountain that will take you to another fascinating town at the top of the mountain valley that overlooks all of Congress and Wickenburg. Not for the feint of heart, and especially not for those who are afraid of heights, but a fascinating drive with some rewarding discoveries, including wild claret cactus, which is fairly rare, and has a deep, blood red blossom that is absolutely beautiful.
- Box Canyon. This pretty canyon is a favorite haunt of locals and high school students, so sometimes it gets pretty trashed. It is one of those local places you kind of have to ask about to find. Box Canyon is on the northern part of the Hassayampa River and is often traversed by people on horseback. It is featured in Dana Burden's book about hiking in Wickenburg, Desert Hiking Out Wickenburg Way. This self-published book is not available through Amazon, but you can find this book for sale at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum and at the Old Livery Mercantile. Dana Burden was one of Wickenburg's native sons, and passed away only a few years ago. He served as a guide and worked on his family's guest ranch, Remuda Ranch, which became a treatment center for eating disorders in later years. I believe there are a limited number of copies of Dana's book in print, but the trails detailed in this book (including maps for GPS and a data CD) will provide a serious hiker with lot of return day trips and wild places to explore around Wickenburg.
- Constellation Road. Constellation Road is Wickenburg's Ghost Town. The steep, narrow, winding road goes for miles into Wickenburg's mountains and will lead you to abandoned mines (do not enter--and DO your research if you want to check these out...they are VERY dangerous) and a working ranch at the end of the trail. You will LOVE this scenic drive but a 4-wheel drive vehicle is advisable and DO be careful on these back roads. There are some GREAT rock hounding areas back here. At the end of Constellation Road, you will find Williams Family Ranch. This working guest ranch is an hour drive from Wickenburg, but is only 16 miles from town. The Williams Family Ranch is a guest ranch that operates seasonally, and is not open during the hot summer months. The Ranch accommodates 8 visitors at a time. Click on the link and explore the photo gallery on their web page.
Pictures from 2009 Wickenburg Gold Rush Parade
Wickenburg Community Events and Festivals
All of these events are held yearly in Wickenburg, and are detailed with dates and details on the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce Website.
February-Annual Gold Rush Festival
During the first week of February, Gold Rush is Wickenburg's community 's biggest and longest-standing festival featuring a parade, dramatic events, street carnival, community dance, car show, craft fair, and rodeo. Gold Rush is the second weekend in February. The parade boasts itself to be a 200-horse parade. Last year we counted 286 horses. Gold Rush is a lot of fun for the family and usually the weather in February is very pleasant.
In 2008 Wickenburg will host its 20th annual Fiesta Septiembre with Mexican folk dancing, a salsa contest, heritage displays, craft booths, and mariachi music. Wickenburg's Hispanic heritage is as old as its roots in gold mining, with many of Wickenburg's earliest miners and ranchers coming from Hispanic roots. Our family has attended this festival many times at the Wickenburg Community Center. We enjoyed the food, fun, and the wonderful entertainment.
October-Fly In and Classic Car Show
Arizona, with its large population of retirees and glorious weather, attracts a hefty number of classic car enthusiasts. The Fly In and Classic Car Show hosted at the Wickenburg Municipal Airport attracts a growing crowd of car enthusiasts, and includes an aerobatics display and helicopter and plane rides. If your interests lie in classic cars, be sure to stop early for a breakfast burrito at Screamer's Drive In. This local restaurant has become the official unofficial hangout of classic car clubs that frequently visit Wickenburg throughout the winter and spring.
Even if Bluegrass Music isn't your scene, this three-day festival is well-worth attending. Featuring nationally-renowned fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar playing, you won't be disappointed by the top-notch talents that attract visitors from all over the country.
December-Cowboy Poetry Gathering
During the first weekend of December, this event features readings, poems, and stories from some interesting cowboy personalities. This event is over 20 years old.
Cowgirl Up! is an art show and sale hosted by the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in late April. The show has attracted national interest from the Western Art Communities in the United States. The show features the work of just under 60 female western artists, giving them a strong venue to show their work, and helping some of the newer participating female artists to have the chance to be "discovered" on a national scale.
PTA Book Sale
I wouldn't be a good citizen of Wickenburg if I didn't mention the PTA Book Sale hosted on the third weekend of April each year at the Wickenburg Community Center. This sale of used books is over 35 years old. Each year, about 20,000 books are made available for resale at unbelievably low prices of 50 cents and under. Because there are so many books donated to the sale, collectors and book fans come from all over, and a high percentage of the donated books are sold. The remaining books are donated to senior citizen groups, teacher's classrooms in the local schools, etc. The schools' libraries benefit from the proceeds of the sale each year.
More Fun Things To Do On a Wickenburg Arizona Vacation
Take A Hike
Wickenburg is surrounded by miles of pristine desert. This makes for some great hiking. Be smart in the desert, though. If you don't know the area, stick to marked trails. It is easy to get lost in the desert, and the temperatures are at extremes here, by definition. The area near Vulture Peak is deceptively easy to get lost in. Use published hiking guides and maps.
Wickenburg has public camp grounds near the Rodeo Arena on Constellation Road and a very primitive camping area at the Vulture Peak trail head. Paid camping with RV Hookups is available at Horspitality RV Resort and a few other selected RV Sites in town.
Keep in mind that March-November is snake season in Wickenburg. If you are doing primitive-style camping, be on the lookout for snakes. We've had enjoyable camping experiences in Wickenburg as late as April, but encountered a few rattlesnakes during the excursion. If this is too much adventure for you, RV camping or "hotel camping" might be more to your liking.
Take A Bike Trip
Whether your bike is a Schwinn, a Cannondale, or a Harley, you'll find Wickenburg a great place for a biking excursion. Because of the hilly terrain and the gorgeous views, road biking clubs are beginning to use Wickenburg as a staging area for bike events. Wickenburg is also part of the scenic route a lot of Harley riders use to travel from Wickenburg to Prescott, up scenic highway 89. Many of the restaurants in Wickenburg appeal to the Harley crowd. Harley riders will feel at home and welcome stopping in Wickenburg.
Go Horseback Riding
Bring your own horse or find one to ride while you're out here. Horseback riding is a popular pastime.
Take a Rock-hounding Expedition
With so many gold mines in the area, it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that Wickenburg and the surrounding areas have mineral-rich deposits that attract rock hounds from all over the country. Our family enjoys this hobby and have taken day trips to search for Apache Tears (obsidian), quartz crystals, amethyst, geodes, and jasper. People still arrive in Wickenburg questing for gold. Someone in the last 5 years found a $25,000 gold nugget.
Be aware that more and more of Wickenburg's land is privately owned, but there are lots of great places to go 4-wheeling. You can rent a 4-wheeler (or a quad, as they're commonly called out here) at a few places around town. Check the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce Web Site for more information.
Take a Desert Tour
A few companies in Wickenburg offer Jeep Tours by appointment, and the Desert Caballeros Western Museum also offers Jeep Tours from time to time. The tours will take you into the desert to view wildlife, birds, old mines, or ghost towns.
Visit the Day Spa
Wickenburg isn't a really big town, but it does have Rancho de Los Caballeros, a historic guest ranch that caters to a more upscale clientele. The services offered at this guest ranch include swimming, golf, and day spa.
Wickenburg has two golf courses—The Wickenburg Country Club and Rancho de Los Caballeros. Despite its name, the golf course at Wickenburg Country Club is open to the public. Call ahead to make sure.
Your day trip to Wickenburg may include a dining experience. The places locals repeatedly visit are the Cowboy Cafe (great for breakfast), Bar 7 restaurant and lounge, Anitas, and El Ranchero. Many other restaurants exist, including Screamers (great for classic car fans and the 1950s appeal) and Ringos, at the Wickenburg Country Club. Most of the restaurants in Wickenburg will probably never be featured in a gourmet food magazine, but the atmosphere and food is good at the mentioned restaurants.