Top 10 True Western Towns of 2008

8. WICKENBURG, AZ

The Chamber of Commerce claims, “Arizona’s Wild West Lives in Wickenburg.” The members got that right. Wickenburg is a survivor that knows and honors its heritage.

Wickenburg was founded in 1863 by Henry Wickenburg, who struck it big with the Vulture Mine operation (which gave up about $30 million in gold). Its early years were plagued by Indian attacks—the most famous being the so-called Wickenburg Massacre in which a group of Yavapai killed six stage passengers in 1871. In 1890, the Walnut Creek Dam burst and 70 people drowned. Many of the mines played out by the end of the 19th century. Misfortune eventually caught up with the town’s father; after a series of business failures, Henry Wickenburg shot himself in 1905.

His town lived on. The railroad was one reason; it brought the world to Wickenburg in 1895. The original Santa Fe Depot is still there, now housing the Chamber of Commerce. The Old 761 Steam Locomotive, which rode those rails for years, is just behind City Hall. Most of the buildings in downtown date to the 19th century and are well preserved by folks who obviously care about their downtown. While you’re down there, ask to see the Jail Tree. This 200-year-old mesquite was used to hold lawbreakers for the first 20 or so years of the town’s history; bad boys were literally chained to the thing, bringing new meaning to the term “frontier justice.”

You’ll discover some great spots just outside of town too. The Hassayampa River Preserve is a renowned spot for birders; other wildlife includes mountain lions, bobcats, mule deer and lizards. A different kind of bird took flight here too—the Vulture, the mine that started the whole shebang, is still there (not operating) and open to the public. If you want to try out the cowboy life—temporarily, of course—you’ll find many a guest ranch in the area; the first, the Bar FX, got going 85 years ago.

If you’re the museum type, there’s few that match the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. Exhibits tell the history of the area—but it’s the art collection that stands out. You’ll find masterpieces by Remington, Russell and Dixon.

Preservation work continues. The Old Texas Hotel was renovated last year. And restoration of the Santa Fe Depot is ongoing. Folks around town are committed to maintaining that Old West look and feel.

Wickenburg is one of those hidden treasures, hard as a diamond in the rough, which more folks should check out.

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