travel & recreation
The Old West
Whatever faint glimmer of memory remains of the Old West of movie myth, it is brought back by a visit to this region in west-central Arizona. This is not the lawless Wild West of Tombstone, nor is it the staid and genteel Spanish-colonial ambience of Tucson.
This the real thing -- the West of Mexican caballeros riding across the upland range, chasing herds of cattle on ranches which stretched to the horizon; and later of cowboys who came after the miners, herding dogies on drives to the nearest railway town at Maricopa. And yet, there's a little bit of Tombstone in Wickenburg, just as there is a Spanish colonial heritage. It's just that the land is so immense, and made for riding, that a visitor's impressions stick on ranching. Today, that theme is carried out in a half dozen guest ranches, where people go to experience what lingers of the real West.
More Recent History
The story of Wickenburg -- at least the recent chapters -- began with Spanish conquistadors who came to the area, bringing with them horses (caballos), and a new athletic way of riding which they taught the local Apache Indians. These caballeros, gentlemen on horseback, were the first white people to see the immense desert vistas north of the Mexican border and south of the Mogollon Rim. They were followed by Mexicans and then prospectors found ore in the hills surrounding Wickenburg, creating a series of gold rushes. Little towns were built on the mountain slopes--most of them closing with a year or two--and the life of the caballeros was never the same. Large-scale ranching became the successor to mining in the area.
A logical extension of the cattle industry in the early years of the 20th century was the dude ranch, and Wickenburg has long been known as the world's capital of dude ranching (now more civilly called "guest ranching"). That tradition continues today, with a dozen uplands guest ranches offering visitors a chance to see the Old West as we imagine it might have been. Of course some modern variations are included in some guest ranch programs, including golfing, tennis, mountain hiking, and nature study. So it's really the New Old West, in an atmosphere which retains the romance of the pioneer era but makes it a little more comfortable than either the Spanish caballeros or the ranch cowboys would have ever experienced.
The Arizona Uplands is high desert, the landscape of the joshua tree, saguaro, cholla and ironwood, situated south of the Date Creek Range, west of the Hieroglyphic Mountains and east of the Buckskin and Harcuvar ranges. This is the most northerly section of the Upper Sonoran desert.
Through this region flows the Hassayampa River. For the most part, it's a typical desert river, more of a deep wash than a flowing stream, moving underground for much of its 100-mile journey from the Bradshaw Mountains to join the Gila near Phoenix. The source of the Hassayampa is across the summit from Prescott, a series of little mountain creeks which drain the snowmelt in the spring. The river picks up water from springs along the way. It's course is mainly unseen, as it flows deep under the visible stream of river rock. Here and there it comes to the surface (or is it the other way around) and when it does, magical things happen in this hot dry desert meant otherwise for cacti and sagebrush. Wherever the Hassayampa comes to the surface of the land, cottonwoods and willows grow, next to bosques of mesquite. Each of the habitats (cottonwood/willow and mesquite bosque) attracts a raft of birds and animals which live in a symbiotic relationship with the plants. Other animals come off the desert to join in enjoying the benefits of all this water.
Hassayampa River Preserve
When you cross the river in summer, over a bridge in Wickenburg, you will see this course of large-size river stone winding through the community. A mile south of town, the river appears for a few miles, nurturing an amazing range of plants, animals and birds. Beside the stream is a former guest ranch--one of the first in the area--opened in 1913 and called the Garden of Allah. This oasis of a different kind is now one of the prime nature preserves owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy. It protects the river and its riparian habitat. Less than five percent of the riverside desert habitats which existed in Arizona before settlement now remain. Great desert rivers -- like the Gila -- are now funneled into aqueducts to supply drinking, industrial and lawn water for the state's growing urban areas.
As the riparian areas have disappeared, so have the birds which lived in or visited the cottonwood / willow groves. Animals of the desert dropped in numbers, having no life-giving water on which to survive. The protection of a little bit of open river near Wickenburg is not only a demonstration project in stream protection, but a vanguard of the type of wildlife protection which needs to be carried out by governments and private agencies alike.
For nature lovers, the Hassayampa River Preserve is an important visiting place, on a trip to or near Phoenix. Spend a day or two at the preserve with a not-quite-natural-but close-enough ranch vacation, and you have the best of both worlds: great wildlife viewing - -on the open desert and in a very special riparian habitat -- with the comfort of a ranch home.
The end of mining was a blow to Wickenburg, but it was also developing as a ranching center, supplying the needs of the area ranchers. Other gold finds had been made north of Wickenburg, at Congress Junction, and the cowtown continued to grow. By the Spring of 1895, a spur railway came from Prescott, to the mines at Congress, and Wickenburg . Hotels and saloons were constructed on Railroad Street, and a Wells Fargo freight office was opened.
Aside from the substantial buildings on Railroad Street, most of the other structures--the ice company, a pool hall, barber and bath shops, and the livery stable, were very basic wooden buildings, constructed without artistic design or any thought of permanence. Several pioneer families built more long-lasting homes out of cement blocks or wood and stucco. The bank and school were more sturdy, built of red brick. As Congress and other nearby mining towns were developed and soon closed, Wickenburg managed to hold on, becoming--in the 1930s--the "Dude Ranch Capital of the West."
The classic railway station is now the town's visitor information center, and the Chamber of Commerce office. The relaxed town still serves the needs of the area ranchers, but also draws tourists who come to see what remains of the Old West. The Chamber offers a walking tour map which will take you to all of the historic buildings in the town.
The Desert Caballeros Western Museum features an extensive series of displays on the early settlement of the area, along with an outstanding collection of western American sculpture and painting. Art exhibitions change throughout the year. Located at 21 North Frontier, between the highway and Railroad Street, the museum's open hours are Monday through Saturday 10a.m. to 5p.m. and Sunday 12 noon to 4 p.m.
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Desert Guest Ranches
As the world capital of dude ranching, the Wickenburg area offers a range of guest ranch experiences. You may stay in a bunkhouse at a small cattle ranch and take part in the daily ranching operations -- eating with the cowboys, herding cattle, and repairing fences.
On the other end of the scale, you can stay at a deluxe ranch resort, have gourmet meals in a dining room, have cocktails in a lounge with a view, bask by the swimming pool, play golf on a championship course, play tennis, rent a Jeep to tour the desert, and maybe have an evening desert horseback ride to a chuckwagon dinner.
All of the above are available. What is new to guest ranching is a new emphasis on nature appreciation and study which has been introduced to the Wickenburg ranch scene. The following ranches offer different things for different people, depending on your interests.
Rancho de los Caballeros
1551 South Vulture Mine Road
With its own championship golf course and a long history in offering ranch vacations to visitors from across the country, this distinctive guest ranch is both a working cattle ranch, and a vacation tradition for hundreds of families. Many of the annual guests have returned for many years to this oasis on the Wickenburg desert. The ranch was first built in 1947 and 1948, not only as a guest ranch, but as a place where Dallas Gant, his financial partners in the ranch, and others could build homes on the desert tract. Later, it led to the development of a fine golf course. The resort opened on December 15, 1948 when a honeymoon couple arrived. The cattle business began later, in 1953.
The ranch became so popular that an airstrip was built in 1951 (later to be superceded by the Wickenburg airport). It's now part of the golf course. Homes have been built around the perimeter of the ranch lodge and casita-style buildings. The original swimming pool, a marvel for its day, is still a focal point with the main lodge curving around the pool deck. Horse rides are available with expert wranglers to conduct a desert tour.
The ranch is open October through May. Accommodations are in 73 rooms and suites, all within a three-minute walk of the main lodge building which houses the dining room, a large living room with fireplace, and saloon. Deluxe suites accommodate up to six people, and are used to for small conferences. There is a full bar operation in the saloon, and drinks may be ordered with lunch and dinner.
The golf club is a membership operation, with ranch guests invited to play for pay. It is rated as one of the top courses in the West. It plays 7,025 yards, par 72, from the championship tees. Three sets of tees are available. Four acrylic tennis courts are located near the lodge and horse corrals.Trap and skeet shooting are available on a private range. There are two guided rides daily over the five square miles of open desert used by the ranch. Breakfast, lunch and dinner cookouts are also offered.
Rates range from about $300 per day for two people (daily rate during October/January, and April/May), and slightly more during the high season (February/April), with about $75 added if a suite with a living room is booked. Golf packages are also available. These are American plan rates, with meals supplied but with horseback riding and golfing extra. Jackets are required by men for dinner. The ranch is on Vulture Mine Road.
Kay El Bar Ranch
Located north of Wickenburg, via Rincon Road, beside the underground Hassayampa River, the Kay El Bar is a small, comfortable guest ranch, on which you can have a very satisfying vacation. Now owned and operated by John and Nancy Loftis, the ranch opened in 1926 and is on the National and State Registers of Historic Places.
Horse riding is the the main activity -- over trails which reach into the hills above the Hassayampa River. This is expansive countryside, with rolling and sometimes steep hills as far as the eye can see. Wildlife is seen regularly, including javelina, jackrabbits, deer, coyote, and roadrunners. Because of its comfortable size -- a maximum of 24 guests -- the ranch provides a warm, intimate environment.
Lodging is on the American plan, with all meals and riding included. There are rooms in the lodge, with private bath, and in a two-bedroom cottage (Homestead House) which contains two baths, and a living room with fireplace. Newly-added are two casitas with bedroom and bath. The lodge has a living room with beamed ceiling, and rooms have cowboy spreads on the beds. Each ranch meal offers a different experience, and the range of meals includes cowboy cookouts at the picnic area, picnics on the trail, mesquite grilled meat or shrimp for dinner, and impressive breakfasts.
Flying E Ranch
With Vulture Peak rising in the near-distance, the Flying E is another small guest ranch operation which focuses on riding and friendly service. Ranch staff members call their visitors "guest hands." This is a working cattle ranch and the business of taking care of cows goes on as other activities are staged. In addition to riding horses on the open desert, other activities can include tennis, swimming, soaking in a heated whirlpool, shuffleboard, table tennis, horseshoes, and golf at one of two nearby courses. The Vulture Mountain area is a great spot for rockhounding. Cookouts are provided, including breakfast, and chuckwagon dinners in the desert. Rides with wranglers are available twice daily and riding instruction is available.
Rates are American plan, excluding riding. All of the 16 rooms and suites have private baths. There is a saloon but no bar, and guests are invited to bring their own bottles to the ranch. Each room has a TV and refrigerator. Rates for two range from about $185 to $200 per day for the regular rooms, to $250 for the most deluxe accommodations. Children are welcome at a modest additional rate.
Prescott Highway (89), P.O. Box A-3, Wickenburg AZ 85358, (520) 684-2628
An alternative to the other ranches which offer American plan only is this small guest ranch, operated by Louise Craig, offering accommodations and riding on the European plan. The accommodations include a full-equipped kitchen. The casitas have fireplaces. Rates are lower than the other ranches because of the lack of food service. There are seven units with fireplaces, with weekly maid service. The ranch is closed during the hot summer season. For information on rates and to make reservations, call (520) 684-2628.
Flying E Ranch
P.O. Box EEE, Wickenburg AZ 85358
Located four miles west of Wickenburg, this ranch operates from November to May, on the American Plan. Lodgings can accommodate 32 people, giving the ranch a cozy feeling. 20,000 acres lies outside the ranch door for riding. Other facilities include a pool, whirlpool, and tennis courts. Food is served "family style" in the ranch dining room and cookouts are frequently held. This is a small, friendly ranch with an attentive staff. Vi Wellik is the owner.
Hospitality RV Park
P.O. Box 2525, Wickenburg AZ 85358
This RV park is located two miles east of the main Wickenburg stoplight, on the highway to Phoenix, U.S. 89, at milepost 112. It offers pull-through spaces, full hookups, a laundry and game room.
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