When I was ten years old, my cousin from California came to spend the summer with our family in Phoenix. (Let’s reserve judgment of my poor aunt, who allowed her first-born to spend the summer in scorching, triple-digit temperatures. She had five children, in a house built for two. She had her hands full.) I don’t know why my cousin eagerly chose to spend that summer with us in Phoenix–not everyone’s favorite summering spot–but maybe it had something to do with the allure of Arizona, a place she had never before visited.
Shortly after arrival, my cousin, eyeing the flat, hot streets crowded with strip malls and grocery stores, asked, “So, where are all the cowboys?” It was the first time I realized that Arizona is as much a state of mind as a real-life state. My cousin’s question was nurtured by years of black-and-white shoot ‘em ups, cowboy movies made on studio backlots featuring plaster of paris Saguaros and Colt .45′s that shot blanks. (Of course, many Western flicks were, and continue to be, shot on location around the Southwest. Perhaps most famously are John Ford’s epic productions filmed in Arizona’s Monument Valley). I remember feeling disappointed that our Phoenix neighborhood did not live up to my cousin’s expectations. We had no Saguaros on our street, no galloping horses kicking up dust through the suburbs. I could only offer my poor cousin the desert heat, the white-hot sun that poured over everything until sundown.
Visitors continue to arrive to Arizona in search of the Old West. The funny thing is, it’s still here. Phoenix, a large, modern Sunbelt city cobbled together by brand-new subdivisions, older suburbs, strip malls, shopping malls, golf courses, and a sprinkling of skyscrapers here and there, does not exactly exude wild west character. But although you may not see a gunfight break out at high noon during your visit, there are still plenty of places around the Valley of the Sun that have retained their Old West identity. Here are some prime places–all a reasonable drive from the Phoenix city limits–to admire stately Saguaros, bust through a pair of swinging saloon doors, and yes, maybe even bump into a real-life cowboy.
Cave Creek. The town of Cave Creek is located just north of Phoenix and Scottsdale at the foothills of Black Mountain, Skull Mesa, and Elephant Butte. Surrounded by Saguaro-studded hills, a day in Cave Creek creates the illusion that you’ve strayed far from the congested streets of Phoenix and Scottsdale (in reality, Cave Creek is a short drive from North Phoenix and Scottsdale). The town was established in the mid-1870s as a gold mining town and a stopping point for the U.S. Calvary. Now, it’s a friendly small town with a main drag bulging with Western-themed bars, restaurants, and shopping. The small Cave Creek Museum has Hohokam, Apache and Yavapai artifacts on display, along with exhibits on pioneer history, mining, and ranching. If you have time for a hike, head to Cave Creek Regional Park for miles of great trails. Visit the City of Cave Creek visitor’s page for more information.
The Heard Museum. You don’t even have to leave Phoenix for a true taste of the West. The Heard is a true treasure trove of Southwestern heritage and history. The museum was founded by Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard in 1929 as a home to their growing collection of Native American artifacts and art, and the collection has grown since then into one of the world’s most important repositories of traditional Native American arts and crafts and contemporary art. The gift shop, filled with authentic Navajo rugs, Kachina dolls, and hand-crafted jewelry, is a great place to pick up a quintessentially Arizona gift or souvenir. See the Heard Museum website to plan your visit.
Wickenburg, Arizona. This small high desert town, about an hour northwest of Phoenix, can seem like a bit of a drive, but if you’re looking for a small town loaded with Old West character, Wickenburg makes an excellent day trip. Visit the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, walk the downtown area and snap your picture in front of rattlesnakes, gila monsters, roadrunners, and tarantulas (don’t worry, they’re only street sculptures), tour the historic Vulture Mine, and picnic in the lush riparian surroundings of the Hassayampa River Preserve. And if you decide to stay a while to indulge all your long-held cowboy fantasies, there are plenty of historic dude ranches scattered around Wickenburg. Visit the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce website for more visitor information and upcoming events.
Prescott, Arizona. A bit farther north from Wickenburg, about 90 scenic miles from Phoenix, is the city of Prescott. Prescott is a popular escape from the summer heat and traffic of Metropolitan Phoenix, and it’s well worth the drive if you’re looking for Old West character and history. This was Arizona’s first capital back when the state was still a territory, and downtown Prescott is always busy with tourists and locals shopping, dining, or just strolling the postcard-worthy streets of historic Whiskey Row. Back in the 1860s, Whiskey Row played host to Old West legends like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Today, it’s possible to imagine what it must have looked like back then, thanks to the 800-plus buildings around downtown that are on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Visit the City of Prescott Office of Tourism website to see what’s happening during your visit.