Out Wickenburg Way

By Katherine Adomaitis | Photos (L to R): Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Kay El Bar Guest Ranch

If you’re looking for an authentic Western experience for your group, saddle up and head to Wickenburg, a town that keeps cowboy culture at its core. With a population of about 7,500 and located a little more than a one- hour drive from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, this low-key, boot-scootin’ town is the perfect destination for small- to medium-sized groups.

The history? In 1863, Henry Wickenburg found gold in them thar desert hills, and fortune seekers were quickly followed by ranchers and farmers who settled along the Hassayampa River, which snakes through town. The railroad connected Wickenburg to Phoenix in 1885, then tourists came to enjoy lengthy stays at “dude” or guest ranches. Today, the town is still dotted with working cattle and horse ranches and has become a magnet for second- home residents. “Wickenburg is not a fake historical site,” says Julie Brooks, executive director of the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a real 19th-century town that has a commitment to care for its Western history.”

THE VENUES

Wickenburg has more than 300 hotel rooms, and, among them, the guest ranches are the big draws. Rancho de los Caballeros is the largest, spread across 20,000 acres. Founded in 1948, the ranch resort has 79 luxe rooms, a spa, golf course, two restaurants, 9,000 square feet of meeting space and, of course, plenty of horseback riding and ranch activities. On the National Historic Register, the Kay El Bar Guest Ranch’s adobe buildings were constructed in the early 1900s and can accommodate up to 28—perfect for a small retreat, where horseback riding figures prominently. Other options? Wickenburg Ranch, an upscale residential community, offers a modern indoor/outdoor event center with views of desert and mountains that can be booked for private groups.

THE CULTURE

Two of Wickenburg’s cultural landmarks also double as event venues. Desert Caballeros Western Museum, which can host anything from symposiums to gala dinners, has historical exhibits that tell the story of the Native Americans, miners and ranchers who founded the community, while its galleries put a spotlight on world- class Western art. Each spring, the museum’s popular “Cowgirl Up!” exhibit features the talents of the country’s best Western women artists. Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2001, is a state-of-the-art, 600-seat theater with a fall through spring season—this year’s performers included Carlene Carter, Jane Lynch and Kate Flannery, and the Sons of Pioneers. In addition to the theater space, the center has a spacious atrium that can seat 120 for dinner.

Wickenburg also offers a full calendar of annual events that celebrate its Western heritage, like February’s Gold Rush Days and Senior Pro Rodeo, November’s Bluegrass Festival and December’s holiday-themed Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Need more cowboy culture? Six arenas in the area welcome the public to events like team roping and horse sales.

THE OUTDOORS

With pristine views of the high desert and surrounding mountain ranges, it’s no wonder that horseback riding and golf are popular ways to unwind. Birdwatching and hiking are also ways to get out in between meetings and events. The Hassayampa River Preserve is a great place to explore the desert’s riparian environment, with shady trails along the stream plus guided bird walks that might yield glimpses of vermilion flycatchers or Abert’s towhees. For fitness buffs, Vulture Peak has a two-mile

trail to the saddle of this landmark mountain, from which experienced hikers can opt to scramble up a steep chute to the 3,660-foot summit. For something a little less rugged, the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce offers a brochure outlining a self-guided walking tour of downtown’s historic sites.

SHOPPING AND DINING

No mega-malls here, but downtown Wickenburg is the perfect place to browse indie boutiques for women’s fashion, jewelry and home accessories, while NRS Wickenburg is a gigantic cowboy super-center that offers everything from bits, feed and saddles to boots, hats and jeans. If there’s time to explore local eateries, Wickenburg is dotted with low-key restaurants that serve up burgers, comfort food, Mexican dishes and a cold beer or two. Don’t leave town without a stop at Chaparral Homemade Ice Cream, a local institution known for its soda fountain concoctions and ice cream flavors like prickly pear—a sweet tribute to the charms of the Wickenburg desert