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Old West towns (Prescott, Tombstone, others), Arizona

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Did You Know … ?

  • The “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” occurred in a vacant lot, not the O.K. Corral, and lasted about 30 seconds.
  • The modern professional rodeo was born in Prescott (1888), but Payson has the oldest continuous rodeo (1884).
  • In the 1880s, Tombstone mines produced $37 million worth of silver, equivalent to $8.25 billion today.
  • Bisbee mines produced 2.8 million ounces of gold, 102 million ounces of silver and eight billion-plus pounds of copper.
  • Arizona is the only U.S. state that elects a mine inspector.

From ghost towns to cowboy poetry

Arizona became a U.S. territory in 1848 as spoils of the Mexican-American War — spurring the arrival of gringos, who came to farm, raise cattle or join the gold rush. These new arrivals created a way of life that we now label the Old West, encompassing images of cowboys, outlaws, rowdy saloons, gunfights, Indian wars, mining towns and eager prospectors.

The big finds were gold, silver and copper. Mining towns sprouted and died, but some, as commercial centers for farmers and ranchers or home to other industries, survived the loss of their mines. In fact, tourism is one of those other industries keeping mine-less mining towns alive.

Visitors pursue the Old West theme by looking for ghost towns; touring mines; visiting historic town centers, museums and saloons; attending reenactment events (shootouts are popular); arriving for Gold Rush Days, rodeos or other relevant events, or even listening to cowboy poetry.

Ranches are another pillar in the Old West-themed vacation. Choices include dude ranches with considerable comforts. Or, for enthusiasts, the ranch stay may include a cattle drive or “work” experience. Trail rides, with meals around the campfire and shuteye under the stars, fill similar yearnings for authenticity.

Towns on the tourist’s Old West circuit include:

  • Bisbee, a major mining center (copper, gold, lead, silver and zinc) now known for its Victorian architecture, the Smithsonian-affiliated mining museum and a post-mining artsy culture.
  • Douglas, a copper boomtown with hundreds of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Jerome, where copper, gold and silver mines closed and nearly emptied the town. Artists then saved the town as they created an art colony.
  • Prescott, former territorial capital and site of copper and gold mining, known for hundreds of historic buildings and its rodeo. Surrounded by forest and site of small lakes, it offers a full range of outdoor pastimes.
  • Tombstone, made rich with silver and made famous by a 30-second 1881 gunfight. It hosts a year-round slate of festivals, most with Old West themes, and regularly presents crowd-pleasing reenactments.
  • Wickenburg, built on gold, renowned for its historic buildings in town and dude ranches on the outskirts.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Book a ranch stay that lets you participate in a fall or spring cattle drive, moving the animals to and from their pastures.
  • Compete in the springtime Whiskey Off-Road mountain biking competition, which takes riders from Prescott into the Prescott National Forest. The fund-raising competition is apparently good for the town’s infamous Whiskey Row, too.
  • Ride with like-minded hombres on the five-day Desert Caballeros Trail Ride, a camping trip, which departs Wickenburg heading across the high Sonoran Desert into the Bradshaw Mountains. Or, join a tour out of Tombstone based on Wyatt Earp’s 1882 vendetta ride in pursuit of those who killed his brother Morgan. Wear period clothes if you want.
  • Visit Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park for a window on prison life in the Old West. This was Arizona Territory’s first prison.
  • Learn the basics of horsemanship, roping, penning, sorting and other cowboy stuff at Scottsdale’s Arizona Cowboy College.
  • Follow the Ghost Town Trail heading out of Tombstone to places like Courtland, Gleeson and Pearce. Other possibilities: Swansea near Parker or Stanton north of Phoenix, also, Castle Dome near Yuma, now the Castle Dome Mines Museum where restored buildings house relics of the town’s past.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Take a ghost tour in Bisbee, Tombstone or Tucson. Or, chase ghosts during haunted pub tours in Bisbee or Tombstone.
  • Listen to retired miners describe how a turn-of-the-20th-century mine operated during the underground Copper Queen Mine Tour at Bisbee. The mine ceased operations in 1975. Or, take a tour of the still-operating Morenci open-pit copper mine.
  • Lend an ear to singers and reciters at the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering, held each summer in Prescott. Or, in winter, make that the Cochise Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering in Sierra Vista.
  • Attend a rodeo in Payson or Prescott. Or, in Wickenburg the rodeo is part of the annual Gold Rush Days in winter. In Willcox, it is part of Rex Allen Days in autumn.
  • Collect sightings of notorious places, starting with Tombstone’s Bird Cage Theatre, which multitasked as a theater, saloon, gambling hall and brothel. Check out the historic taverns on Bisbee’s Brewery Gulch, a lane known for its saloons and brothels. Prescott’s Whiskey Row was famous for the same reasons. Boothill in Tombstone qualifies for this itinerary, too.
  • Book time at a dude ranch where the Old West experience has been edited to upgrade the bunkhouse beyond recognition. On some ranches, you may play golf, take a swim and/or spend leisure time sauntering on the back of a horse.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Tour Old Tucson Studios with its re-creations of Western town settings. See the real thing on scenic drives, such as the Jerome-Clarkdale-Cottonwood Historic Road, highlighting 19th century mining towns.
  • See the Mine Museum and soak up the atmosphere in Jerome, a thriving ghost town — if that makes sense — and an artist colony. It’s a National Historic Landmark, rescued by artists who settled here in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Have a steak dinner in one of the state’s several steakhouses that reinforce Arizona’s ties to the cowboy life — though this is not your 19th century cowboy diet of dried beans and jerky.
  • Spend quality time exploring historic districts in Bisbee, Douglas, Tombstone, Tucson, Wickenburg or Willcox. Shop for traditional Western attire.
  • Attend a gunfight reenactment in Tombstone. Time this right and you can see reenactments, an 1880s fashion show and more during Wyatt Earp Days in the spring — just one of the Old West-focused festivals on Tombstone’s yearly calendar.
  • Tap into the 19th century news nuggets offered up in these museums: Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum; Douglas’ Slaughter Ranch Museum; Prescott’s Sharlot Hall Museum, and/or the Tombstone Western Heritage Museum. Or, for cowboy art, Phippen Museum in Prescott or Wickenburg’s Desert Caballeros Western Museum.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Arizona Office of Tourism at