Living Arizona’s Wild West

By: Julian Smith

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July 4, 2011

Get a feel for frontier life with some of our favorite old-fashioned Arizona towns, like Tombstone, Wickenburg, Yuma and more.

About the author

Julian Smith

Julian Smith

Julian Smith is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer specializing in travel and science. He is the author of four travel guidebooks, and his writing and photography have appeared in Smithsonian, Outside, Wired, National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. He can be reached at

The most colorful part of Arizona’s long history came in the late 19th century during the glory days of the Wild West. Between the Civil War and the dawn of the 20th century, the country’s rowdy teenage years left a lasting impression that is still felt worldwide. Today you can experience more than an echo of Arizona’s sand-colored, Southwestern version of the era of cowboys, Indians, cattle drives and gunfights at locations statewide.

Gunfights Galore at High Noon in Tombstone

Tombstone, “The Town Too Tough to Die,” is an obvious stop on any Wild West itinerary. Since its raucous peak in the 1880s, when the exploits of miners, gamblers and outlaws kept the Boot Hill graveyard in business, this settlement has endured as one of the state’s top destinations. Today it’s equal parts Deadwood and Disney, with a preserved and restored stretch along Allen Street that’s straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie.

Visit the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park and the Bird Cage Theater, a former “house of ill fame” that’s now a museum with bullet-riddled walls. Time your visit right, and you can watch a reenactment of the infamous 1881 gun battle at the O.K. Corral in which the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday shot it out with the Clanton gang.

Yuma Territorial Prison and Oatman

In the state’s southwestern corner, the buildings that have become the Yuma Territorial Prison State Park were built of stone and adobe by prisoners in the 1870s. With its scorching summer heat and the dreaded “Dark Cell” for solitary confinement, it’s still a place to scare would-be bandits straight. Another atmospheric spot on Arizona’s western flank is Oatman, a restored mining camp that’s become an oddly endearing Wild West outpost along one of the most scenic stretches of Old Route 66. Stay at the 1902 Oatman Hotel, where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned in 1939, and say hello to the burros that wander the dusty streets.

Glory Days of the Wild West

At the Pioneer Living History Village north of Phoenix, two-dozen authentic buildings recreate life as it was lived from the mid-19th century until statehood in 1912. The emphasis here is more on education and historical accuracy than Hollywood, although there is a Gunfighters’ Rendezvous in the spring. In Tucson, visit the historic downtown Barrio District, home to numerous houses from the 1800s as well as the famed Tucson Museum of Art.

Dude Ranches and Ghost Towns

Get a little more up close and personal with the cowboy side of things at a dude ranch such as the Kay Bar El near Wickenburg, with family-style meals and trail rides. It’s Arizona’s oldest guest ranch, built from 1914 to 1925 along the Hassayampa River. The Tanque Verde Ranch east of Tucson is another outstanding dude ranch founded in 1868. Guests at this exclusive resort can ride horses or mountain bikes or simply lounge by the pool. They offer a herd of more than 150 animals on which to practice your newfound wrangling skills.

Don’t forget a stop at one of the state’s hundreds of authentic ghost towns, such as Swansea near Parker or Stanton north of Phoenix. With their empty windows, sun-faded wallpaper and windswept lanes, these are perhaps the best places of all to commune with the past.

(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism - 2009)

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