Southern Arizona Feature

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Experience the Wild West

Arizona's identity was forged like horseshoes by cattle, copper, and the men who chased both. The "Old West" stretches as long as a cowboy's yarn and as broad as a 19th-century cattle drive. Follow the echoes of gunslingers like Wyatt Earp, or drink in majestic landscapes popularized on the silver screen.

In 1862, when Arizona became a U.S. territory, it began to fill immediately with fortune-seekers. In towns like Bisbee (copper) and Tombstone (silver), the discovery of a single ore begot legendary boom-and-bust mining cycles. Precious metal brought miners, then speculators, real wealth, and services including saloons and brothels. Just as quickly, the ore ran out, and envy, shoot-outs, and desolation followed. With the arrival of railroads in 1880, Arizona's stock grew from a few thousand to a million plus in less than 20 years—but ranchers were also shortsighted and the "boom" subsided just as fast. Still, cowboy life is one of the most enduring icons of Americana.

Tourism Bonanza

Movies like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral started a renaissance in many ghost towns, and the modern "boom" is tourism. Main Street's drinking and gambling establishments have given way to B&Bs (try School House Inn Bed & Breakfast in Bisbee), historic bars (visit Crystal Palace in Tombstone), and boutiques (55 Main Gallery in Bisbee).

Southern Arizona Wild West Road Trip

Start your Old West explorations in Tucson with a half day at the Old Tucson Studios and a stop at Mission San Xavier del Bac. Kids will love the simulated gunfights, rides, and stunt shows at the studios where Gunsmoke and Bonanza were filmed. Mom and Dad can channel the West in a more contemplative way inside the 18th-century mission where the bad guys no doubt went for sanctuary or forgiveness.

Southeast Arizona may be the most dense and interesting corner in which to explore various aspects of the Old West. The Apache tribe, led by Cochise and later Geronimo, held out for decades against U.S. troops and settlers amid the 12 ranges of the Coronado National Forest, before surrendering in 1886. Imagine warrior-tribes in the canyons and rock formations of the Chiricahua National Monument, where spotting jaguar, rare deer, and flora are treasures in their own right.

Also in the southeast, Tombstone and Bisbee were centers of mining (silver and copper, respectively) and the wealth, larger-than-life characters, and movie depictions that came with them. Tombstone is more touristy, but the historic Allen Street buildings and the re-creation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral are so steeped in Old West history (Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday walked away but three of the notorious Clanton gang weren't so lucky) that it's worth a visit. More authentic experiences await in Bisbee. Don a light jacket when you take the 75-minute underground tour of the Copper Queen Mine, or if you're prone to claustrophobia, stick to the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, which served as the company's offices.

Elsewhere in Arizona

In north-central Arizona, Jerome and Prescott are two other boomtowns worth a half-day's exploration. Jerome was once known as the Billion Dollar Copper Camp, but its 15,000-person population dwindled to 50 before rebounding to today's 500 or so. Stop for a hearty burger in the Haunted Hamburger/Jerome Palace, where the resident ghost purportedly hangs out upstairs. Thirty miles away, Prescott is home to the world's oldest rodeo during July's Frontier Days and has regular live music at the historic bars on Whiskey Row.

Thanks to Hollywood, the wide-open vistas of the West are some of the most recurring images of a bygone era. Fortunately for you, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona remain virtually unchanged from the way that cowboys and Native Americans experienced them in the 19th century.

In Holbrook's Old Courthouse Museum you'll also learn that this was a railroad and ranching hub with millions of cattle, sheep and their intrepid cowboy ranchers—long before the motor coach and famed Route 66 found its way here.

Rodeo Lesson

In the late 19th century, cowboys vied for recognition as best roper and rider. Skills contests have evolved into weeklong county fairs in some communities, with cowboy poetry, beauty queens, and country music accompanying the 1-ton bulls, the busting broncs, and the popular and lifesaving clowns.

The five standard events today are calf roping, bull riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc-riding, and bareback bronc-riding. ("Bronc" is short for bronco, an unbroken range horse with a tendency to buck, or throw, a rider.) Cowboys pay entry fees, and the prize money won is usually their only compensation. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) dates to 1929 and its rules are the most commonly accepted.

Prescott has the "the World's Oldest Rodeo"—an annual affair since 1888 that concludes on July 4. Late February is the time to catch two other popular events: Tucson's rodeo has traditionally offered the most prize money in the state, more than $300,000 in recent years. Scottsdale's "Parada del Sol" includes the "World's Longest Horse Drawn Parade."

Giddy'up

Horseback Riding: The most iconic pictures of the American West include men on horseback. Geronimo, John Wayne, and Wyatt Earp all rode in these parts, so why not spend a day in their stirrups. You can spend as little as $15/hour at Totsonii Ranch in Canyon de Chelly or thousands for fully outfitted, multi-night excursions. If saddles conjure up images of painful bowlegs, Apache Stables near the Grand Canyon will take you on a horse-drawn wagon ride, where you'll end up at a campfire where you can grill your own dinner.

Dude Ranches: More than a dozen dude ranches (city slickers call them guest ranches) have modern charms like gourmet meals, spas, and pools accompanying the unmistakable scents and sounds of working stock. Slow, fast, mountain, and all-day rides are offered, and some allow you to help groom and feed the horses.

After a day of riding or hiking, guests find a warm welcome at happy hour, dinner, and around the campfire. Lodges are outfitted with comfortable couches, crackling fireplaces, board games, and Western saloon-type bars. As long as you expect polished ponderosa, not polished silver and marble, you may find a dude ranch more comfortable than a resort hotel. In most cases, hearty meals are included, but there's no TV in your room.

Two ranches are in the Tucson area and one is just a bit farther southeast. The large and luxurious Tanque Verde Ranch, on the eastern edge of town, has two swimming pools (one indoor), a tennis pro, and lavish buffet meals. The 3,000-acre White Stallion Ranch, adjacent to Saguaro National Park West and the setting for the High Chaparral TV series, has challenging riding as well as massages and a fitness center. The smaller and more rustic Circle Z Ranch, in Patagonia, takes riders through the picturesque Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Reserve.

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