Wickenburg fills an illustrious chapter in the history of Arizona and the West. Though only 55 miles from the hustle and bustle of modern Phoenix, the state’s most Western community hearkens back to a different time and place. Nature graced Wickenburg with a gentle magic. Resting on the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert, just below Arizona’s mountainous country, the Wickenburg area abounds in natural beauty. Palo Verde, cacti, creosote bushes and mesquite trees carpet the desert floor, yet a short trip up Highway 89 to the top of Yarnell Hill brings manzanita, chaparral, oak and pine.
Likewise, the resources are equally diverse. While the area’s geological treasures attracted miners from around the world, the Hassayampa River flood plain provided fertile soil for farming and ranching. Farther downstream, a perennial water flow forced to the surface by bedrock turns the Hassayampa into an oasis in the desert.
For centuries, the Western Yavapai (or Tolkapaya as they called themselves) made the banks of this oasis their home, irrigating their crops of corn, beans, squash and tobacco with river water. They named this place Haseyamo, meaning “following the water as far as it goes,” from which the word Hassayampa derived.
Although Wickenburg is within the claimed territories of both the Spanish empire and the Mexican Republic, neither ever extended its authority this far north. However, Hispanic culture and trade did reach the Yavapai, who were nicknamed the Cruzados because they wore their unusually long bangs in what the Spanish thought was the shape of a cross.
In the early 1820s, stalwart hunters and trappers explored the Hassayampa River in search of beavers whose pelts were sold to hat makers back east and in Europe. The Wickenburg area and much of the West became part of the U.S. following the Mexican American War in 1848.
An 1862 gold strike on the Colorado River near present-day Yuma inspired hardy prospectors and miners, predominantly from California and Mexico, to search for minerals throughout central Arizona. The names of these argonauts now grace many of the surrounding geographic landmarks, including the Weaver Mountains and Peeples Valley.
Among the gold searchers was the adventurer Henry Wickenburg. He came from far-off lands, lured by the dream of abundant gold. His quest was rewarded by the discovery of the Vulture Mine, where more than $30 million in gold has been dug from the ground. Throughout the foothills around Wickenburg are relics of other mines that stand as a tribute to pioneer miners and prospectors. The mining lore of the region, past and present, adds much to the charm of the area.
Ranchers and farmers who built homes along the fertile flood plain of the Hassayampa River accompanied the miners. Many of these settlers came from Sonora, Mexico, giving this area the distinction of being the northern edge of the Hispanic ranching frontier. Together with Henry Wickenburg, miners and ranching pioneers, helped found the community of Wickenburg in 1863.
The infant town went through many trials and tribulations in those first decades: surviving Indian wars, mine closures, desperadoes, drought and a disastrous flood in 1890, when the Walnut Creek Dam burst, killing nearly 70. Through it all, the town continued to grow. Its prosperity was ensured with the coming of the railroad in 1895. The historic depot still stands today and houses the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center. Along the town’s main street, thriving businesses still grace Wickenburg’s downtown area.
The abundant clean air and wide-open spaces attracted a new and exciting aspect to the Wickenburg neighborhood. Guest ranches offered a unique Western experience to tourists who fell in love with the West. The Bar FX Ranch became the first true guest ranch in 1923, followed by the Kay El Bar, Remuda, Rancho de los Caballeros, Flying E and Rancho Casitas ranches, among others. The construction of the Phoenix-to-Los Angeles highway (U.S. Route 60) brought even more tourists, making Wickenburg the “Dude Ranch Capital of Arizona.” Today, some of these ranches still offer their unique brand of Western hospitality.
The Hassayampa community became a vital contributor to America’s patriotic war effort during World War II, when the U.S. Army trained thousands of men to fly gliders at a newly constructed airfield west of Wickenburg. After the war, modern pioneers and homebuilders developed Wickenburg into a splendid American community. The Wickenburg of today is a modern town with more than 500 businesses, providing a full range of services, shopping conveniences and specialty shops, as well as galleries for gifts of Western distinction.
The Western ambiance continues to thrive. The town has cherished the best traditions of its colorful early days. Through annual events such as Gold Rush Days and the famous Desert Caballeros Ride, organizations such as the Chamber, Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Desert Caballeros and the determination and hard work of its citizens, Wickenburg is committed to preserving the best traditions of the Old West. Come discover Wickenburg’s historic downtown. Discover the Jail Tree, where townspeople chained lawbreakers in the old days. Discover the natural beauty and the legend of the Hassayampa River.
Places to play and enjoy outdoor activities include several throughout the town of Wickenburg:
Coffinger Park is on U.S. Highway 93 (Tegner St.) at Swilling Street. The municipal pool is open Memorial Day through August. A skate park, lighted tennis courts, a softball field, ramada and recreation building available for rent, a shaded grassy area with picnic tables and water fountains are available.
Stone Park is between Yavapai and Apache streets off of Tegner Street (U.S. Highway 93) in the historic district between the Wickenburg Municipal Complex and Wickenburg Public Library. Amenities include picnic tables, shade trees and an enjoyable setting in historic downtown.
McGuire Park is off of West Wickenburg Way, south on Kellis Road and right off of America Street. This small neighborhood park features a ramada, basketball hoops, playground equipment, water fountain and restrooms.
Wishing Well Park is on the south side of U.S. highways 93 and 60 and Kerkes Street. This small park features a historic wishing well, Hassayampa Legend information and a picnic table. The Hassayampa Riverwalk pedestrian and bicycle bridge allows for easy access across the Hassayampa River.
Sunset Park is west of downtown on U.S. Highway 60, West Wickenburg Way near the airport. It is a multiuse facility, with soccer and baseball fields, lighted pickleball and basketball courts, splash pad, restrooms and beautiful views of surrounding mountains. A multipurpose path on the north side of the highway, starting on north-west of highway 60 near Los Altos, connects to the park.
Boetto Park is south on Washington Street. Meander around this small park surrounded by mesquite trees, where the walking path gives everyone a good workout. Along the way, read about local history.
Constellation Park offers camping and self-contained RV spaces for $8 per night. 920 Constellation Rd., across from the Everett Bowman Rodeo Grounds, 935 Constellation Rd.
HASSAYAMPA RIVER PRESERVE – An Oasis in the Desert
The Hassayampa River Preserve encompasses over 70,000 acres of one of the best remaining examples of a rare forest types in North America – the Freemont Cottonwood-Goodding’s Willow riparian forest.
This forest is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including the endangered “southwestern” will flycatcher and the rare (to Arizona) red-shouldered hawk. This riparian habitat and the wildlife it supports thrive within the preserve because of the presence of water in the perennially flowing Hassayampa River and spring-fed Palm Lake. Historic California fan palms planted around the old ranch buildings also provide shelter and food to a plethora of wildlife. The bird feeders and native wildflower garden at the nature center offer fantastic opportunities to watch colorful hummingbirds and butterflies. While hiking the three miles of trails, you might also see gray foxes, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Nearly 30 dragonfly species have been found at the preserve so far.
Because of these important water sources, humans have occupied this site for at least 2,000 years. In the mid-1860s, the four-room adobe core of the current Nature Center was built and served as a stagecoach way station. Later in the early 1900s, new owners made additions to the ranch house to create the first “dude ranch” in the area, one of the enterprises that Wickenburg became best known for. The Nature Conservancy purchased the property in 1986 to protect these rare ecological and cultural resources present.
In 2017, the conservancy donated the property as a conservation easement to Maricopa County Parks & Recreation Department to manage and add to the proposed Vulture Mountains Recreation Area adjacent to the preserves western boundary and south of the town of Wickenburg. Altogether, this area will encompass about 71,000 acres and provide local residents and visitors with many recreational opportunities, while also conserving the unique natural and cultural resources of the area for future generations.
The Hassayampa River Preserve is on U.S. Highway 60, three miles southeast of Wickenburg near mile marker 114. The preserve is currently open Wednesday through Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday), with winter hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from mid-October to mid-May and summer hours of 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. from mid-May to mid-October. Admission is $5 per adult (ages 13 and up), children 12 and under are free. Maricopa County Parks annual passes are honored here.
For more information on the preserve and to see a list of upcoming ranger and docent-led programs, call the Preserve Nature Center at (928) 684-2772 or visit www.maricopacountyparks.net. Follow on Facebook at facebook.com/Hassayampa.
For up-to-date information on area trails and other outdoor adventures, call or stop by the Wickenburg Chamber Office, a chamber produced book, “Wickenburg Adventures” backcountry guidebook, may also be purchased to help you navigate the beautiful surrounds.