Best Things to Do in Charming Cottonwood, Arizona

Located in Verde Valley, the center of Arizona, Cottonwood is a charming small town situated below the high country chill and above the desert heat

Part river town, part wine trail, and part historic hub: Cottonwood, Arizona, offers a fun and lively scene that sets it apart from the arid desert to the south and the soaring mountains to the north. Although it might be best known as a gateway to the nearby red rocks of Sedona, Cottonwood has plenty of charms of its own. They start with the quaint Old Town district and branch out to the banks of the lushly green Verde River and the nearby historic towns of Clarkdale and Jerome.

Driving from Cottonwood to Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You might initially go to Cottonwood for its proximity to the famous red rocks, but don’t be surprised if you want to stay for the laid-back atmosphere and restaurant choices.

As a frequent visitor to Cottonwood over the years, I’ve always loved the Verde River’s swath of vivid green that winds its way through the browns and grays of the high-desert terrain. For me, Cottonwood offers the perfect mix of small-town Arizona, cool river scenes, and burgeoning wine scenes.

Historic Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located virtually in the center of Arizona, Cottonwood features a mild climate that is somewhere between the sizzling heat of the Phoenix area and the cool mountain air of Flagstaff—making it a true year-round destination. Average high temperatures in the winter hover around the 60-degree mark and summer averages tend to reach the mid-90s. Springtime is lovely with average highs in the 70s to 80s. Fall remains hot and sunny through October when average highs are in the low 80s.

Here are seven of the best things to do in Cottonwood.

Historic Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Explore the Historic Old Town

Any visit to Cottonwood should start with a stop in the Historic Old Town, a district that dates back to the early 1900s when it was a center for the area’s mining and smelter industry. Today, many of the buildings feature the rock and brick architecture of the 1920s and 1930s.

Historic Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town’s Clemenceau Smelter closed down in 1936 which dealt a devastating blow to the local economy. In recent decades, though, the Old Town has been revitalized as a vibrant business and tourism district. Cottonwood’s Old Town currently features 60 businesses including five tasting rooms, 13 cafes and restaurants, nine antique stores, six galleries, and three hotels.

Historic Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a fun time, plan to camp at nearby Dead Horse Ranch State Park or Rain Spirit RV Resort and spend some time wandering Main Street stopping at any of the tasting rooms that interest you. Consider checking out the hip Pillsbury Wine Company and the friendly Winery 101 before having dinner around an outdoor fire pit at the highly rated Pizzeria Bocce Patio Bar.

Because the Old Town area is relatively small and compact, the restaurants and tasting rooms are wonderfully walkable. On-street parking is available and convenient parking lots are sprinkled throughout the area.

Birding along the Verde River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Experience the Verde River

You’re never far from the cool waters of the Verde River in Cottonwood. As one of only two Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona, the Verde is a definite must-see on any visit to the region.

The Cottonwood and Clarkdale communities offer many convenient spots to access the river—some that are right on the beaten path and others that are more hidden away. For fishing, swimming, kayaking, and canoeing, check out Clarkdale’s Tuzigoot River Access Point or the Bignotti Picnic Site between Cottonwood and Camp Verde (accessed via a rough dirt road recommended only during dry weather).

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Visit Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Another great access point for the Verde River is available at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, located adjacent to the state’s Verde River Greenway and not far from Old Town Cottonwood.

Known for its giant cottonwood trees, pretty fishing ponds, and wildlife viewing, Dead Horse attracts locals and visitors alike. The park is also a magnet for those looking for a peaceful campground in a moderate climate.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Tour Tuzigoot National Monument

While much of the Verde Valley is steeped in the mining and frontier history of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the pueblo at Tuzigoot National Monument in Clarkdale goes back hundreds of years more. Experts estimate that the 110-room hilltop pueblo dates back 900 years or more to when the native Sinagua people traded and farmed the fertile land along the Verde River. The pueblo ruins were excavated and reconstructed in the 1930s and today they offer a glimpse of the lives of those early farmers and artists.

The national monument is located between Cottonwood and Clarkdale. Climb to the top of the pueblo for expansive views of the Verde River Valley, Historic Jerome, and the nearby Mingus Mountain.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Travel Back in Time in Clarkdale

For a fascinating step back in time to a more recent era, explore the neighborhoods of Clarkdale, located about 4 miles from Cottonwood, also along the Verde River. Many of the town’s charming brick and stucco houses date to the early 1900s when Clarkdale was a “company town” for the United Verde Copper Company. Clarkdale is also the base for the Verde Canyon Railroad which takes passengers along the river’s scenic canyon.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Learn about Arizona’s Mining History In Jerome

Delve even deeper into mining history by continuing along Highway 89A toward Jerome, a one-time mining boomtown. Over the years, Jerome transitioned from its late-1800s mining heyday to a veritable ghost town in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, tourists flood Jerome’s steep, winding streets to take in the old buildings perched precariously on the mountainside and the quirky selection of shops, restaurants, and wineries.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with its mining history, Jerome offers many spots for lunch or dinner with sweeping views of the Verde Valley below. The interesting Jerome Historical Society Museum offers a look back at Jerome’s days as the “Wickedest Town in the West.”

Mingus Mountain Mountain Scenic Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Take the Mingus Mountain Scenic Road

For some flat-out gorgeous mountain scenery, continue southwest from Jerome on Highway 89A toward Prescott. But be prepared for plenty of hairpin turns and slow-going traffic on the highway that is a favorite for tourists and motorcyclists.

The highway climbs to over 7,000 feet in elevation at the summit and offers consistently spectacular views of the rugged Mingus Mountain. The route passes through the Prescott National Forest and several scenic trails are available along the way such as the Woodchute Trail (a 2.3-mile moderate climb) and the Yeager Canyon Trail (a 2.4-mile difficult hike). Both trails traverse rough, primitive terrain.

Mingus Mountain Scenic Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive is great for a sightseeing excursion to the summit or for a day trip to the historic community of Prescott which is about a 50-minute drive from Jerome.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers