In its not-so-ancient past, Arizona’s dusty desert expanses were home to Indigenous tribes, headstrong cowboys, and hopeful miners looking to strike gold. But despite its Old Western roots and relatively recent statehood, Arizona has become one of the country’s fastest-growing states with its capital of Phoenix firmly planted as the United States’ fifth largest city attracting nearly 50 million tourists each year to trek the Grand Canyon, see a Spring Training game, or party at the Phoenix Open.
Arizona’s small towns are wildly different, yet it’s here that Arizona’s legendary past meets its bright future as ancient civilizations and experimental communities coexist. From ghost towns and gunfight reenactment sites to vortex centers, the unconventional can be explored in the state’s least-populated cities. Arizona has always been prime road-trip country—and these are the towns that deserve a spot on any itinerary.
A scenic hillside village in Verde Valley, Jerome was once a vibrant copper-mining town. Today, it’s famous for its rampant ghost stories, many of which revolve around historic hospital-turned inn―Jerome Grand Inn. While the city’s decline in residents following the mining rush earned it a reputation as a “ghost town,” it’s really anything but. Its popularity as a tourist destination has grown in recent years and it’s now home to eateries like the Haunted Hamburger, art galleries, and, of course, ghost tours for more adventurous visitors. It’s also growing as an Arizona wine hotspot thanks to spots like Caduceus Cellars.
Winslow was notably immortalized in The Eagles’ hit song “Take it Easy,” but the northeastern town of roughly 10,000 has deep roots in Arizona history beyond rock. It began as a railroad hub before reinventing itself as a tourist stop along the iconic Route 66. Today, a visit to Winslow isn’t complete without paying homage to the aforementioned Standin’ on the Corner Park and statue commemorating the song reference, souvenir shopping at the Western-themed Arizona 66 Trading Company, or strolling through the Old Trails Museum. For something more adventurous, hit the nearby Meteor Crater site, the haunted Apache Death Cave, and several ancient Native American ruins.
Nestled among rolling hills just 11 miles from the Mexican border, Bisbee is another mining town-turned-tourist destination—but its knack for kitsch and bright colors easily makes it a favorite eclectic desert town. Its free-spirited nature and unusual architecture have even earned it the moniker “Mayberry on Acid.” Bisbee has been gaining popularity with Arizona locals and out-of-state tourists alike since the’ 90s thanks to its array of art galleries, antique shops, and one-of-a-kind boutiques. However, it’s also worth going back in time to the town’s roots by checking out sites like the Queen Mine—where visitors can don a miner’s outfit and head 1,500 feet underground—and the Mining & Historical Museum.
Like many other Old West relics, Tombstone which refers to itself as “the town too tough to die” predates Arizona’s statehood having carried the spirit of the Wild West for approximately 150 years. It’s so well preserved that the ghost of Wyatt Earp could roll in and feel like nothing has changed. And, you can safely relive the town’s rowdy roots with daily gunfight reenactments, a trip to the former bar and brothel at The Bird Cage Theater, or an illuminating trek through the Goodenough Mine that skyrocketed the town to Southern Arizona fame.
Jerome may be emerging as a mini wine destination but nearby Cottonwood is the capital of Verde Valley’s fast-growing wine scene. Home to Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, colorful and quirky Old Town Cottonwood has established itself as an off-the-beaten-path food and drink destination thanks to places like Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room. Its proximity to the hiking trails of Coconino National Forest offers an added bonus. Here, you can eat and sip wine then walk it off in one of the most gorgeous patches of forest in the US.
There is perhaps no better small-town welcoming committee than a group of friendly donkeys. Such is the case in Oatman where visitors will see the wild burros that freely roam the streets. The oldest continuously-inhabited mining settlement in Arizona, the town has stayed (relatively) populated thanks to its desirable location on Route 66—which it pays hearty homage to with a main street full of themed souvenir shops. It’s also notably home to the Oatman Hotel where actor Clark Gable and starlet Carole Lombard are rumored to have stayed after getting hitched in the nearby town of Kingman.
While Sedona’s popularity with tourists has been on a steep incline, it still has a relatively small year-round population which clears it for a spot on this list. It’s a must-visit thanks to its stunning red rocks and outdoor activities, a culinary scene that’s blossomed thanks to restaurants like the award-winning Mariposa, and the legendary mystical properties that have earned it a reputation as an energy vortex. And if you’re feeling really daring, you can even slide down the town’s 80-foot long natural water slide at Slide Rock State Park.
As Arizona’s original capital, this haven in the pine forests between Phoenix and Flagstaff has more than earned its spot among Arizona’s most captivating towns. While it retains a bit of Western charm like many of the state’s other small towns, it also offers a unique, laid-back atmosphere featuring events like art fairs at the Courthouse Plaza and shows at the historic Elks Theatre. It’s also the perfect town if you’re in the mood to explore a great beer scene. Hit the ever popular Prescott Brewing Company or The Palace, an iconic saloon that’s been slinging drinks since 1877. Plus, just a few miles away from downtown, visitors can enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities—from fishing to kayaking—at scenic Watson Lake and Lynx Lake.
To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.
—Aldo Leopold, 1937