Let's say you're planning a trip to Arizona. You're going to fly in to Phoenix, rent a car, and head north to the Grand Canyon. Glancing at a map of the state, you might easily imagine that there's nothing to see or do between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. This is the desert, right? Miles of desolate wasteland, that sort of thing. Wrong!
Between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon lies one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, the red-rock country of Sedona. But don't get the idea just because a neighbor went last year and loved it that Sedona is some sort of pristine wilderness waiting to be discovered. Decades ago, Hollywood came to Sedona to shoot Westerns; then came the artists and the retirees and the New Agers. Now Hollywood (and just about everyone with money from both coasts) is back, but this time the stars aren't shooting Westerns; they're building huge homes on the range.
While the Sedona area is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, Central Arizona is more than just red rock and retirees. It also has the former territorial capital of Prescott, historic sites, ancient Indian ruins, an old mining town turned artists' community, and even a few good old-fashioned dude ranches out Wickenburg way. There are, of course, thousands of acres of cactus-studded desert, but there are also high mountains, cool pine forests, and a fertile river valley, appropriately named the Verde (Green) Valley. And north of Sedona's red rocks is Oak Creek Canyon, a tree-shaded cleft in the rocks with one of the state's most scenic stretches of highway running through it.
If you should fall in love with this country, don't be too surprised. People have been drawn to the region for hundreds of years. The Hohokam people farmed the fertile Verde Valley as long ago as A.D. 600, followed later by the Sinagua. Although these early tribes had disappeared by the time the first white settlers arrived in the 1860s, Apache and Yavapai tribes did inhabit the area. It was to protect settlers from these hostile tribes that the U.S. Army established Fort Verde here in 1871.
When Arizona became a U.S. territory in 1863, Prescott, due to its central location, was chosen as the territorial capital. Although the town would eventually lose that title to Tucson and then to Phoenix, it was the most important city in Arizona for part of the late 19th century. Wealthy merchants and legislators rapidly transformed this pioneer outpost into a beautiful town filled with stately Victorian homes surrounding an imposing county courthouse.
Settlers were lured to this region not only by fertile land, but also by the mineral wealth that lay hidden in the ground. Miners founded a number of communities in central Arizona, among them Jerome. When the mines finally shut down, Jerome was almost completely abandoned, but now artists and craftspeople have moved in to reclaim and revitalize the old mining town.
In the middle of the 20th century, it was sunshine and a chance to ride the range that lured people to central Arizona, and many of those visitors headed to Wickenburg. This former cow town still clings to its Western roots and has restored part of its downtown to its 1880s appearance. It is here you'll find the region's few remaining dude ranches, which now call themselves "guest ranches."