Arizona’s Coolest Small Towns Are Filled With Cowboys, Wine, And Mysticism
It’s a state of caves, cosmic vortexes, and living history.
In its not-so-ancient past, Arizona’s dusty desert expanses were home to Indigenous tribes, raucous 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 country’s most disorderly and well-attended golf tournament, the Phoenix Open.
Arizona’s small towns are wildly different, yet it’s within their limits that Arizona’s legendary past meets its bright future. Here, ancient civilizations and experimental communities coexist beautifully. From ghost towns and gunfight reenactment sites to vortex-laden spiritual centers, there are layers of unconventionality to explore 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.
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 dad 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.
Just an hour north of Phoenix, the experimental community of Arcosanti—population < 100—feels like visiting another world thanks to its domed structures and dense, multi-story dwellings. Imagined by the late Italian architect Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti aims to maximize community, efficiency, and sustainability with specially insulated concrete structures that negate the need for air conditioning (even in Phoenix’s 100+ degree heat) and a roadless layout to reduce the sprawl of the city. While construction is just 5% complete, Arcosanti still attracts thousands of visitors per year. Back in precedented times (remember those?), it even hosted the annual FORM Festival, which has hosted A-list artists from Florence and the Machine to Skrillex and Anderson .Paak.
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 one of our favorite eclectic desert towns. 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 plethora 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.
If you’ve ever wanted to go full Westworld but have an aversion to murderous pleasure robots, Tombstone—which refers to itself as “the town too tough to die”—is your huckleberry. Like many other Old West relics, the town’s history 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 Erp could roll in and feel like nothing’s changed. Fortunately, 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 the touristy, yet top-rated and illuminating trek through the Goodenough Mine that skyrocketed the town to Southern Arizona fame. The town is exactly what it sounds like: Whether that’s cheesy or invigorating is a matter of taste.
A scenic hillside village in Northern Arizona, Jerome was once a vibrant copper-mining town. Today, it’s famous for its rampant ghost stories, many of which revolve, unsurprisingly, around historic hospital-turned inn the 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 great restaurants 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, which is well-known for being owned by Tool’s Maynard James Keenan (in addition to the great wine, of course).
Jerome may be emerging as a mini wine destination, but nearby Cottonwood is the capital of Northern Arizona’s fast-growing wine scene. Home to Keenan’s Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, colorful, warm, and quirky Cottonwood has established itself as an off-the-beaten-path food and drink destination thanks to places like Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room, which doubles as a hyper-local trattoria. Its proximity to the hiking trails of Coconino National Forest offers an added bonus: Here, you can eat and drink yourself into lucidity, 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 gaggle of friendly donkeys. Such is the case in Oatman, where visitors will see the wild burros that freely roam the streets immediately upon arrival. The oldest continuously-inhabited mining settlement in Arizona, the town has stayed (relatively) populated thanks to its desirable location just off 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, Restaurant, and Saloon, where beloved 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 Mariposa, and the legendary mystical properties that have earned it a reputation as an energy vortex. Take it from us: skip the over-hyped Pink Jeep tours and instead explore on foot. 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 uniquely mellow, laid-back atmosphere brought to you by 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.