Arizona is rich in history and has diverse landscapes ranging from the desert and red rock country to forest-covered mountains and alpine lakes.
And there are plenty of small towns tucked into those landscapes to fill more than a few weekend getaways. This southwestern state is a place that many flocked to in search of wealth, starting with Spanish explorers who hoped to find fabled cities of lost gold. In 1858, the gold rush began with the glitter of sizeable nuggets discovered in the Gila River east of Yuma. Those treasure hunters left their mark in a big way, as did outlaws like the group known as “The Cowboys.”
In Arizona’s best small towns, you’ll see plenty of evidence left from those Wild West and gold mining days, along with modern quirkiness and plenty of awe-inspiring scenery.
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In 2016, Bisbee was named the “Best Historic Small Town in America” by the readers of USA Today, probably because it doesn’t have seemed to have changed much in the last century. A colorful former mining town that morphed into a funky artist colony, it’s got quirkiness nailed. Located a mile high in southern Arizona’s Mule Mountains, it’s just 12 miles north of the Mexican border, with steep, winding streets and hillsides filled with Victorian-era buildings and homes.
This is a fantastically creative small town. Not only are there lots of artist studios and galleries tucked between the antique shops, bars, and eateries like the favorite Cafe Roka, but there are all sorts of unique works of art scattered about. Check out the vibrantly painted murals and keep an eye out for the multiple cars local artists transformed into unique displays. The most famous is probably the famous seashell car, decorated with shells to create mermaids and a host of sea creatures.
History buffs will find plenty to explore, like the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum focused on the town’s interesting past. Visitors can delve into it by joining a Queen Mine Tour. It begins by donning a hard hat before you ride a mine car into the mines, where miners who worked there tell stories (and ghost stories) about life underground. Bisbee is also considered one of the country’s most haunted towns, with ghost tours featuring spots like the iconic Bisbee Grand Hotel, known for its many unusual happenings — including a piano that occasionally plays on its own.
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Jerome was birthed in 1899, founded on Cleopatra Hill, overlooking the Verde Valley between Sedona and Prescott. It once boomed with a population of 15,000 as a result of the rich copper mines, taking the title of Arizona’s fifth-largest town around the turn of the 20th century. The depression marked the end of those good times, with the mines closing for good in the 1950s. In fact, the only thing that saved the town from fading into obscurity altogether was when it was named as the largest ghost city in the U.S.
Today, there are less than 500 residents that call it home — but allegedly, many more spirits linger. This is one of the best towns to visit in all of America if you’re obsessed with the paranormal as it has one of the highest concentrations of haunted historic buildings in the country.
Tiny shops, bars and tasting rooms (including Caduceus Cellars owned by Tool singer Maynard James Keenan) line its streets along with ruins from the past, like a traveling jail. As you stroll down the streets, you’ll often see actors and historians wandering in authentic attire from the town’s glory days. It’s quirky, and a little bit cheesy, but mostly awesome.
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Sedona is world-famous for the towering red rock formations surrounding it. The uplifting power of its “vortex sites” like Cathedral Rock and Boynton Canyon draw plenty of visitors to town as they supposedly radiate powerful healing energy. You can reach many of them on a hike, but there are guided tours available, too.
You can take a jeep tour across steep rock trails or take a trolley tour to learn more about Sedona’s history. And the natural water slide at nearby Slide Rock State Park in Oak Canyon makes that a great place to spend an afternoon. It’s worth spending some time wandering along main street, which has a great mix of art galleries, hippie-type shops, and eclectic gift stores.
You’ll fine plenty of fabulous restaurants (many of which serve healthy vegetarian, vegan, and/or gluten-free items) as well as everything from crystal stores to places to buy handmade items from Nepal. Stop by ChocolaTree Organic Eatery for amazing coffee and juices — plus an entire healthy menu.
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Tombstone is a National Landmark District, although it was once a booming Wild West town. It has many well-preserved buildings from the 1870s and ’80s along its wooden sidewalks. Those who want to experience the time period will find lots to do here, including reenactments of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The legendary battle in 1881 lasted just 30 seconds, pitting Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers against the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. If you don’t already know who won, this is your chance to find out (or ponder the mystery of who killed Johnny Ringo).
As you stroll through town, you’re likely to run into the man behind the legend, Wyatt Earp, who will be happy to pose for a selfie with you. As the many gunfighting victims needed a place to go afterwards, you can also visit their graves in Boothill Graveyard. Its famous for its high concentration of specters (ghost spirits), some of which are occasionally glimpsed among the old wooden grave markers after dark.
The Bird Cage Theater (which once doubled as a brothel/gambling hall/saloon) has a rich history and violent past that helped build its reputation as one of the world’s most haunted buildings. The downtown area is closed to traffic and recreated just like it would have been in the 1880s — it’s a little cheesier than an actual ghost town, but history buffs (and kids) will still love it.
Tombstone is only about 25 minutes from Bisbee, so consider spending the night in one town and visiting two of the best small towns in Arizona on a two-day trip.
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Located in central Arizona, about 100 miles north of Phoenix and adjacent to the Prescott National Forest, Prescott was the capital of the Arizona Territory between 1864 and 1867. While it’s going through another growing spurt today, it’s still mostly a small mountain town, surrounded by pine forests more than 5,000 feet above sea level. It also boasts a historic area that has quite the story to tell – it was a popular town for western pioneers.
The downtown oozes with charm. It’s home to historic Whiskey Row, famous for its live music venues and whiskey holes, bars, and saloons that are at least a century old. In fact, there are more than 40 saloons here. The Sharlot Hall Museum is the place to go to learn all about the town’s pioneer-era history, while the Museum of Indigenous People displays artifacts from the region’s first habitants.
Known as Arizona’s “Christmas City,” this town really gets into the holiday spirit with endless twinkling lights, a parade, and a celebratory lighting of its neoclassical courthouse. It’s also a huge mountain biking destination, so consider taking a mountain bike tour for a day and cruising through the mountain landscapes on two wheels.
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The “Heart of the Verde Valley” — and the heart of Arizona wine country which, yes, is a thing — Cottonwood lies just east of Jerome and Woodchute Mountain. It’s home to beautiful state parks, vineyards, and scenic trails that wind alongside the Verde River. But the down-to-earth, laid-back vibe is what really brings out the charms of this small town.
Cottonwood has been slowly growing over the years but it still retains that quaint feel. There are wine and spirit tasting rooms, boutiques, galleries, antique shops, cafes, and restaurants in the historic downtown area. Like the arts? Catch a performance at the Old Town Center for the Arts.
But if you’re here for the wine, explore the Verde Valley Wine Trail. Salt Mine Wine and Chateau Tumbleweed are two good choices for a few glasses of vino. It’s one of the best small towns in Arizona if you’re new to wine tasting since the wines are affordable and there’s zero pretention — just walk in and say hi and the tasting room pros will be happy to pour you some tastings.
Globe was originally founded as a mining camp and has a downtown area listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mining still places a key role in the local economy, although the frontier-feel is what brings many to experience its authentic past. The town is somewhat preserved in history thanks to its relative isolation tucked in the foothills between the Apache and Pinal mountains, along Pinal Creek.
It’s all about Wild West history in Globe, with everything from stagecoach robberies, Apache raids, cowboys, and plenty of outlaws in its past — including the Clanton brothers, who used it as a hideout after the O.K. Corral shootout in Tombstone.
Be sure to have a drink at the Drift Inn Saloon — it opened its doors back in 1902 and once housed a well-loved brothel. The space is said to be haunted by former workers and customers, so you might just be sipping one of its famous bloody Marys right alongside an invisible guest.
Located in northern Gila County in central Arizona, Payson is one of the best small towns in Arizona for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s often referred to as the state’s “heart,” surrounded by the Tonto National Forest. It’s also got plenty of historic spirit (get it?) with liquor production and sales during Prohibition taking place in an area known as “Bootleg Alley.” And while you may not find whiskey barrels hidden in caves anymore, you’ll find plenty of natural rock formations and caves to explore. Payson is a great spot to enjoy the great outdoors, hiking, horseback, or fishing, with a mild climate year-round, sitting 5,000 feet above sea level.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, with a beautiful waterfall and the world’s largest known travertine natural bridge, is just over a 20-minute drive away. It stands 180 feet high and measures 150 feet across at its widest point. A series of underground springs with mineral-rich waters flow through a narrow ravine, building up large deposits of travertine, eroding a passageway that left the rock above standing to create a natural bridge. While you can stand on top of it, be sure to hike down in order to truly capture the glory of this geologic wonder. It’s one of many beautiful places within a short drive of Payson.
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