Maybe it was the small group of people dressed in early 1900s period garb sipping tea on the courthouse lawn. Or the cowboy in a 10-gallon hat and spurs strolling down the sidewalk.
It quickly became clear that Prescott, Ariz., is a city that relishes its past — as well it should.
Prescott’s importance to Arizona began before statehood. In 1863, Arizona was split off from the Territory of New Mexico to form the Arizona Territory. Prescott was founded a year later as the territorial capital because of the area’s mineral riches, which Congress and President Abraham Lincoln looked to secure for the Union forces during the Civil War.
To gain a perspective of Prescott’s early stature in Arizona, a good place to start is the Sharlot Hall Museum. Opened in 1928, it is dedicated to preserving the history and folklore of Yavapai County during one of the most colorful periods in the West.
The original territorial Governor’s Mansion, built in 1864, is the crown jewel of the open-air Sharlot Hall Museum. Also on-site is Fremont House, which was completed in 1875 for John C. Fremont, the fifth territorial governor and mapmaker whose explorations took him through the Sierra Nevada.
The museum’s primary exhibits are housed in the Sharlot Hall Building, which once served as the home of its namesake, Sharlot Mabridth Hall, who grew up on a ranch in the late 1800s and went on to become the first woman to hold an office in the Arizona territorial government. Her personal collection of photographs and artifacts served as the starting collection for the museum.
The Sharlot Hall Museum is just a few blocks from the Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza, the center of downtown activities. On one side of the plaza is the famed Whiskey Row, once home to more than 40 saloons.
Back then, there was a bar on the first floor, with another bar overhead on the second level. Backdoors led to the brothels of the red-light district. That made it easy for respected men to enter a saloon through the front door, have a few drinks and a dalliance, exit through the front and no one would be the wiser.
The party came to an end, though, in 1900 when a massive fire spread through Whiskey Row, destroying almost all of the wooden buildings. It didn’t take long for the town to rebuild, this time using brick and mortar. Most of the turn-of-the-century facade is what you see today.
The Palace Saloon, which opened in the 1870s and is now the centerpiece of Whiskey Row, was a hangout for Western notables Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday. With the fire raging, patrons carried the massive bar and bar back out to the courthouse lawn across the street, where they commiserated as they watched their favorite drinking hole go up in flames.
Today you can enter through The Palace’s swinging doors and belly up to the original bar. And just like the old days, you can climb the stairs to a different bar on the second level, Jersey Lilly Saloon, which has the only balcony on Whiskey Row.
The balcony overlooks the Courthouse Plaza, which has served as a gathering place for celebrations, commemorations, campaign kickoffs, concerts, movies and festivals for more than 140 years.
In addition to an extensive tree canopy, the plaza features large expanses of grass lawn, a historic well, fountain, bandstand and bronze memorial equestrian statue honoring members of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who gathered at the plaza on May 4, 1898, before heading to San Antonio at the onset of the Spanish-American War. The north courthouse steps provide natural seating for performances. And it was from those steps that Barry Goldwater announced his candidacy for president in 1964.
The plaza hosts more than 130 activities annually. Dancing, outdoor movies, concerts and poetry readings are held there during the summer. The plaza is regularly home to joggers, workers on lunch break, dog walkers, tourists, Frisbee players and parents pushing strollers.
You can get the full story of downtown Prescott by taking one of the free walking tours offered by the Chamber of Commerce. The tours begin at 10 a.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from May to October at the Chamber’s Visitor Information Center on the square. The Chamber building itself has a place in the town’s history, serving as the jail and firehouse from 1894 to 1895.
While there still are several bars along the square of Prescott, they are now interspersed with ice cream and candy shops, retail stores, restaurants and galleries, which showcase the works of the many artists who now call Prescott home.
“The arts scene has been gradually ramping up over the last 10 years,” said Don Prince, director of the Prescott Office of Tourism. “Prescott has a pretty strong and thriving arts community and the secret is getting out.”
Year-round art activities include 4th Friday Art Walk, Fine Art &Wine Festival in May and the Summer Arts &Crafts Festival in August.
And it’s not just the visual arts that attract visitors. The refurbished Elks Theatre and Performing Arts Center (the former Elks Opera House) and the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center provide seating for 600 and 1,100 people, respectively, and attract comedians, musicians and other entertainers.
Lest you think everything revolves around the arts and history, there are plenty of recreational activities to keep you busy. Prescott’s location at 5,400 feet elevation in the Bradshaw Mountains of central Arizona translates to relatively mild temperatures all year, perfect for outdoor adventure. And that has brought in a new generation of visitors.
“Years ago, visitors were 55 and up who were attracted to the arts and Western culture,” Prince said. “It gradually has become more different as people become familiar with what we have to offer (in the way of recreation).”
Watson Lake is about four miles from downtown Prescott and features fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, rock climbing, camping and picnicking. We hiked the nearly 5-mile loop trail that circles the reservoir. The beginning of the trail covers steep rocky terrain; white dots mark the portion of trail that requires scrambling over granite rocks. The last mile or so is relatively flat in comparison.
Views of the lake include large granite boulders protruding from the crystal-clear blue water. At one point, hikers descend to a creek bottom and end up at the base of the dam. Here water plunges out of an opening in the middle of the dam, filling the canyon bottom, which features a lush strip of cottonwoods, sycamores, ash and willows.
Another popular hiking area is around the heavily treed Lynx Lake. In the heart of the Prescott National Forest, the area features more than 450 miles of multiuse trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.
The forest area is also the site for the Whiskey Off-Road mountain bike race. The inaugural race started with about 100 mountain bike riders 11 years ago. This past year, there were more than 2,000 riders, according to Prince.
“The popularity of that event has attracted a more active demographic,” he said.
The Whiskey Off-Road is the last week of April and kicks off Prescott’s tourist season, which runs through October, according to Prince. The city is also home to the world’s oldest rodeo, Prescott Frontier Days. Since 1888, this traditional event has occurred annually during the Fourth of July weekend.
While the official season ends in October, tourism gets a spike in December, when Prescott comes alive for the holidays.
“We’re Arizona’s official Christmas city,” Prince said.
An annual Christmas parade is followed by the courthouse lighting ceremony, with caroling and a reading of the Christmas story. The Acker Night Musical Showcase is a night of eclectic music in which more than 100 downtown businesses host musical performers of numerous genres: blues, big band, folk, steel drum and pop. The parade will be Dec. 6, and Acker Night is scheduled for Dec. 12.
IF YOU GO:
Directions: Prescott, Ariz., is approximately 250 miles from Las Vegas. Drive south on U.S. Highway 93 South and cross into Arizona. Continue to follow U.S. 93 for 77 miles. At Kingman, merge onto Interstate 40 toward Flagstaff/Phoenix. Continue for 96 miles and take Exit 146 toward Ash Fork/Prescott. Turn right onto Arizona State Route 89 South and continue 52 miles into Prescott.
Hotels: We originally were going to stay in one of Prescott’s historic hotels but chose The Motor Lodge after seeing its high ratings on Trip Advisor. Originally built as summer cabins in 1910, the 12 rooms are decorated in midcentury decor and have porches with patio furniture and umbrellas. Most rooms have carports and some have kitchens. The Motor Lodge is three blocks from the downtown square.
We loved the free glasses of wine upon arrival (you also can get beer) and the fresh-baked cookies in midafternoon.
But if you want to stay in a historic hotel, there are several to choose from. The Hotel St. Michael, formerly Hotel Burke, was built in the late 1800s and rebuilt in 1901. A few doors away, the Grand Highland Hotel was constructed in 1903. The 12 rooms of the second-level hotel were recently renovated following a fire that occurred in 2012 at a restaurant next door.
The red brick Hassayampa Inn was part of a community plan to build a grand hotel during the roaring ’20s. It’s a little pricier than the others, but definitely worth a visit to peruse the grand lobby with its historic photos and vintage furnishings.
A block away from the square, the Hotel Vendome boasts an upstairs veranda, where guests can hang out and relax. Built in 1917, the Vendome has its own resident ghost named Abby. As the story goes, she passed away in Room 16.
Dining: The Lone Spur Cafe serves copious breakfasts in a cowboy/hunting-themed dining hall. The Dinner Bell Cafe is also a good breakfast spot but with an odd layout of a dining room in front and another unconnected one in the back. There’s also outside dining, overlooking a dry creek bed. Papa’s Italian Restaurant has good Italian fare and friendly service. The Prescott Brewing Co. has an expansive menu of bar food and tastings of its craft beer. We had good salads and appetizers sitting on the balcony of the Firehouse Kitchen.