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Quirky Arizona: Three Must-See Towns

by Rich Rubin
Watson Lake in Prescott, Arizona

Prescott, Cottonwood, and Jerome, about two thirds of the way from Phoenix to Flagstaff, and just a half hour from Sedona, are destinations in their own right for those who love the offbeat, the unique, or the just plain different.

Rich Rubin

If you’re looking for a new adventure when you’re in Arizona, I have just the thing for you. Three quirky little towns: Prescott, Cottonwood, and Jerome.

If you’re looking for a new adventure when you’re in Phoenix/Scottsdale, I have just the thing for you. Head north and you’ll discover three quirky little towns, each with its own distinct character, that make for a perfect jaunt from the Valley of the Sun. I’m talking about Prescott, Cottonwood, and Jerome, about two thirds of the way from Phoenix to Flagstaff, and just a half hour from Sedona. They are destinations in their own right for those who love the offbeat, the unique, or the just plain different. So let’s take a drive up north and see what these towns have to offer.

After a drive of just under two hours, across miles of mountain chaparral, I arrive in Prescott. There’s a lot to see and do in and around this unusual little town that wears its Western identity like a badge. “Prescott: everyone’s hometown” proclaim the signs, and there is a down to earth quality here that makes it easy to come in and immediately feel at home. Well, if your home is a street known informally as “Whiskey Row” and boasts a huge number of saloons with a unique and colorful history. Not to mention there’s some great food, fascinating museums, a ton of galleries, and shopping galore. What more could you ask?

I check into The Motor Lodge, which, like the town itself, is quirky, downhome, and fun. It’s actually a vintage 1937 “motor court,” with the rooms in a U-shape around the drive-in area and a private, covered carport for most rooms. My room features furniture from the late, great Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, including an elaborate headboard topped by a pair of gilt crowns. Best of all, it’s just a few blocks from Whiskey Row and the heart of town, so I have all the convenience with none of the craziness.

Prescott, Arizona Welcome Sign

Photo: Rich Rubin

After check-in, if you’re like me you will head to Whiskey Row (aka Montezuma Street) and check out the variety of eating, drinking, and shopping options. Built after a fire in 1900 destroyed the block, it once boasted forty saloons where cowboys, gold miners, and all sorts of, shall we say, less savory types congregated (oddly, right across the street from the courthouse). You’ll still see a goodly number of saloons lined up among the shopping options.

Since it’s still early, I start by exploring some of the galleries and shops, some offering Western kitsch and some displaying really beautiful original artworks. Van Gogh’s Ear offers a nice selection of jewelry, paintings, ceramics, and glass. I admire the creations and somehow manage to restrain myself from buying everything in the shop. The same applies at Arts Prescott, my favorite gallery in town and a co-op of local artists, where I marvel at lovely pottery, amazingly creative basketry, fiber arts, wood turning, and monoprints. Mountain Spirit has a range of paintings and sculptures on Western and Native American themes. Artful Eye and Kikapoo Express offer nice jewelry, and a block off Whiskey Row, on Cortez Street, Ogg’s Hogan presents an immense array of antique Native basketry, jewelry, pottery, and other art and artifacts.

We’ll come back later to explore the saloons, but first let’s get a feel for some of the beauty of the area with a drive to the Phippen Museum, located among some stunning countryside about five miles out of town. It’s as good a place as any to get a sense of Prescott’s Western heritage, and presents wonderful paintings and sculptures by the big names in cowboy art: Solon Borglum, Ray Swanson, and George Phippen (who was, in fact, the first president of Cowboy Artists of America), You’ll also see contemporary artists whose work fills a large gallery. It’s beautiful creations, and the views from outside the museum are in themselves worth the trip. I probably spend as long standing outside the museum looking at the vast landscape as I do inside admiring the art.

More natural beauty awaits at Highlands Center for Natural History, about a ten-minute drive from town. I head out on the Stretch Pebble Trail and I’m soon in the middle of a wonderland of nature, low-lying shrubs, tall oaks and ponderosa pines. A lizard skitters across the trail. The distant hills stand out against intensely blue skies, a few large puffy clouds looking like they were put there by some master painter. A tree with scaly bark like a reptile. Butterflies meandering through the air. This too, is Prescott, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

Back in town, you’ll also want to visit the Museum of Indigenous People, a small but lovely museum with a series of wonderful displays. I love the collection of Hopi and Zuni pottery, a large collection of katsinam, Apache Gaan (Mountain Spirit Dancers), elaborate Navajo baskets, and a nice exhibit of contemporary art. This little museum is chock-full of treasures, and it’s well worth visiting. Also check out Sharlot Hall, where you’ll find the history of the area displayed in a series of fascinating exhibits, from pre-history to aerial views of the town over the years to Yavapai basketry.

Paddleboarding in Prescott, Arizona

Paddleboarding in Prescott

All this exploration makes me want one thing: coffee. Luckily, Prescott has not just one but two nice spots. At Wild Iris Coffeehouse, there’s the immediate feeling: this is what a coffeehouse should be! Lots of wood, couches, marble-topped tables, and a patio for breezy Prescott mornings. They offer a nice selection of baked goods and (as the sign says) “food food” from quiche to panini. The Porch is also a comfy and welcoming coffeehouse. The commodious space recreates an outdoor porch inside, with tin roofs, brick walls, and long wood tables where seemingly half of Prescott comes to hang out and relax on the “porch.”

Related: 5 Amazing Reasons To Visit Bisbee

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