Where desert meets forest, Prescott is North Central Arizona’s sleeper destination
Flagstaff and Sedona are the reigning escapes for Las Vegans and Phoenicians hunting cooler weather and quainter culture. But there’s a high-desert gem tucked into a national forest that is missed by the interstates, keeping it much lower-key: Prescott. It’s both a college town and a retirement haven, full of frontier history and hipster-friendly development. And anyone who loves playing outside will find it rich with rugged adventures.
In 1900, a fire demolished an entire city block in Prescott. It was rebuilt with an absurd number of saloons, about 40 at the high point, and Whiskey Row remains a nightlife hub. The oldest frontier bar in Arizona, The Palace (whiskeyrowpalace.com) served Doc Holliday and the Earps at a 24-foot oak bar famously pulled into the street during the blaze so folks could keep drinking. Belly up to that bar today, then hop the Row’s other drinkeries, eateries, and curiosities for a buffet of Southwest goods and hospitality. Because souvenir photos in Old West getups are better post-whiskey.
To complete the look, there’s plenty of vibrantly refurbished history throughout the town. The Hassayampa Inn is a shining example. Restored to its 1927 glory, the Hassayampa Inn (hassayampainn.com) is a functioning museum. Built for max glamour to attract traffic from Route 66, the specimen of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture is rich with period details — hand-painted wood ceilings, embossed copper paneling, Art Deco flourishes, a McPhail piano and rare Otis elevator said to have ferried the horse of Hollywood’s first cowboy Tom Mix. The historic inn’s name is Apache for “the river that loses itself and then reappears,” and it’s easy to lose yourself in this atmospheric feast.
Prescott is so flush with trails that Trailforks’ map paints the city’s perimeter like an elegant circulatory system of black, blue, and green squiggles. Terrain ranges from dirt roads through desert scrub to singletrack under giant pines, but the minimal effort-maximal payoff nexus has got to be the Peavine Trail. The former Santa Fe Railway line (part of the national Rails-to-Trails project) offers six miles of easy hiking, biking, or horseback riding along Watson Lake and the billion-year-old rocks of Granite Dells. It’s all blue sky, red earth, sculpted boulders and wildlife, from desert cottontails to golden linanthus blossoms. That’s quite the package for a $3 parking fee.
Looking for something literally cooler? For water sports and shoreline lounging, try Prescott’s collection of beautiful lakes. Willow and Watson are large and close to downtown, while Goldwater and Lynx crank the scenic firepower. Don’t have time for an epic lake crawl? Bet on Lynx Lake. Backdropped by the Bradshaw Mountains on Forest Service land, it’s less crowded and brings the amenities. While swimming isn’t on the menu, you can rent boats, fish, picnic, even pan for gold along a creek. And the Lynx Lake Café (lynxlakestore.com) serves up German-American tastiness four days a week (country-fried schnitzel is a thing, but don’t miss the ricotta-buttermilk Lake Cakes with lemon and blueberry).
There are other ways to indulge the senses as well. Locals will tell you Prescott has more than four seasons thanks to September’s “second spring,” when grasslands and riverbanks pop with native plants. You might see masses of goldeneye and cosmos, or sweet little clusters of prairie zinnia, mariposa lily, and columbine. “It’s way different than a spring bloom but pretty entrancing,” says Jeff Schalau, director of University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension in Yavapai County. Schalau explains that the phenomenon is driven by a long monsoon season, and the heavier the rain the better the color (the Extension’s database lists month-specific wildflowers with photos and botany details, if you want to log sightings). With average daytime temps in the 80s, September is an extra-lovely time to visit.
CULINARY AND CULTURE
When it comes to food and drink, Prescott certainly has its share of artisanal this and hipster that, but the cafés and restaurants go above and beyond. For instance, the Raven Café (ravencafe.com) isn’t just about great coffee and craft beer, local art and music, cauliflower tacos and roasted chile bread pudding. Raven does public service, too, whether that means being the first 3-star Certified Green Restaurant in the county or advising tourists how to pronounce the city’s name on a sandwich board: “It’s Prescott, like brisket.” Tucked into the historic downtown area, the café hosts trivia on Mondays and movie nights on Tuesdays, and offers half-price rosé each Wednesday “because vodka all day is a horrible idea.” It’s a perfect base for game-planning your trip or just soaking in authentic #preskitt vibes.
But further on lies an entire region of adult liquid refreshment. From the Courthouse Plaza in the heart of Prescott, it’s only a 40-mile drive to the Verde Valley, an Arizona wine region on the rise. Volcanic leftovers and river drainage mean super-soil that’s comparable to what you’ll find in France’s Southern Rhône goldmine. But the desert conditions push the vines harder, resulting in intensely flavored grapes. More than 100 varietals grow in a tight chunk of map, so ambitious tasters can hit many worthy dots in one afternoon. On a bend near the confluence of Oak Creek and the Verde River, Alcantara Vineyards (alcantaravineyard.com) is a family operation making award-winning reds and whites in a picturesque setting full of rescued pets. Follow the creek north and you’ll find Page Springs Cellars (pagespringscellars.com), where you can enjoy yoga or a massage and a game of bocce along with sips of its latest sustainably produced vintages.