Getting that Wild West Feeling in Tombstone, Arizona
By Roy Stevenson
Arizona’s high desert has rapidly become one of the destination spa and resort meccas of the world. The high desert is perfect for spas and resorts with its high altitude, clean air, year-round sunny weather, a plethora of tourist attractions, and a never-ending landscape of gorgeous natural desert beauty spread through Pima and Cochise Counties.
Luxurious resorts in the area, like Canyon Ranch, Miraval, the Westin La Paloma, the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Resort, the Westward Look Resort, the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain Resort, and the Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort have received top awards from prestigious magazines like Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and Spa Finder.
The spas offer a place of retreat, where your entire stay is focused on health, wellness, beauty and renewal; the resorts have some of the same facilities as the destination spas but include other activities such as golf, hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Then there are one or two “theme” resorts that offer a unique experience over and above the standard massages, facials, and golf outings. Arizona’s first true Old West resort, the Apache Spirit Ranch, recently opened in October 2010, and offers an experience that is not likely to be forgotten. I’ve been to a resort or three, and have never seen or heard of anything like it.
Lying in the middle of the red clay and rock desert surrounded by cactus and saguaros, on what was once Apache territory, is the brand new 272-acre Apache Spirit Ranch, a resort built like a circa 1880 Wild West town. And it’s only a five-minute drive or stagecoach ride (honest!) along a dusty gravel trail from the west’s most famous town, Tombstone.
Yes, that Tombstone. Arizona’s “Town Too Tough To Die.” Arguably the “wildest west” town in the U.S. of A. The name alone conjures up visions of Doc Holiday and the Earp brothers facing off against Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers at point blank range in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, relived in several renowned Hollywood movies (and in twice a day re-enactments in Tombstone).
Tombstone’s famous Boot Hill Graveyard where no-nonsense epitaphs like “Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a.44, No less, no more” tell of the violent, hardscrabble life in the 1880’s and remind you that it really was the Wild West back in the day.
Tombstone has enough “wild west” attractions to keep your tour card packed for two days, longer if you want to take your time to soak up the historic ambience more deeply in this fascinating town. But more about Tombstone later…
We’re driving along the dusty gravel road to the Apache Spirit Ranch after a solid day’s sightseeing in Tombstone, with no idea of what the resort will be like — I’m assuming a posh resort with swimming pools, lavender-scented steam rooms, 500-thread count sheets, and more foo foo stuff that I can endure.
Then, suddenly, we’re driving along a ridge, and look over to our left to see what looks like a western ghost town. It’s dusk, so I think perhaps I’m imagining it, but as we draw closer, our jaws drop — it’s a real 1880s Western town all right, with a saloon, Wells Fargo bank, post office, grand hotel, mining office, and all the trappings of an old western town — except it all looks brand new. A sign confirms that we’re at Apache Spirit Ranch. This is going to be good.
Walking through the main street, lined with old west buildings that would fit right in at nearby Tombstone, I keep thinking how much I would have enjoyed it here when I was a kid, running around playing cowboys and Indians — it would have a been a childhood dream come true. But for now, it all just seems surreal. Vacation in a jail or grand hotel? Great stuff!
We check in at the saloon, located in the center of the town, and our greeter Nadine, tells us we’re staying in the Courthouse Room. We find it magnificently decorated to fit its name. All 17 of the resort rooms are unique and named after an iconic old western building like Barber Shop, Drugstore, Stagecoach Station, Sheriff, Jail, Miss Kitty Bordello, Trading Post, Liquor Store, Saddlery, Blacksmith, and all are stylishly decorated to fit their theme.
I’m interested in looking at the bordello room “for research purposes,” but my wife is not amused. Later, I learn that the rooms are actually modeled after authentic historic western buildings. And they are cozy. The bathrooms are, of course, modern, and the rooms are air conditioned, essential trappings of the 20th century — even in an old western town you’ve gotta have some comforts, and the ranch is, after all, rated four-star.
This is definitely a resort for leisure cowboys and cowgirls. The Ranch has a friendly and hospitable staff all dressed in western gear, hamming up the western folklore to the max.
Despite its plush décor, Apache Spirit Ranch offers horseback riding, roping, horseshoe tossing, pool, billiards, darts, movie nights under the stars featuring famous Westerns, live country music around the campfire, western shows featuring can-can dancing, stagecoach rides, and pool parties.
The horse rides meander through the desert or along the dried out river streams (“washes” to us city slickers), where you can ride for miles and miles. The Ranch is on historic ground. Geronimo and Cochise roamed here on horseback, picking off farmers and cattle ranchers who displeased them.
If ever there was someone larger than life and worthy of the tall tales told about him, it’s Ed Schieffelin, the adventurous prospector who first discovered silver at Tombstone. In 1875, the blue-eyed, longhaired Schieffelin, usually wearing a red flannel shirt and long leather boots, prospected the rugged Apache country, dangerous territory at the time.
The soldiers at Fort Huachuca, which Schieffelin used as a base, thought he was mad and would tell him that all he would find was his tombstone. But he struck it rich, and named his first two mines “Tombstone” and “Graveyard” in honor of his soldier friends’ comments.
Tombstone boomed in just a few months, and the rest is history. But it is ironic that a place with such a rich mining history is largely remembered because of a violent, 30-second gunfight that took place a few years after silver was discovered. Today, a network of mines still lie deep beneath the streets of Tombstone, and you can take a guided tour through part of the Good Enough Mine, 100 feet underground. I recommend this tour to give you a better idea of how the town got started.
Schieffelin is buried beneath a tall triangular apex of desert rocks, a glorified version of a prospector’s claim marking, only a few hundred meters from the Apache Spirit Ranch. Guests can pay homage to this legendary character by walking to the tall cairn.
Schieffelin requested that he be interred on this spot because he hid from an Apache war party behind some rocks here, thus saving his life. In keeping with his prospector’s mythos, Schiefellin was buried in full prospector’s regalia.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it’s New Year’s Eve, and guests are meeting in the Apache Spirit Saloon for the evening’s festivities. We play poker on a green felt card table for a couple of hours, with Jack Wheeler as our dealer — a six gun strategically placed by his right hand to take care of card cheats. The women clean us cowboys out (are these three aces worth anything?) so I guess Jack couldn’t shoot them, being a gentleman and all.
Later, Jack does a live show, singing western songs, strumming on his geetar, and damn, he’s good! It turns out that he’s a professional western singer who’s done gigs in bars and music halls throughout Europe. Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, and Willie would be proud. Meanwhile, other guests are line dancing. New Year’s Eve arrives and we’re all having a great time, our German hosts whooping it up like cowboys and cowgirls.
Breakfast the next morning is a subdued affair. Everyone’s tired for some reason. However, our chef de cuisine, Arturo Delgado, has prepared a delicious gourmet brunch for us: a marvelous selection of traditional Western, Mexican and Native American cuisine: steaks, chicken, lamb, fish, vegetables, fresh salads, strong coffee, omelets, bacon, the works.
But, back to Tombstone. You will definitely experience the Wild West, and all that goes with it, in this historic town. Stagecoaches clip clop along the road. It’s easy to imagine, while you’re standing on Allen Street looking along the covered wooden sidewalks at the weathered, high wooden clapboard facades, what this town was like back in the roaring 80’s: Ladies in their long dresses shuffling along the sidewalk, men tipping their hats, thirsty, raucous miners blowing their money on gambling, grog, and naughty women.
The whole town lives and breathes the Wild West. Tourism draws 720,000 people to Tombstone (population 1,500) each year to experience the Old West, so the residents play the Wild West card to the hilt. Yet it does so without being cheesy or lame — somehow it pulls it off. Perhaps it’s because of the long rows of marvelous old western buildings that line Allen Street, and 3rd and 4th Streets, making the town a full-scale, life-size model of a Hollywood Western movie set, except that this is the real thing. More power to Tombstone for its “touristic authenticity.”
Tim Fattig, the town’s historian, with a master’s degree in American History, and a strong background in western history and culture walks us through the streets of Tombstone explaining what life was like back in the town’s short-lived heyday.
Flooding of the mines ended Tombstone’s silver mining after just a few booming years. A census taken in 1879 indicates the town’s population was 400. By the halcyon years of the 1880s it had mushroomed to 10,000. A decade later, it was a shadow of its former self.
You can admire the authentic 19th century artifacts and nostalgic ambience at the Old Bird Cage Theater, now a museum, and reputedly one of the most haunted places in America. Check out the horse-drawn hearse, a beautiful old Black Mariah, with an estimated value of $2 million. Visitors claim they have seen faces peering back at them when gazing into this hearse.
The downstairs poker room is also haunted by a cowboy crouching by a barrel. Do visit the Rose Tree Museum, an old heritage house packed with artifacts from the town’s bygone days, then step out back to admire the world’s largest Rose Tree, beautiful even in winter without its floral covering.
Stroll through the Tombstone Western Heritage Museum and see old sepia photographs of gunslingers, miners, lawmen and colorful old prospectors, and old furniture and clothing.
The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, built in 1882, is a superb museum with some fascinating artifacts. Look for Wyatt Earp’s straight razor; Ed Schieffelin’s.44-caliber rifle and traveling trunk; and an excellent series of black and white paintings depicting a shot-by-shot account of THE gunfight. There are other surprises here too, like a gallows, mock-up courtroom, and jail cell.
Other attractions include Wyatt Earp’s house (now an art gallery), and one of the country’s few remaining Historamas telling the story of “The Town Too Tough to Die” (although it surely would without tourism). You can pick up a reproduction of the October 27,1881, Tombstone Epitaph that documents THE gunfight.
And of course, everyone must see the re-enactment of THE infamous Gunfight at O.K. Corral, where the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday put paid to three members of the Clanton Gang, who had been riding the Earps hard for years with their threats, cattle rustling, and stagecoach robberies. The re-enactment is not without its moments of humor, and tries hard to write in the history leading up to THE gunfight.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Patrick Greene, dresses up smartly in a 19th century frock coat, green vest, white shirt, bow tie, and boots, and walks around town politely greeting the townsfolk like in the old days. He takes us to lunch at Big Nose Kate’s, one of the town’s original restaurants dating from 1881.
Billing itself as “The Best Cowboy Bar in the West,” BNK’s is a noisy, bawdy affair, a country singer belting out cowboy tunes. Kate would be proud — she was reputedly the first prostitute in Tombstone. The Clantons and McLaurys were guests at Big Nose Kate’s establishment the night before THE gunfight.
The manager dresses me up in Western clothing, places me in a vertical coffin with a noose around my neck, for one of those precious photos that you cringe at later. And the grub is great!
Trips further afield from Tombstone include the Old Tucson Film Studios (for a heavy, but entertaining dose of the “Hollywood West”), the world class Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the atmospheric Old Bisbee Mining Town and Kartchner Caverns, to name but a few.
This then, is the Apache Spirit Ranch and Tombstone, where once the Apaches Geronimo and Cochise fought against whites, Schieffelin struck silver, and the Earps gunned down three bad guys. The town and ranch’s history doesn’t just resonate from the past; it vibrates like a jackhammer.
If you go with the western flow in without questioning it, you’ll enjoy Tombstone and Apache Spirit Ranch and have some great memories and pics. Don’t forget to wear your cowboy hat and boots.
Roy Stevenson is a professional freelance writer, specializing in creative non-fiction in a wide variety of genres. These include travel, historical travel, culture, running and triathlon training, fitness, health, military history, communications, film festivals, classic cars, sailing, food and wine, and other topics that interest him.
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