Arizona is full of cool small towns. Most were built sometime in the 1800’s as either mining or cattle towns. Because Arizona was so large and sparsely populated, these small towns needed to be fairly self-sufficient. As a result, they each have a downtown core with terrific old architecture and unique history. Although some of these towns are still bustling with the business that got them started, many have reinvented themselves as tourist destinations that celebrate their heritage.
Each of these small Arizona towns are worth a visit. Some are perfect as a day trip, others make an excellent weekend destination. A few are even worth a longer stay, for use as a base when exploring some of the many natural wonders in the vicinity. Following are a list of 13 of our favorites in different parts of the state:
Northern Arizona Small Towns
Flagstaff is the largest town in northern Arizona. Old route 66 passes through the southern edge of town, so you definitely get that “classic road trip” vibe. (And there’s a cool Route 66-themed gift shop in the old train station–souvenir alert!). The main part of town has a “nice old fashioned downtown” feel, with historic late Victorian brick buildings housing bars, restaurants and shops. Northern Arizona University is also based in Flagstaff, which means the town is not just a tourist haven.
Flagstaff is also the Arizona town with the highest elevation in the state, at nearly 7,000 feet. Because of this high elevation, Flagstaff is one place in Arizona where you get snow in the winter! (There are ski slopes nearby.) High elevation also means Flagstaff never gets too hot in the summer, which can be refreshing if you’re looking to beat the desert heat. Flagstaff’s location, midway between Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Parks, makes it good base for exploring the natural wonders in the northern part of the state.
Kingman was established as a railroad town in the 1880s, and soon grew thanks to mining in the surrounding area. Historic Route 66 passes right through town, Kingman is the westernmost Arizona town on the so-called “mother road.” Andy Devine, one of the early stars of western movies, is from Kingman. To celebrate this celluloid hero, the portion of Route 66 that goes trough the center of town is known as “Andy Devine Avenue.”
Today Kingman has a real “road trip” feel, and celebrates its motoring and railroad heritage. The cool multi-purpose Visitor Center is in an old converted power station. You’ll also find the Arizona Route 66 Museum and museum of electric vehicles there. Across the street in Locomotive Park train geeks will love the ogling historic old steam engine #3579. And there is no shortage of Route 66 photo-ops: the logo is displayed all over town on signs and painted on the street.
Two things distinguish Williams: Route 66 and the Grand Canyon. Williams describes itself as “the best preserved stretch of Route 66.” It was the last town on the “mother road” to be bypassed by Interstate 40 (in 1984), so it really hung on to its Route 66 identity. The center of town, with its diners, motels and shops is a designated National Historic District.
Williams is also the town nearest to the main entrance of Grand Canyon National Park (about 50 miles due north), which makes it a great base for exploring the area. The town is the headquarters of the Grand Canyon Historic Railway and Hotel. Because of its close proximity to the park, many Grand Canyon tour operators are based in Williams. Kaibab National Forest surrounds the town, with plenty hiking, biking and fishing opportunities for outdoor lovers.
For anyone who has ever listened to a Classic Rock radio station and heard the lyrics, “well I’m standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona . . . ” Yep, this is the place! This small Arizona town along old Route 66 has capitalized on the Jackson Browne/Glenn Frey song made famous by The Eagles. Get your 70s rock fix at “Standin’ on a Corner Park,” where there’s even (you knew this was coming!) a flatbed Ford.
Winslow’s other claim to fame is the La Posada Hotel, one of the original Fred Harvey railroad hotels designed by Mary Colter along the Santa Fe railroad line. Current owners renovated and reopened the southwestern style luxury property in 1997. Today it contains a top-notch restaurant and art gallery in addition to comfy guest rooms. It makes an elegant old-world stopover while cruisin’ Route 66.
Central Arizona Small Towns
Cottonwood sits alongside the Verde River in the valley just north of Jerome. Due to its location along a river, Cottonwood is unique among small Arizona towns in that it began its life as a farming community in the late 1800s. The cute main street has a midcentury feel. Our first visit to Cottonwood in 2013 showed a town with “good bones” but not a lot going on. However, recent visits show that the town has really come into its own. Shops, cafes and restaurants now fill the once empty storefronts.
Cottonwood has stayed true to its agricultural roots. The town’s other draw is the Verde Valley Wine Trail. Rows of grape vines grace the gently sloping hills surrounding Cottonwood. Over 20 wineries and tasting rooms are open for sampling in and around the town.
Globe was founded in the 1870s on copper mining and cattle, and both are still important industries today. This central Arizona small town is equidistant from Phoenix and Tucson and makes a nice day trip or weekend destination. Take a walking tour of the historic downtown. Visit the Gila County Historical Museum and explore the work of local artists at the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts (housed in the former courthouse).
Sitting in the middle of the Tonto National Forest, Globe is near several native American historic sites, such as the Tonto National Monument (cliff dwellings), as well as Besh Ba Gowah Archaelogical Park. The 3,500-foot elevation transitions between saguaro-filled desert and ponderosa pine forest. Wildflower lovers come to Globe for some spectacular natural displays.
Jerome is a unique former copper mining town that’s now a great destination for visitors. Climb up Cleopatra Hill on a single twisty road to get there. As a result, the view of the surrounding valley is spectacular. You can even see many of Sedona’s red rock formations in the distance.
Jerome once had so many saloons it was called “The Wickedest Town in America.” Now you can brows in funky shops and wet your whistle at atmospheric bars and restaurants. Planning on whoopin’ it up old-tyme miner style during a night on the town? We recommend staying in one of the cute Bed & Breakfasts. You certainly won’t want to tackle the drive down that mountain late at night.
Prescott is charming. A classic old courthouse anchors the central square. (Remember the old Back to the Future movies?) Pretty Victorian homes and cottages line the downtown streets. Surrounding the square are restaurants, boutiques, antique shops, cafes and western wear outfitters. Visit historic “Whiskey Row,” so called because that’s where all the “hootin’ & hollerin'” happened. Today you can still do a bit of hootin’ & hollerin’ on Whiskey Row, and get your Western on . . . many of the bars feature live music.
That western atmosphere is legit: Prescott is also home to the world’s oldest rodeo, with the grounds about a half mile northwest of downtown. Nearby Prescott National Forest and Watson Lake State Park provide plenty of opportunity for outdoor pursuits.
Southern Arizona Small Towns
Bisbee, Arizona was established in 1876 as copper mining town tucked away in the Mule Mountains southeastern part of Arizona. The mine is no longer operational, but Bisbee has now transformed itself into a cool and funky destination with a sort of “Victorian-meets-Midcentury” kind of vibe.
Learn how copper helped shape both the town⏤and the nation⏤at the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, and then see the real deal underground on a Queen Mine Tour. Browse in Bisbee’s many art galleries, and spend the night (or 3) at one of the town’s picturesque bed and breakfasts.
Patagonia is a small town nestled high in the Santa Rita Mountains, about an hour southeast of Tucson. Once a mining town, Patagonia today is focused on cattle ranching and recreation. The wine growing region of Sonoita is just a few miles north.
The Sonoita Creek flows through Patagonia year round (a rarity in Arizona’s dry climate). As a result, the region is a popular flyway for many unique types of birds⏤and is a great spot for birdwatchers. Downtown Patagonia has a few funky art galleries, shops and cafes. The town’s high altitude (4,500 feet) keeps it cool in the summer, and many visitors like to stay for a week, enjoying nearby Patagonia Lake State Park, or ropin’ and ridin’ at the historic Circle Z Ranch.
It would be hard to get more “Old West” than the Arizona town of Tombstone. This is where the famous “Shootout at the OK Corral” took place with the Earp brothers & Doc Holliday pitted agains the Clanton-McLaury gang. But there’s a lot more to Tombstone, including its rich silver mining history, and clashes with the Apaches.
Tombstone has done much to preserve its Old West atmosphere. The main street is still dirt, and cars have to share the road with horses! There are plenty of western wear shops, restaurants and saloons. Historic sights include the Birdcage Theater and Tombstone Courthouse. But be sure to allow some time to see the “shootout:” it’s re-enacted daily.
Tubac is a small Arizona town about 50 miles south of Tucson that today is a thriving artist colony. Unlike most Arizona small towns, the history of Tubac predates mining and cattle. Because of its location along the Santa Cruz River, it was a settlement for native tribes. Many of these native tribes greeted the Spanish Missionaries when they arrived in the late 1600s.
History buffs should visit Tumacacori National Historic Park just outside of town. Here, hundreds of years and layers of history mingle together, incorporating Native Peoples, Spanish Missionaries and Mexican and American soldiers. Tubac’s multiple art galleries line the sleepy streets of Tubac. The Tubac Center of the Arts hosts rotating exhibits, art workshops and performances.
Yuma is a small Arizona town in the extreme southwest corner of the state. Sitting along the banks of the Colorado River made Yuma a strategic location in the 18th and 19th centuries. Initially it was missionaries who traveled this route. Passing through Yuma became one of the fastest ways to get out west during the California Gold Rush.
Today visitors to Yuma can get the feel of a real “old west” town by visiting the historic downtown. The center of town really took off during the gold rush years. Yuma was also home to the Yuma Territorial Prison, which is now a state park. (The prison figured largely in the classic Western movie 3:10 to Yuma). Visit the Colorado River State Historic Park to learn about the importance of the crossing throughout the past few centuries.
These Arizona small towns help to tell the fascinating history of the state. They all sit amid Arizona’s fabulous scenery, under those magnificent blue skies. The combination makes them each of them a great destination for a few days’ excursion.