Pleasant, prosperous and wreathed in Old West history, Arizona's desert mountain city of Prescott is the sort of place that instantly sweeps you up in its heart-warming embrace.
After picking up a rental car at Phoenix Airport, it was just a 90 minute drive north up into the central highlands before reaching Prescott. A dusting of late-season snowflakes gently flecked my arrival into this high-altitude town, 5400 feet above sea level, nestled within the wrap-around natural splendour of Prescott National Forest. Liberally laced in hiking and biking trails, Prescott is a tractor-beam for outdoorsy types seeking some soft adventure. It's scenically diverse with low rolling desert studded with rocks and scrub pine, before reaching higher terrain, west and east of town, where the dense mountain forests are carpeted in glorious Ponderosa pine.
If you're feeling extra-intrepid, why not tackle the 80km-long Prescott Circle Trail? Time was against me for such an undertaking, but there's some stunning natural experiences, right on the town's doorstep. Backdropping downtown Prescott, the gnarly basalt crags of Thumb Butte is a striking landmark, and can easily be tackled on-foot on a one hour return hike. It's wildly popular, so set off early to beat the crowds. Strike it lucky and you may spot the peregrine falcons that nest here, before surrendering to the stupendous views which reach as far as the San Francisco Peaks. The diversity of the ecology is as diverse as the terrain within the city limits and another uplifting haunt is Watson Lake.
Just a few minutes' drive from downtown, Watson Lake is part of the Granite Dells, where colossal rounded granite boulders, which feel like sandpaper, rise up like giants from the shoreline. Contrasting with the blue-grey waters of this man-made reservoir and the brownish rocks are the emerald green leaves of aspen trees. It's a soul-rinsing, slightly other-worldly spectacle. Back in the heart of Prescott, similar in size to Hastings, it's the characterful town's head-swirling stash of heritage buildings and Victorian architecture that I was itching to explore. There's over 800 buildings on the National Historic Register.
Grab a Heritage Trail Downtown Map and set off on a self-guided stroll of the essential sites in this very strollable town, radiating out from the verdant oasis of Courthouse Plaza.
As a Christmas tragic from way back, I was excited to discover that this fabulous square turns on the most extravagant festive display, unrivalled in the state, and ushering its rise to being declared Arizona's Christmas City. Over a million lights festoon 100 trees. Lustily ablaze in holiday colour and live entertainment from mid-November, the festivities conclude with the Prescott Boot Drop. Yes, not to be outdone by New York's ball drop, every New Year's Eve sees the dropping of a 6-foot star spangled cowboy boot, across from the plaza in Whisky Row. This time-honoured street was lined with 40 boisterous saloons in the late 19th century, brimming with cowboys and miners. It's still home to The Palace Saloon, reputed to be Arizona's oldest operating business and bar, since first opening in 1877.
A devastating fire razed Whisky Row in 1900. During the fire, saloon patrons picked up the magnificent hand-carved Brunswick bar, carted it out of the burning building, setting it down across the street and continuing to drink. As you do. The saloon was hastily rebuilt, re-opening in 1901, and it's never looked back. Famous faces continue to grace this saloon, as they always have. In fact, prior to the Ok Corral gunfight in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday were regulars here – and there was bloodshed inside the saloon. The Boot Drop takes place off the saloon's roof. Another great haunt is the upstairs Jersey Lily Saloon, with a stirring balcony overlooking the plaza, while Matt's Saloon is great fun too for a tipple or two. On the corner of Whisky Row, the imposing Hotel St. Michael is another old glory and its home to Bistro St. Michael. This restored 1901 bar and eatery beats to a vintage vibe with classic American fare.
Make sure you take a wander in the back alley of Whisky Row where some splendid wall murals chronicle Prescott's history. Seeking your museum fix? Head to Sharlot Hall Museum, an absorbing open-air heritage site which will whisk you through the essential nuggets of the region's history and culture, incorporating the 1864 Governor's Mansion. I also loved the Smoki Museum, five minutes' walk from the plaza, boasting a priceless collection of indigenous artefacts and art, spanning 15,000 years, from Native cultures from across the southwest.
Victorian residential architecture defines much of Prescott's housing stock, with most homes radiating enormous pride in their heritage. Some of the best specimens are in S Cortez Street, just behind the Courthouse Plaza, which is also where you will find the resplendent Hotel Vendome. First opened in 1917, this flavourful boutique property was meticulously restored in the 1980s, overlaying contemporary comforts to its timeless charm. The ornate woodworking, iron radiators and vintage clawfoot tubs are just some of the enduring reminders of its roots. A design focus remains, with an artist in residence programme. But relaxation and comfort is what this gorgeous hotel's ethos is all about, whether your lounging in the upstairs veranda or chilling out on a rocker, on the downstairs porch. It's a winning establishment, exemplifying the spirit of Prescott.
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I flew to Arizona with Hawaiian Airlines, tripping from Auckland to Phoenix via Honolulu. Prescott, like much of Arizona, is beloved for its gold courses, so if you are packing your clubs, Hawaiian Airlines won't charge you for excess baggage, given their generous 2 x 32kg allocation covers gold clubs to. The full-service carrier operates onward from Honolulu to over a dozen U.S mainland destinations, including Boston from April 5. Kiwis love the airline's Extra Comfort upgrade, which provides more legroom, priority boarding, a personal power outlet and amenity kit. Purchase Extra Comfort for just $139 NZD.
Flying Hawaiian Airlines to Honolulu and then connecting onward to the mainland means you can clear border security while channelling tropical island vibes. Onward connections are then considered domestic sectors. Book directly at HawaiianAirlines.co.nz
The USA is one of the most expensive countries in the world to be stranded in a medical emergency. Ensure that all existing medical conditions are declared (including those of children). In many instances, some of these existing medical conditions can be covered free of charge or at an additional premium. Your insurer will be able to assist you with the assessment process. I booked my travel insurance with Cover-More. Their 24 hour global assistance centre is just a phone call away. Call 0800 500 225 or visit www.covermore.co.nz
Located close to Sedona, Phoenix, Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, compact Prescott is a wonderful place to add to an Arizona road trip. Check out the USA's official visitor site at visittheusa.com.au