It’s easy to forget how arduous a 60 mile journey was 150 years ago. We live in a world where information from 60 or even 6,000 miles away can be “oh, so 23 seconds ago!” Similar communication took days or weeks to arrive just a few decades ago. The high road between Sedona and Prescott leads one on a dramatic 63-mile geographic journey. The red rocks shimmering in the late afternoon sun recede in my rearview mirror. Climbing high, the road twists through the perilously perched mining town of Jerome – a town that really needs its own blog – before winding back down into the mile-high town of Prescott. Adjacent to the Yavapai Reservation, the discovery of gold sowed its seeds, and the politics of the Civil War fueled its growth. Prescott became the Territorial capital of Arizona in 1864.
Badly needing funds, Abraham Lincoln sent soldiers to protect the gold miners whose work directly supported the Union’s treasury. Concerned that Arizona’s southern latitude encouraged Confederate sympathies, congress encouraged the migration of loyal Union families from the Northeast and Midwest. They flocked to the area, which is surrounded by the world’s largest grove of Ponderosa Pine. Naturally, friction between Native Americans and the interlopers ensued. With the influx of settlers, the timber industry grew, so in spite of the Capital’s move to Phoenix, the town continued to prosper. The architecture of the homes reflects northeastern aesthetics, but Prescott is a real western mining town, and reputedly supported 200+ saloons by 1900. I enjoyed local beer at the Palace, the oldest saloon, originally built in 1877.
My Prescott experience began with a visit to the Smoki Museum. The museum displays a deep collection of Native artifacts and artworks. Equally fascinating was the story behind the “Smoki”, colorfully described by a volunteer. They weren’t a little known tribe; the Smoki arose in 1921 as a fundraising tactic by citizens – a bunch of white guys – to save the old Prescott Rodeo. These guys dressed up, painted their skin red, and staged their version of the Hopi Snake Dance. Appalling today, the dances were immensely popular, ultimately overshadowing the rodeo. Over time, the Smoki members shifted their focus to preservation of a disappearing culture. Sounds like politically correct language, because they continued the dances until 1990! Prescott owes its wealth of historic preservation to Sharlott Hall, Arizona’s first Territorial Historian. She understood the importance of preserving not only the buildings, but a record of the lives and circumstances that catapulted a tiny rural outpost to the Territorial Capital and beyond.
The city is flanked by forest with a multitude of hiking trails for all skill levels. Everyone I talked to recommended the Thumb Butte Trail. Picking up a map at a local hiking store, the trail starts off at ~ 5600 feet, and offers an inspiring, but not too hard 3.5 mile loop about halfway up the rocky butte. Much of the path going up is accessible paved in asphalt with handrails on the steeper sections. The view of Prescott in the valley and the surrounding forest is breathtaking. With spring blooms peaking, the hike was also surprisingly fragrant! Granite Basin, a few miles northwest, contains several short and longer trails and is close to where gold was initially discovered. Since my stop in Prescott was not originally scheduled, my time in the area was limited, so I’ll have to explore the Granite Creek Basin next time.
Sedona and Prescott – only 63 miles apart – encompass similar ancient settlement history, but the landscapes of each are distinct and therefore each place drew settlers for distinctly different reasons, creating two unique cultures.
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