Story and photos by Niki D’Andrea
Known as “The Heart of the Verde Valley,” Cottonwood packs a lot of culture into a so-called small town (pop. 12,000). Art galleries, antique shops, book stores, wine tasting rooms and restaurants line Main Street (aka the commercial historic district), and parks populate the surrounding Verde Valley, from state parks to out-of-this-world animal attractions.
Down on Main Street
Cottonwood boasts quite possibly the best Main Street in all of Arizona. People stroll along its shaded sidewalks every weekend all year-round, window shopping and stopping in a variety of unique local businesses.
Antique lovers – or anyone who appreciates big, fun and funky displays – should check out Larry’s Antiques (larrysantiques.com). The old West-looking, wood-shingle-covered building is impossible to miss – it’s covered in antique signs and wacky outdoor decor like a fake skeleton in the driver’s seat of a rusty ancient car. Enhancing the frozen-in-time vibe is Bing’s Burger Station (bingsburgers.com), located next to Larry’s. Located in a refurbished 1940s gas station, the popular diner retains its service station roots – two Gilmore gas pumps are out front, with a red 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe Sedan permanently parked next to them.
A short walk down the street, pedestrians can peruse and sample various vinegars and olive oils from around the world at Verde Valley Olive Oil Traders (vvoliveoil.com). Local art including jewelry, clothing, paintings and pottery exclusively fills places like Dragonfly Handcrafted Local Art (dragonflylocalart.com) and Hart of Arizona Art Gallery (hartofazgallery.com). Book lovers will delight in the epic Adventures Unlimited Books (adventuresunlimitedbooks.com), which stocks thousands of tomes on topics ranging from aliens to zen, plus hiking guides, New York Times best sellers, children’s books and pulp paperbacks. There are many more shopping options, from a flower shop to a quilting supply store.
There’s no shortage of food options on Main Street, either. About 18 different restaurants dot the strip and surrounding streets. Highlights include Thai Palace (thaipalaceaz.com), Nic’s Italian Steak & Crab House (nicsaz.com), and Pizzeria Bocce (boccecottonwood.com) for dinner. For breakfast, two places offer equally great eats – Old Town Red Rooster Café (oldtownredrooster.com), which serves hot breakfast classics in a cozy diner environment, and Crema (cremacafe89a.com), which sells drinks and delicious pastries from its walk-up-only window.
If one is exploring the Verde Valley for any length of time or wishes to imbibe at any (or several) of the wine tasting rooms that line Main Street, getting a room at one of the lodgings in Old Town is a good idea. The largest hotel on Main is The Tavern Hotel (thetavernhotel.com), which has an embedded bar and grill, followed by the historical Cottonwood Hotel (cottonwoodhotel.com), where John Wayne once stayed. The newest hotel on the strip is The Iron Horse Inn (ironhorseoldtown.com), a boutique renovation with a young vibe and courtyard lit by a canopy of holiday lights. Rooms at all three tend to fill up fast, so booking in advance is recommended.
Thanks to its semi-arid climate and access to the water of the Verde River, The Verde Valley is a thriving wine region. More than a dozen wineries operate in the area, and Main Street is home to nine tasting rooms. That’s too many to visit in one day, but four is a manageable number, especially spread over several hours. Must-stops are Arizona Stronghold (azstronghold.com), which offers gourmet grilled skewers in addition to its Cochise County wines; Burning Tree Cellars (burningtreecellars.com), which sells wines with grapes from various places, but mostly California and Arizona; Pillsbury Wine (pillsburywine.com), which makes wine with only 100 percent Arizona grapes; and Merkin Vineyards Osteria (merkinvineyardsosteria.com), owned by musician and winemaker Maynard James Keenan.
Verde Canyon Railroad
The Verde River winds its way through and around Cottonwood and surrounding towns like Clarkdale, creating a lush riparian area. One of the best ways to see the river – along with several other very cool things – is aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad. The train takes passengers inside its namesake canyon and past several interesting landmarks, including the old TAPCO power plant, some Sinagua Indian ruins and two trestle bridges, as well as through a 680-foot tunnel that was built by a crew of Swedes in 1911. The train makes a short stop and turns around in the ghost town of Perkinsville. Built in 1912 by the Santa Fe Railroad, Perkinsville had at its peak 12 families. The town was rapidly abandoned when the Clarkdale copper smelter closed in the early 1950s. A few scenes from the 1962 film How the West Was Won were shot in Perkinsville, with stars George Peppard, Debbie Reynolds and Eli Wallach being filmed in the depot.
While aboard the train, passengers can relax in their cars, which have cushioned seats, bathrooms, bars and, in first class, a buffet and beverage services, or passengers can walk to one of the open-air observation cars to take in the fresh air and listen to guides shout about the landscape and local history over the roaring locomotive. Verde Canyon Railroad has a partnership with rescue and rehabilitation organization Liberty Wildlife, so some train rides might include a special guest like a bald eagle, which handlers take through the cars and show to passengers, who can pose for photos with the majestic bird.
It’s worth arriving for the train early to spend some time in the train depot, which includes a museum full of railroad artifacts and memorabilia, a shop and a restaurant called the Copper Spike Café, which serves a pretty good bowl of chicken tortilla soup and tasty cheeseburgers that pair well with any of the three railroad-themed beers brewed for them by Oak Creek Brewing in Sedona.
Verde Canyon Railroad has special events including nighttime Starlight Rides, Ales on Rails with Sedona craft beers and (new this year) winter train excursions to a holiday village they’re building in the desert. Visit verdecanyonrr.com for details.
Dead Horse Ranch State Park
History buffs can hit up Cottonwood’s Clemenceau Heritage Museum (celemenceaumuseum.com), Tuzigoot National Monument (www.nps.gov.tuzi/index.htm) and the Arizona Copper Art Museum in Clarkdale (copperartmuseum.com), but fans of fishing, camping, hiking and horseback riding can find their thing at Dead Horse Ranch State Park (azstateparks.com/dead-horse).
The ranch was originally owned by the Ireys family, who bought the land in 1953 and let the children name it. The story goes that the family visited various ranches and when they got to this one, the children saw a large dead horse lying in the field. Later, when their father asked which ranch they liked best, the children replied, “Dead Horse Ranch.”
The Ireys family sold the ranch to the State of Arizona in 1973 to become a state park. Today it covers 423 acres, with 10 miles of hiking trails and 183 camping sites.
Out of Africa Wildlife Park
There’s no place in Arizona – maybe anywhere – like Out of Africa Wildlife Park. People come from all over the world to see its menagerie of animals up close and on safari tours. There are giraffes, lions, tigers, bears, birds, monkeys, otters, snakes, zebras, camels, cattle, even a sloth and a rhinoceros. But it’s not just the abundance of animals that makes this place special – it’s the adventures and encounters people can have with the animals.
Out of Africa offers a VIP tour that’s conducted by one of the owners and takes visitors behind the scenes on a three-hour tour to places in the park not otherwise seen. It includes lunch with animal encounters (maybe a big lizard or a hedgehog), and seats at the Tiger Splash show. After the show, line up for your chance to feed a tiger.
Dean and Prayeri Harrison founded Out of Africa in 1988, and they are both always around the park, giving tours, helping with shows, feeding the animals, etc. The couple started the wildlife refuge with the “single-minded objective of bringing God, people, and animals together,” according to outofafricapark.com, and many of the animals in the park have Biblical names. The Harrisons are super friendly and love to talk to visitors about the animals, nature and conservation.
Unimog Tours give visitors an African safari vibe. Ziplines let adventurers soar over the park, flying high above the wildlife and tour vehicles below. And starting May 19, Out of Africa will offer “Campout at the Park” experiences, which include the Tiger Splash, Cobra Encounter, an ice cream social, story time with the park founders, a movie and breakfast. Food is available at The Jungle Hut Eatery and a few snack stands throughout the park. Shuttle stops provide shade while people wait for a bus from one part of the 104-acre park to another. There’s so much to see and do here. It’s packed with activity and life, like Cottonwood itself.