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It’s easy to forget we’re living in the Wild Wild West. People from all over the world travel to Southern Arizona to experience a bit of our renegade spirit. The cactus, the sunsets, the hats, the steampunk man from Mesa that makes homemade sarsaparilla and calls himself Johnny One Dog. All of it!
So on one spring morning, we (Andi, Nick and Samantha) decided to grab the bull by the horns and take a Western vacation. We started our day in the historic train and ranching town of Benson — whose main street is scattered with Southwestern art and vintage architecture. Then we hit off on Highway 80 through the leafy town of St. David and into the belly of the beast: Tombstone, Arizona.
“Tombstone is a tourist trap!” you say. Hold it right there partner, those are fightin’ words. Tombstone is a theme park with no entrance fee. It’s a quirky street full of memories, enthusiastic actors/re-enactors, and homemade fudge. Even the skeptics will be wowed by the World’s Biggest Rosebush. But if we haven’t sold you yet, read on! We give you tips on how to have a wicked day in this wild west town. Plus, we talk about ribs …
First stop! Head over to Benson in the a.m. and get breakfast at this historic western diner The Horseshoe Cafe
You’ll know you’re there when you see the vintage neon sign in the shape of a big horseshoe. This cowboy diner has been on Benson’s main drag for about 70 years, and will charm you with its horseshoe light ceiling and retro murals from Southwestern artist Vern Parker.
The menu feels contemporary without being fussy gourmet; and you’ve gotta get the giant crispy slab of chicken fried steak. If you’re passing through Benson later in the day and just wanna grab a quick snack, head over to Wild Dogs for Chicago’s finest made with Vienna Beef. This order-at-the-counter hot dog joint also has some funky stuff on the menu like a baked potato stuffed with meaty brisket.
Get local pecans and produce to munch on the road
After you have had your yippee-ki-yay fill of country fried steak, it’s time to hit the road and head east on Arizona Highway 80 to Tombstone. But don’t think you have to giddy-up to your next destination too fast. The road between Benson and Tombstone is a scenic drive that takes you through green foliage and dusty desert landscapes.
Load up on local snacks just a few miles before hitting St. David’s main drag at D&D Pecans Farmers Market. It’s a produce stand that has been selling Arizona-grown pecans, pistachios, seasonal food and jerky for about 25 years.
And if that doesn’t make you want to pull over, how about a 100-year-old nut-cracking machine that happily turns out cracked pecans. With its little gears and and tiny rotating conveyor belt, it’s pretty adorable to watch. D&D also ships its products all over the country and can make deliveries to your door if you live in Tucson.
Enjoy the peaceful scenery of St. David and go for a walk to the San Pedro River
On the road between St. David and Tombstone, one object sure to catch your eye is a giant Celtic cross that rises above the cottonwood and pecan trees. The large structure is part of the Holy Trinity Monastery of our Lady Guadalupe, which has been a retreat and community space since 1974. In 2017 it lost its status as an active monastery, however several monks still live onsite and volunteers work to maintain the integrity of the grounds.
Take some time to walk around around the monastery. It’s free and a beautiful space to wander as it has a pecan orchard, chapel, gardens, pond and a gift shop.
If you have the time, be sure to take the 1.3 mile bird sanctuary trail to the San Pedro River. We felt like we were traveling through the woods on the way to Grandma's house for a second as we walked past thick brush to get to the river — totally not what you would expect on a journey out west.
Holy Trinity Monastery of our Lady Guadalupe /Address: 1605 S. Saint Marys Way, St. David / Hours: Grounds are open to visitors daily. Office hours are available from 9 a.m. to noon. The bookstore is open on the weekdays and some Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon and 2-4 p.m. / Cost: Visiting the grounds is free 😊 / Contact: 520-720-4642, holytrinitymonastery.com
Start your Tombstone experience by visiting the Boothill Graveyard
OK, OK, we know you haven’t done anything super “touristy” up to this point, but that’s all about to change buckaroo — now we’re in the lawless (but family friendly) land of Tombstone.
Known as the “Town too tough to die!” Tombstone was founded by a prospecter named Ed Schieffelin in 1877 after he discovered silver near Goose Flats. Shortly after, the area transformed into a boomtown and remained a happening place till the 1930s when the mining dried up. This is also where the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” took place on October 26, 1881.
Before you enter this Western wonderland, check out the Tombstone Boothill Gift Shop and Graveyard located on the outskirts of town. This cemetery was the burial spot for some of Tombstone’s early pioneers in the late 1800s. Here you can get an idea of the people who made up this community in the early days. From outlaws to townsfolk, they’re buried here.
For $3 you can walk around the wooden tombstones and receive a paper guide that includes information about most of the people who were put to rest here.
Tombstone Boothill Gift Shop and Graveyard /Address: 408 Arizona Highway 80, Tombstone / Hours: Open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. / Cost: $3 to enter the graveyard, children under 15 get in free. / Contact: 520-457-3300, tombstoneboothillgiftshop.com
Have a Wild West lunch at Puny John's BBQ
Down the street they’ll serve you a ribeye steak, but Puny John’s goes the casual route with inexpensive barbecue classics like brisket and pulled pork sandwiches. (Every table seemed to have one!)
We went whole hog with a half rack of seasoned St. Louis ribs, which fell off the bone before we could even shove them in our mouths. The sizable plate came with some saucy beans and a vibrant coleslaw; so we hit the sauce table for a cup of prickly pear, hot habanero and A$$ of Fire sauce. Yup, that one’s got ghost pepper in it ...
Puny John's BBQ / Address:11 S. Fourth Street, Tombstone / Hours: Open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed on Wednesday. / Price range: $$ / Contact: 520-457-2396, punyjohnsbbq.com
See the the largest rose tree in the world!
While you’re walking down Allen Street, follow your nose to the world’s largest rose tree located just around the corner on 4th street. When in bloom, this 133-year-old rose tree sends floral fragrances in the air for locals and tourist to take in — better than horse poop, right?
Held up by wooden posts and wire, the branches of the tree covers 5,000 square feet and the trunk is 14 feet in diameter. It all takes up the backyard of a former boarding house turned southwest museum that’s open to visitors daily.
Every spring when the flowers are are peak show, Tombstone hosts a rose tree festival that includes parades, performances, a pancake breakfast, high tea, and the coronation of the yearly Rose Queen. This year it’s all set to take place Friday, April 6 to Sunday, April 8. Take a look at the schedule here.
Rose Tree Museum and Bookstore /Address: 118 S. Fourth Street, Tombstone / Hours: Open Sunday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. / Cost: $5 for general admission into the grounds and museum. Children under 14 get in free. Pro tip: Use your ticket to get a discount off of stuff at theOld Tombstone Wild West Theme Park and trolley tour. / Contact: 520-457-3326, tombstonerosetree.com
Grab a bottle of local sarsaparilla
We’d heard some hubbub about the sarsaparilla and figured people were talking about that Sioux City stuff; but low and behold, this town makes its own! The gregarious Johnny One Dog — yes that’s his name around here — created his own recipe and has this old timey drink brewed up for him by an unnamed microbrewery. He sells the stuff in bottles from a little garage area tucked off the main Allen Road. It tastes like a really good root beer.
Tombstone Sarsaparilla / Address: S. Third Street, Tombstone (Between Allen and Fremont Street) / Hours: Johnny One Dog is at his shop most days. His hours are listed as "From about, till around." Be sure to give him a ring if you miss him. / Price range: $ / Contact: 480-209-5996
Tour one of the oldest buildings in Tombstone and learn about its rowdy past
Don’t let the clean streets and cheerful cowboys of 2018 fool you, Tombstone was built by vigilantes and people who weren't afraid to get a little dirty, and nowhere is that better represented than at the Birdcage Theater.
Built in 1881, the Bird Cage Theater was a 24-hour brothel in its heyday. It’s said 26 people died at the Bird Cage during this time and more than 140 bullet holes can be spotted throughout the building, according to the theater’s history. It’s truly is a rough-and-tumble space.
Today, you can take daily self-guided tours of the Bird Cage Theater and get a close glimpse into the past as most of the theater’s architecture and objects have been preserved.
Some notable things to look out for: the original Bird Cage piano, a stagecoach hearse estimated at $2 million, and the card table where the longest poker game ever took place. (Eight years!)
And for all you ghoulies heading to Tombstone, there are evening ghost tours you can take to learn about the haunted history of the Bird Cage. Sounds like spooky fun to us!
The Bird Cage Theater / Address: 535 E. Allen Street / Hours: Open daily for self-guided tours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. A family ghost tour starts at 6:15 p.m. and an adult ghost tour starts at 8 p.m. / Cost: Self-guided tours are $12 per person, $11 for seniors, $10 for kids ages 8 to 18, and children under 7 are free. Ghost tour is $20 per person / Contact: 520-457-3421, tombstonebirdcage.com
Dress like the people of Tombstone's past
If you went to Tombstone and didn’t get an old timey photo with your BFF, did it ever happen? How else would you know what you looked like as a saloon lady or Wyatt Earp? Luckily you’ll never have to ponder such deep questions as there are a few portrait studios in town to help you with your western wear dreams.
Our pick is Lady L’s Creations. Their studio has a fun and spacious vibe to it as it recently moved in to the former Tombstone general store spot on Allen Street.
Photo packages start around $20 and there are several western scenes and outfits to choose from.
Lady L's Creations / Address:516 E. Allen Street, Tombstone / Hours: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. / Cost: Photo packages range from $21 to $73.50. Get a list of their prices here. / Contact: 520-457-8164, ladylscreations.com
Grab a pint at the local watering hole, Tombstone Brewing Company
This isn’t the kind of place you’d expect in Wild West town; it doesn’t smell like dirt, it smells like cereal grain, and they have English barleywine on the menu. With its high-ceilinged industrial look and its tucked-away location, Tombstone Brewing Company is a serious operation that has more than a hundred beers to its name.
We saddled up to the Fruit Salad Sour, which was brewed with more than 800 pounds of fresh peaches, blueberries and strawberries. (It sounds super sweet, but it was actually fairly light and well-balanced for its bright pink hue.)
Explore your fudgy side at Fallen Angel Sweet Sin Parlor
This homey little market is next door to The Bird Cage Theatre, and boy is it a treat! We happened upon Fallen Angel by accident after the big bricks of fudge caught our eyes through the window.
There are more than 50 varieties of the stuff, but you wanna order whatever they’re bringing out from the oven. We saw them cut two fresh bricks of coconut almond and turtle pecan during the five minutes we were in the store. They were so soft and decadent; fabulous! Also try the bright green pistachio if you’re into the obscure stuff. It had a pleasing nutty flavor.
Fallen Angel Sweet Sin Parlor /Address: 525 E. Allen Street, Tombstone / Hours: Open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. / Price range: $ / Contact: 520-457-3057
Visit the grave of Tombstone’s founder
About three miles west of town near the Tombstone Monument Ranch Wild West town, you’ll find this giant pyramid in honor of Tombstone’s founder Ed Schieffelin. The Pennsylvania native founded the city as a mining town during the gold rush in 1879. And legend has it, his will dictated that he should be “buried in the dress of a prospector, my old pick and canteen with me” with a monument to mark the spot. Ed’s pyramid is 25-feet tall and quite a sight. We suggest going at sunset when the rolling hills take on a rosy hue.
Ed Schieffelin Monument / Address: 895 W. Monument Road / Hours: Open to visitors from sunrise to sunset / Cost: Free