There is a mystical kind of beauty attached to a broad desert landscape and as my horse Molly meandered down a rocky path in the Sonoran Desert, I couldn’t imagine a better way to become acquainted with this unique area of Arizona.
There is something peaceful and down-to-earth about experiencing a place on horseback. While your horse conveys you across the landscape, you are transported back in time to an era far removed from the fast pace of a modern world.
This is particularly true if you are riding in the desert near Goldfield Ghost Town, as we were. The entire point of this tourist attraction is to take you back in time to the 1890s, when the town of Goldfield was in its heyday.
Goldfield was a classic boom-and-bust gold mine town. In 1895, the community accommodated 1,500 residents, rivalling nearby Mesa in size. When the vein of gold in the local mine started to play out and the grade of ore began to drop, the town died nearly as fast as it had formed.
Visitors today can explore the ghost town and take a journey into the Sonoran Desert that surrounds it.
Located in the shadows of the Superstition Mountains and the Goldfield Mountains, this region of the Sonoran is particularly awe-inspiring.
Although you would imagine that little could survive on such parched ground, the desert is amazingly alive. Plants, animals and indigenous people survived and even thrived in this area long before there were modern conveniences like electricity and running water.
Some of the plants that grow here can be found nowhere else in the world. The Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world where the giant tree-like saguaro cactus (carnegiea gigantea) grows in the wild and these massive cacti are one of the most notable features of the landscape.
In the Sonoran Desert, everyone is a cactus expert and we had many locals who were eager to tell us about their famous saguaro cacti.
On the 30-minute ride from Mesa to Goldfield, our bus driver identified a particularly large saguaro cactus and told us he could tell that this particular cactus was at least a century old. He explained that it takes about 70 years for a saguaro to develop a sidearm and since this specimen had more than one large arm, it was at least a century old — if not two.
Later that afternoon as we explored the desert on horseback, another guide showed us a variety of saguaro cacti and explained more about them. In passing, he said that it was a bad idea to hit these enormous cacti with your car — unless you were trying to destroy your vehicle. Saguaro cacti are very efficient at storing water, and hitting a saguaro is like hitting a brick wall. I had the distinct impression he had some personal experience in this area.
Besides providing a beautiful backdrop for a horseback ride, these cacti provide homes to many desert mammals and birds. As we passed close by them on our horses, we would often see large holes where woodpeckers or other creatures had burrowed inside the cacti to seek shelter.
While we rode along, our guide recounted the history of the Goldfield Gold Mine and the rise and fall of the town. We also heard the story of the Dutchman’s Lost Mine, which is said to hold a rich stash of gold and is located somewhere in the Superstition Mountain range. To this day, no one knows where the mine is, but many intrepid explorers have lost their lives or been driven mad trying to find it. The Dutchman’s elusive gold is one of the greatest living legends of the American Southwest.
As our two-hour ride came to an end, I couldn’t help feeling an attachment to this beautiful and rugged desert environment and a sense of peace from having travelled there. Exploring it on horseback was definitely the way to go. Perhaps next time I will go on an overnight pack trip and search for the Dutchman’s lost gold.
About the Sonoran Desert
The Sonoran Desert is incredibly large, covering a total area of about 311,000 square km in Arizona, California and northwest Mexico. In addition to the saguaro cactus, you can find a wide variety of other cacti, including cholla, beavertail, hedgehog, prickly pear, fishhook, night-blooming cereus and organ pipe cactus.
If you go:
• Once an abandoned ghost town, Goldfield is today a well-serviced tourist attraction. Onsite is a railroad ride, a museum, mine tours, a reptile exhibit, gold panning, gift shops, a saloon and a floozy house. Gunfights happen on Saturdays and Sundays between noon and 4 p.m. There is also a livery offering excursions on horseback and a tour company offering guided hiking and jeep tours in the surrounding desert. For more information, visit www.goldfieldghosttown.com.
• Spring is a good time to visit this area of Arizona. During the rainy season in the desert — typically sometime between March and June — the cacti will bloom, displaying showy flowers in reds, pinks, yellows, and whites. The desert gets extremely hot during the summer months of July and August.
• The Goldfield Livery is operated by OK Corrals (www.okcorrals.com; 480-982-0133). You can book one-, two- or four-hour trail rides from the Goldfield Livery site or contact OK Corrals to book overnight pack trips into the Superstition Mountains.
• A visit to Goldfield would not be complete without a stop at the nearby Mining Camp Restaurant. The restaurant serves chicken and ribs and all the fixings family style on picnic tables inside their air-conditioned dining room. A live band plays old-time music and guests eat on tin plates and drink out of tin cups. There is an 11 a.m. seating and a 2 p.m. seating and the cost is $19.95 per adult with discounts available for children and seniors. For more information, visit www.miningcamprestaurant.com or call 480-982-3181.
• For more information on visiting this region of Arizona or to get a free guide, visit www.visitsunnyaz.com or call 866-914-1055.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.