Cottonwood, AZ: Horsin’ Around at Dead Horse

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to stay at a place named “Dead Horse”?  Sales experts around the world shudder at this marketing faux pas, but we were intrigued.  Why is it dead?  And like Michael Jackson or Prince, why was its death so noteworthy as to be commemorated over 423 acres of prime real estate with naming rights and a gift shop?

We’ve been checking out some of the Arizona State Parks this year, and so the quest continued at Dead Horse Ranch State Park.  (Since last summer, we’ve also stayed at Lost Dutchman, Usery Pass, and Picacho Peak — all in the state or regional parks system.)  We swallowed our queasiness at the name and headed out for the short 109-mile journey to Cottonwood, situated in the Verde Valley with great views of Jerome up on the hill.

Dead Horse has lots of great hiking trails, is biking distance to Old Town Cottonwood, and is located right along the Verde River.  (“ENOUGH DESCRIPTIVE VERBAGE!  Tell us ‘Why is it called Dead Horse!?”) 

Well, it goes like this: The Ireys family came to Arizona to buy a ranch in the 1940’s.  At one, they found a large dead horse lying by the road.  After two days of ranch-viewing, the dad asked the kids which one they liked best.  “The one with the dead horse, Dad!”  In 1973, when Arizona State Parks bought the property, the Ireys made retaining the name a condition of sale.

There are beautiful stocked lagoons for strolling, fishing and picknicking.  

Multiple hiking trails and loops lead right out from the campground.  Most connect with other trails and are shaded.  On one that used to be a wagon trail, we saw the remains of a historic lime kiln (below) which was used to burn local limestone, an essential ingredient for mortar used in chimneys and fireplaces for homes from Sedona to Jerome, between which the trail ran in the 1800’s.

(Living) wildlife is abundant at (Dead) Horse, including over 100 species of birds, everything from the common quail to egrets and even bald eagles.  A Birding and Nature Festival was going on this weekend (Birdy Verde) so we had lots of experts, with dorky hats and binoculars the size of your couch, to help us spot them.

But not all of the wildlife was to be found at Dead Horse.  Nearby Out of Africa Wildlife Park showcases exotic animals in large, natural habitats.  Although they had plenty of room to roam, the layout of the park allowed us to get very up-close to most of them.

Out of Africa has a number of different shows, but their most popular is the awwwww-inspiring Tiger Splash show, where a gorgeous white tiger is tempted into splashing into a shallow swimming pool for maximum cuteness.  Afterwards, you can step right up and feed him some tasty steak bites … at least they said they were steak.  What if they were Dead Horse??  (sorry, I couldn’t resist)

Old Town Cottonwood is a charming small collection of shops, cafes, galleries and wine tasting rooms situated along charming Main Street. We pedaled our bikes on over for a nice afternoon.

The animated lady to Philip’s left in the photo below was part of the Birding Festival at Dead Horse and described in great detail how she had just observed a male “raptor” (presumably a bird and not a dinosaur) swoop down,grab a field rat, strip it of its skin and all the gross bits, and leave it on a tree branch as a romantic offering to his woman raptor.  Philip took the hint and quickly ordered me a cheese plate to go with my wine. 

We stepped back in time with a visit to Blazin’ M Ranch, where a succession of corny Western activities and amusements were surprisingly well done and enjoyable.  The food at the chuckwagon dinner was scrumptious and the ranch was impeccably kept.  Musical entertainment had us using terms like “rustlin’ up” and “tumblin’ tumbleweeds” for the rest of the night.

Our visit coincided with Earth Day, so it was only fitting that it concluded with a spectacular Full Moon and a sky full of stars, right from our campground.  

Our Dead Horse weekend was delightful, but Lost Dutchman is still our favorite Arizona State Park thus far.  Our next adventure will be a return to Lake Pleasant Marina for Memorial Day, a decidedly less peaceful locale on a long holiday weekend but lots and lots of rowdy fun!  Shortly thereafter, on to Canada for our six-week adventure in the Canadian Rockies!  

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