Arizona conjures images of dusty landscapes speckled with prickly, statuesque saguaros, rolling tumbleweeds, and the blazing sun. And though the state is technically still quite young—founded just over a century ago—passers-through still associate it with the gun-slinging showdowns and bombastic gold rush days of the Wild West.
It’s one reason why kitschy ghost towns like Tombstone and Goldfield bring in such huge crowds day after day. What many tourists (and even locals) don’t realize, though, is that Arizona’s most profitable mining town, Vulture City, isn’t too far from either—and it arguably offers a more authentic glimpse into those raucous, gold-happy days.
The first time I visited Vulture City—tucked under the Vulture Mountains just south of Wickenburg—was in 2010, shortly after relocating to the state from Indiana. I’d forgotten to bring cash to pay the $10 admittance fee and panicked, worried I’d have to backtrack all the way to the nearest ATM 20 to 30 minutes away. Instead, the woman at the entrance looked at me and said, “It’s fine. Just mail it to us when you get back home.” (And in good Midwestern form, I did.)
The laissez-faire greeting foreshadowed the rest of my exploration on the dusty grounds. There were no tours, no guides, and no other tourists in sight. Vulture City was legitimately deserted and disheveled, crumbling to the ground in real time before me.
The assay office—which sits as a central fixture in the town and would have housed the team responsible for carefully sorting and analyzing the precious metals—was so dilapidated it felt like a hazard to even peek inside. The rusted, dust-covered machinery still sat in its place from all those decades ago and looked about a few years away from collapse.
Once a prosperous town fundamental to Phoenix’s development, it was clear that Vulture City had been completely abandoned.
Bulldozing history was not an option, so an unconventional deal was cut.
The town wasn’t quite ready to give up, though. In 2012, it was purchased by a group of investors, including Rod Prat, in an attempt to seize on a potential mining opportunity. Over the course of four years, Prat took control of the entire mining operation and the ghost town itself. Shortly thereafter, he was approached by a British entity offering to purchase the property. He agreed, but then got a phone call that changed everything.
“They called and said, ‘You know, just an FYI, we don’t want any of this and we’re probably just going to bulldoze it,’” recalls Robin Moriarty, Prat’s partner who is equally invested in Vulture City.
Bulldozing history was not an option, she says, and so—perhaps with a nod to the Wild West’s lawlessness—an unconventional deal was cut. Prat lowered the price and carved off about 23 acres where the town itself sat in order to preserve the buildings. This meant the town was saved, and the company could continue open-mining on the remainder of the land.
Some buildings weren’t neatly located on the 23 acres, so Prat and Moriarty worked together with the mining crew to relocate them onto the town portion of the land. “For example, the blacksmith shop was relocated, and we moved the old engine over,” says Moriarty. “Both are very iconic pieces for the property.”
A Western revival
With that, project Restore Vulture City was in full effect. They started with the cookhouse and then moved onto the assay building, where the roof had completely caved in.
“Once I saw what the restored building looked like, the vision of what this place could be took over,” says Prat.
From there, it was just a matter of restoring the next building, and then the next. Though it’s still a work-in-progress, they’ve tackled almost every building with help from about a half-dozen contractors, who Prat and Moriarty endearingly refer to as artists. To keep it authentic, they use reference photographs of Vulture City taken in the early 1900s to ensure that the exterior, interior, and even the furniture found on site is as it should be.
Vulture City’s revamp is nearing completion. A couple of buildings are being relocated and restored, and landscaping using native permaculture is underway. The town has come a long way since my first visit in 2010.
“The American Southwest, and this part of American history, is dwindling,” Prat says. “Lots of old mining towns are slowly disappearing, and this one has a really rich, old history. When you do a ghost town, you can go all the way to the reenactments or add a lot of stuff that wasn’t really there. That gives people a feeling for what it might have been like back in those days, but I want this place to be more authentic to the history.”
Though there’s still work to be done, it’s clear that the effort is paying off. Even on the 100-degree Thursday morning I stopped by, a steady stream of visitors drove up the rocky path eager to see what the old ghost town would offer them.
Maybe the notoriously haunted brothel would leave an imprint, or the assay building with its gold vault and secret hideaway, or the old hanging tree where 18 men once met a bitter death for stealing gold ore.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of all, though, is the fact that such history can still be brought back to life after so many years and numerous threats to the town’s existence. Vulture City’s luck clearly hasn’t run dry yet.
If you go
Vulture City is open to the public every day. Visit in the summer from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and in-season from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Two-hour guided tours are offered on weekends at 10 a.m., or you can take a self-guided tour during the week. Paranormal tours are also available, and the property can be booked for weddings and corporate events.