PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Any driving holiday in Arizona is bound to include a road trip north of Phoenix to the majestic southern rim of the Grand Canyon or the spiritual red rock country of Sedona.
But to really take in the history of this Wild West state, you must take a detour off the northbound interstate and head to the watering hole of fabled lawman Wyatt Earp, brother Virgil and friend Doc Holliday.
The oldest frontier bar in Arizona (some say west of Mississippi) is located in the landmark Palace Hotel in the mile-high city of Prescott, about a 90-minute drive northwest of Phoenix and an hour south of Sedona.
The classy Palace Hotel and Saloon opened in 1877 on rowdy Whiskey Row, a red-light district sporting 26 saloons in one city block. A scene from the movie Billy Jack was filmed in the hotel nearly a hundred years later in 1971.
Prescott (pronounced Preskit) was designated the first capital of the Arizona Territory in 1864 and incorporated into Arizona in 1881. Phoenix would become the permanent capital 25 years later.
This small, hilltop city of 42,000 residents is nestled in the Bradshaw Mountains of central Arizona. The drive from Phoenix offers a scenic lesson in the state's physiographic regions: You'll be leaving the poky mountains dotting the desert plains in the south for the semi-arid, red rock country to the north.
As you begin the gentle 1,600-metre ascent of the mountainous terrain, you can see 100-year-old, multi-armed saguaro cacti sunning themselves on the south-facing hillsides. But the desert cacti and shrubs finally give way to sagebrush and green pine trees in the higher elevations.
Cruising over the ear-popping escarpment at 65 m.p.h. (105 km/h), it's hard to imagine cowboys on horseback or wagon trains of settlers navigating the series of rugged mountain ranges without getting hopelessly lost in yet another valley or plateau.
Wyatt Earp said it best in the movie of the same name when describing the vast frontier to his Missouri wife: You could ride all day to some mountain and never get close.
Gold prospectors apparently crossed this northern part of Arizona successfully on their way to California in 1849, and by 1863, had found their way back to settle in Prescott.
Earp first rode into Prescott (on an assigned trail) as a young teamster transporting cargo from Wilmington, Calif., between 1866 and 1868. He would return to drink at the Palace Bar with his brother Virgil, who moved with his wife to Prescott in the late 1870s.
His reputation as a fearless lawman grew from his years of peacekeeping in Wichita and Dodge City, Kan. It was only a few years later his two brothers and Doc would be wounded in the infamous shootout at the OK Corral on Oct. 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Ariz.
In all his gunfighting years, Wyatt himself never took a bullet, sealing his reputation as one of the toughest and deadliest gunmen in the Old West.
Once you reach the basin of Prescott Valley, follow the signs to Whiskey Row in the city's historic downtown district. Don't be surprised by the Victorian-style homes. Oddly enough, this western frontier town is noted for its late 19th-century New England architecture.
The Palace Hotel is across the street from the stately elm-shaded Courthouse Plaza. Back in July 1900, the hotel was destroyed by a fire that ripped through the wood-framed buildings along the raucous saloon-filled street.
As the story goes, thirsty patrons took their drinks across to the courthouse square and watched their downtown burn. As the fire approached the Palace Hotel, patrons carried the massive, mirrored 1880s Brunswick back bar into the street and carried on drinking with the other salon patrons.
The Palace Hotel reopened a year later and has since been restored to its 1901 grandeur.
Today you can follow the local urban cowboys through the swinging saloon doors and order up a drink at the original bar where mineral claims were bought and sold more than 100 years ago, or sit down for lunch at the wooden blackjack table.
While you're there, check out the many glass-encased artifacts around the restaurant. There's even a replica of the extra-long-barrelled six-gun revolver Earp is said to have used, framed on the wall next to the open safe.
Stroll down Whiskey Row, where many of the historic buildings have been converted into boutiques, art galleries, bookstores, antique stores and restaurants. The influence of the Old West can be seen in galleries and museums throughout Arizona, and local artists in this area continue to celebrate the cowboy way of life through paintings and metal and bronze sculptures.
With nearly 600 buildings and sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Prescott is steeped in history. But it's the infusion of history and legendary heroes like Earp that will keep this Wild West forever alive.
-- Canwest News Service
IF YOU GO
* GETTING THERE: By car, drive northwest from Phoenix via the I-17 to AZ 69. The Greyhound bus runs between Prescott and the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
* THE BIG EVENT: Prescott has been hosting cowboy contests since 1888 and is home to the world's oldest rodeo. The popular, annual Frontier Days event runs June 28 to July 4, 2010.
* CLIMATE: Prescott has four seasons but the climate is moderate. The best time to visit is between May and October, when temperatures range from 23-32 C. It's normally about 10 degrees cooler than Phoenix.
* OUTDOOR RECREATION: There are five lakes and 720 kilometres of recreational trails. You can bike, hike, kayak, horseback ride, canoe and fish all year. Golfers can play year-round. There are six golf courses within the city limits, and another 90 public holes in surrounding areas.
* CULTURE: If you have more time to experience the heritage of the Old West, visit the Sharlot Hall Museum of Living History and the Smoki Museum of Native American Heritage for displays of the area's early settlement.
* ACCOMMODATIONS: For information about hotels and bed and breakfasts, phone 1-800-266-7534 or go to visit-prescott.com.