If your image of the American Southwest is still dominated by visions of tumbleweed blowing through ghost towns, Old West saloons, and prickly cactus, it may come as a surprise to learn that this vast region has undergone dramatic growth in recent years, with many cities experiencing a decades-long housing boom and relentless suburban sprawl that only the Great Recession could put the brakes on. A quick pass across the Southwest on the Interstate these days offers up more views of housing developments, crowded city streets, and newly-built shopping centers than Old West towns and historic main streets. But don’t fear: you can still capture the essence of the old Southwest in the well-preserved, visitor-friendly small towns that are tucked far away from big city life in this part of the country. These towns are a good drive from the Interstate, but well worth the trip if you want a serene desert escape that puts you at the heart of traditional Southwestern culture.
Bisbee, Arizona. For a period in the early 1900s, this historic Southeastern Arizona mining town, about 90 miles from Tucson, was the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, boasting a diverse population of over 20,000. Today, the population lingers around 6,000, but the town feels smaller as you wander the rambling alleyways of this tight-knit community of artists and ranchers. The biodiversity of the high desert is in full bloom here: Bisbee and surrounding areas are world-famous for rare hummingbird sightings, shimmering cottonwoods and willow trees, and showy wildflower displays that last throughout the relatively cool summers.
Borrego Springs, California. This desert village, in the far reaches of Northeastern San Diego County, represents the most western point of the vast Sonoran Desert and is emblematic of the striking landscape found throughout the Southwest. Although only a short drive away from Palm Springs, you’ll feel far removed from the pricey resorts and tourist traffic of that glitzy desert metropolis. Situated in the heart of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, this hamlet is surrounded by 600,000 acres of wild desert beauty, including hidden palm grove oases, desert washes, and majestic mountain vistas surreal in their scope. A few small motels, cafes, and shops line the main drag, filled with hikers, nature-lovers, and locals who are drawn to this low-key desert gem. A great place to absorb the stillness and essential quiet of the desert.
Silver City, New Mexico. Billy the Kid’s hometown and the gateway to New Mexico’s great Gila wilderness. Silver City is another example of an ex-mining town that has transformed itself into an artsy, Southwestern hideaway. The main street is lined with antique shops, bookstores, bars, and cafes, but don’t expect to find a Starbucks in these parts. There is a definite dusty, ramshackle-feel to the hilly streets, perfect for exploring on foot and escaping big-city life, if only for a day or two. Take the short drive north to the neighboring community of Pinos Altos and listen to the whispering forests of towering Ponderosa Pines.