The largest roping nook in North Phoenix is Cave Creek, the charming town of 5,000 that holds onto the Wild West spirit from its days as an 1870s cavalry camp. It’s most famous for Harold’s, a saloon founded in the 1930s where you’ll see motorcycles parked next to a horse someone rode there.
Nestled into the foothills north of Phoenix next to its sister town, Carefree, Cave Creek is still country enough that you’ll run into someone you know, but it’s less than 30 miles from downtown Phoenix. From here, it’s also an easy trip south to Scottsdale or north for day trips to Sedona, Prescott or Jerome.
Catering to snowbirds means Cave Creek offers everything from fine dining to cowboy cookouts, and from Western stores to fine art galleries and golf resorts. Another big draw is the nearby Sonoran Desert, where you can hike, bike or ride your horses on picturesque trails.
Where to Practice
No commercial roping arena in the West has more heritage than Cave Creek’s Dynamite Arena, which began hosting twice-weekly jackpots in the 1970s when locals like Jake Barnes, Clay O’Brien Cooper and Allen Bach often showed up. Now surrounded by residential development, Dynamite is still going strong just south of Cave Creek proper. It was revamped with a warm-up area and improved boxes and chutes just last year.
Yost Events took over the reins at Dynamite this year with a late-October kickoff, but will continue to host the arena’s famed Senior Wednesdays and Dynamite Sundays, as well as a Friday series. Yost Events even added a second arena for start of the 2018 season. Last winter, Dynamite hosted more than 23,000 teams and retained its reputation as a major social event where old friends get together.
Just down Highway 51, Arizona Horse Lovers Park will host ropings three days a week from November through March. The venue is just six minutes from Desert Ridge Marketplace (an enormous retail center) and City North (with the finest dining in the city). Producers Steve Simons and Bert and Megan McGill out of California will host #8, #9, and #10 ropings with 40-plus and 50-plus age restrictions, as well as an open #13 slide.
The most interesting venue open for practice and jackpotting is undoubtedly the arena behind Outlaws Bar & Grill in downtown Cave Creek. Tim Pearce will produce a variety of horse events there each week. Last fall, he was planning to host a breakaway practice and jackpot on Thursday nights and a team sorting every Sunday morning. He was hosting team roping practices on Wednesday nights and was thinking about having an Open rodeo-run competition and a #13 slide at his Friday night team ropings. Bar patrons simply sit out on the patio and watch all the action, while ropers can slip over the fence for a cocktail or grilled meal up until closing time.
Other notable arenas in town are great places to ride and have been known to host jackpots in the past. Those are the Memorial Arena Rodeo Grounds in Cave Creek, and Larkyn Memorial Arena in New River, just northwest of town.
Truck and Trailer Repair; Veterinary Services
You’ll need to venture closer to the big city to get bonafide truck and trailer repair services, but luckily Phoenix isn’t too far away. Anthem RV and Boats could work on your living-quarters problems closer to Cave Creek, and so could On the Road Again RV Service and Repair.
For truck issues, Airpark Dodge Chrysler Jeep and Van Chevrolet are both off Loop 101, south of Carefree. But you won’t regret going to Sanderson Ford, south on I-17 near Peoria, and asking for help from salesman Tim Tanner. His extended family owns the former Dunn’s Arena in Surprise —home to many roping and barrel racing jackpots.
For veterinary services, three experienced horse vets are available at Cave Creek Equine Surgical Center on Carefree Highway. The practice offers everything you need in an equine clinic, from surgery to lameness exams, and the clinic even has an MRI machine. Not far away, just down Cave Creek Road is Chaparral Veterinary Medical Center, a practice that began in 1978 with a racehorse vet. Today, the full-service clinic has several vets specializing in podiatry, ophthalmology, sports medicine, dentistry, and surgery.
Where to Eat
Harold’s Cave Creek Corral is one of a kind. The food is good, the atmosphere casual, and the live music makes dancing a nightly endeavor. Harold himself was a flamboyant character with friends who were both cowboys and movie stars. The place hasn’t lost that flavor.
Voted one of Arizona’s 17 most iconic bars, Harold’s features seating for 600 inside and 200 on the outside patio, plus two bars and the dance floor. Choice hand-carved steaks and daily-delivered fresh seafood are served, with dancing lessons each Friday night.
The place has spawned several copycats. Across the parking lot is the Buffalo Chip Saloon, also with multiple bars, dancing and live music. It one-upped Harold’s by adding a bull riding arena out back. Catch the action Wednesday and Friday nights, with mutton busting, too. It’s an all-ages venue, so the under-21 crowd just needs a parent along. Harold’s is a hard-core Pittsburgh Steelers fan headquarters, so the Buffalo Chip is a bonafide Packers paradise during NFL season.
The “Chip” is not the only eatery that added rodeo to the menu along with live music. Down the street is Outlaws Bar & Grill, with a full-size arena. The largest bar and restaurant in northern Arizona features live barrel racing, team roping, mounted shooting, ranch sorting, bull riding and more.
The Horny Toad began as a rival to the former Satisfied Frog, and still offers good fare. Other eateries you don’t want to miss are El Encanto—the Mexican cantina complete with its own duck pond—and Cartwright’s, a throwback elegant steakhouse. Finally, the par-70 Rancho Mañana Golf Resort in town was a historic dude ranch and offers the acclaimed restaurant Tonto Bar & Grill.
• Frontier Town, located in the heart of Cave Creek, mimics an Old West town complete with a gallows and boot hill cemetery, costumed performers, a restaurant and gift shop open every day of the week.
• Black Mountain is a 2.2-mile hiking trail open to dogs, too, and with spectacular 360-degree views. (May be too difficult for small children.)
• The Rock Springs Cafe is a historical landmark and pie haven that’s just a short drive north on Interstate 17. The Rock began as an early Indian encampment, then cavalry post and watering hole for miners, cowboys and sheepherders. In 1878, a line ran stagecoaches from Phoenix to Prescott on the road that can still be seen behind the Cafe. Since 1918, visitors have included Tom Mix, Jean Harlow and Wyatt Earp.
• Just 25 minutes down Cave Creek Road, Turf Paradise opened its 63 horse-racing season in October. Races (and betting) run Saturday through Wednesday with post time at 1 p.m. Highlights are the $75,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile on Jan. 12, the $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup on Feb. 9 and the $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby on Feb. 16.
• Any mutton busters in the family? Take the kiddo to the Buffalo Chip Saloon on a Friday night to test his or her mettle.
• Spur Cross Ranch is great for hiking, biking or horseback riding, with never-ending high-desert views and a six-mile round-trip trail that climbs slowly and serenely into the mountains. Businesses like Extreme Arizona in Cave Creek will rent top-of-the-line ATVs to your family for a half-day, self-guided excursion through the desert.
• Cave Creek Regional Park boasts the 4.8-mile Go John Trail, amenable to hiking, biking and horseback riding. The trail loops around a mountain, so you feel far from civilization, and markers note sites where 1870s gold seekers staked their claims.