“The habit of looking on the bright side of every event is worth more than a thousand pounds a year.” ~Samuel Johnson
A selection of Arizona Ed’s favorite annual events that are fun and educational for the whole family. Many of these are unique to our state and can’t be seen anywhere else. All are worth experiencing at least once if you live in Arizona. SEE ALSO: Arizona Ed’s Annual Event Calendar
1. Quartzite Rock and Mineral Show – The town of Quartzite’s population grows to over a million visitors every January and February. This is because its annual rock and mineral show is a major tourist attraction offering the opportunity to buy unusual items that one simply can’t find anywhere else. The Desert Gardens International Rock, Gem & Mineral Show features hundreds of rock, gem, and mineral dealers from around the globe in one of the world’s largest open air flea markets. They sell both raw material and finished product related to rocks, gems, and minerals. If you need a certain specimen for your collection, or if your child likes to collect rocks, this is the place to go. You don’t even have to be an avid rock hound to find something of interest. You can buy quartz crystals, fossils, gift items, jewelry, arts and crafts. In addition to the rock and mineral shows, the town of Quartzsite also hosts RV shows, car shows, arts and crafts shows, and swap meets. It’s quite a sight to see the rows and rows of thousands of RVs that come to Quartzsite at this time of year. Many visitors stay for several days and others for one or two months, attracted by the great deals as well as the beautiful climate. Quartzsite, Arizona, is located in the low desert approximately 20 miles east of the Colorado River on I-10.
2. Hashknife Pony Express Ride – The Hashknife brand (named for tool used by chuck wagon cooks) originated in Texas as the identification of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, which moved to Holbrook in 1866. The Navajo County Sheriff’s Posse has retained limited use of the brand to identify the Pony Express. Since 1958, the Hashknife Pony Express has made its annual ride in late January/early February to deliver more than 20,000 first-class letters by horseback. The envelopes bear the valued hand-stamped “Via Pony Express” postmark, coveted by stamp collectors around the world. (Starting on December 1, the public can purchase the “Official Pony Express Envelope” for $1 each at the Holbrook, Overgaard, Pine, Heber, Payson, Fountain Hills and Scottsdale Post Offices.) The ride is led by the Navajo County Hashknife Sheriff’s Posse. The Holbrook Chamber of Commerce invites the public to help relive the spirit of the Old West each year by visiting Holbrook during the Pony Express activities. Beginning at the U.S. Post Office in historic Holbrook, the horseback mail route covers over 200 miles from the majestic Mogollon Rim through the wilderness of the Mazatzal range to the desert city of Scottsdale. More than two dozen riders in traditional cowboy attire carry the mail, riding at full-gallop with legs of one mile, relaying the bags along the route and braving the winter weather conditions of northern Arizona. Along the way they stop at the Payson post office to pick up Payson’s mail. This exciting event is the oldest officially sanctioned Pony Express in the world, and the Hashknife outfit has the longest standing contract with the U.S. Postal Service to carry the mail. Each rider is sworn in as an honorary mail messenger, swearing to protect the mail while braving weather, terrain, and modern-day obstacles. The arrival of the Hashknife Pony Express in Scottsdale kicks off the annual Parada del Sol, which has the distinction of being the World’s Largest Horse-Drawn Parade.
3. VNSA Book Sale – Bibliophiles take note! Mark your calendars for the annual VNSA Book Sale, held every February. This sale is HUGE, the books are CHEAP, and the selection is AMAZING… but the lines are LONG! The doors open at 8:00 am but there is always a group starting a line before dawn in front of the Exhibit Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds. If you don’t like lines, come on Sunday when almost all books are half price. Over 600,000 quality used books and other related items (including CDs, videos, audio books, software, textbooks, children’s books, maps and puzzles) will be available at bargain prices. All items are organized into 27 categories and hundreds of sub-categories for easy shopping. You have to see it to believe it! I’ve found lots of great books here. They have a special holding area/checkout for those who purchase a large quantity of books. VNSA is an all-volunteer non-profit association that’s been around since 1957. All proceeds from the book sale are donated to local human service agencies in the Valley. Admission to the Book Sale is FREE, but the fairground has a parking fee.
4. Estrella Wars – This is the second largest medieval recreation event in the country. Previously held at Canyon Moon Ranch in Florence, Arizona, starting in 2012 the event will be held at Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek. (The event was originally held in Estrella Mountain Park; hence the name.) This spring event is sponsored by The Society for Creative Anachronism, an international organization dedicated to researching and recreating pre-17th-century European history. Approximately 5,000 reenactors from across the U.S. and around the world camp out there for a week, many in period camps – that is, their tents and furnishings are very much like what people would have used in the Middle Ages. There are a variety of demonstrations, and of course recreational combat. Estrella War is open to all who share in historical interests as a learning opportunity. It is not a commercial Renaissance Faire, so shopping is not the focal point of this event. School Tours give a simple introduction to life in the Middle Ages, and direct a free one-hour tour through some of the Period Encampment and Demonstration areas, displaying a sampling of Medieval life as closely as we can document. If you have kids, go on a school tour day; regular admission for the general public is rather expensive. For more details, dates, and directions, please visit their website.
5. Arizona Renaissance Festival – February – March, 10:00 AM until 6:00 PM; Saturdays, Sundays, and President’s Day Monday. The Arizona Renaissance Faire, with its thirty-acre theatrical European market village, offers a unique opportunity to bring an important era in history to life. It is held on weekends only, except for student days when it is open especially for school groups. Student Days were created to highlight the educational aspects of the Renaissance time period. Language, mannerisms, customs, comedia theatre, jousting tournaments, artist and craft demonstrations, and music are just some of the learning opportunities that await your students at the Arizona Renaissance Festival. The Festival provides students with a chance to do more than just read about history…they can experience it! To receive more information or to order tickets, visit their website.
6. Arizona Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month – A whole month devoted to prehistoric and historic site tours, exhibits, hikes, open houses, lectures, demonstrations, and special activities that focus on preserving our past by protecting our fragile and non-renewable cultural resources. Many museums, historical societies, tribes, agencies, parks, and archaeology organizations host events all around the state. More information can be obtained by calling the Arizona State Parks State Historic Preservation Office at 602-542-4174, or visit their website for Archaeology Month information as well as an archaeological site etiquette guide.
7. Civil War in the Southwest – Step back in time and witness living history! Picacho Peak State Park north of Tucson is the site of the “Westernmost Battle of The Civil War,” and the largest Civil War military re-enactment in the Southwest takes place there every year. The historic Civil War battle took place near Picacho Peak on April 15, 1862, when an advance detachment of Union forces from California attacked a Confederate scouting party. The battle lasted for 1-1/2 hours, and three Union soldiers were killed. Every March, “The Civil War in the Southwest” comes alive again as more than 200 reenactors from many states converge at Picacho Peak on foot and horseback. Visitors travel from around the country to experience three fascinating reenactments of historic battles that took place in Arizona and New Mexico during the Civil War: Valverde, Glorieta Pass, and Picacho Pass. Also on display at the reenactment are recreated military camps and living history demonstrations. In a continuing effort to make this event historically accurate, the participants must adhere to standards for clothing, artillery, cavalry, camping gear, and battle weapons. Enjoy the lifestyles of soldiers in the southwest during the 1860s! Don’t miss Civil War in the Southwest!
8. The World’s Oldest Rodeo – July 4, 1888, marked the beginning of professional rodeo when a group of Prescott merchants and businessmen organized the first formalized “cowboy tournament” and offered cash prizes. At first these events were called tournaments, fiestas, cowboy contests and stampedes. “Rodeo” is a Spanish word meaning “to round up,” but the word “rodeo” was not used in Prescott until 1924. Prescott’s early rodeos appealed to local cowboys and ranchers because it gave them a chance to show off their skills to the townspeople. In the beginning they didn’t have a fancy rodeo arena but used an unimproved, roped off field. The name Prescott Frontier Days, a committee of the Yavapai County Fair Association, came into being in 1913. That was the year the July 4th celebration began at its present location, the Prescott Rodeo Grounds. Participation and attendance by celebrities such as Tom Mix and Will Rogers increased the popularity of the event. The sport of rodeo has since grown into a multimillion dollar enterprise with more than 700 professional rodeos in 50 states. The skills and athletic ability of the cowboy are put to the ultimate test of bravery and daring in the competitive arena of the rodeo.
9. World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo – The town of Payson says that they have the oldest rodeo, but Prescott claimed the title first. So Payson calls theirs the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo. The Payson Rodeo had its beginning in 1884 when it was known as the “August Doin’s.” Organized by “Arizona” Charlie Meadows and others, and fashioned after the Wild West shows that were popular at the time, the first rodeos in Payson were held to provide local ranchers and cowhands a chance to get together and compare their roping skills and cow ponies during the annual down time before the big fall roundup. There were only a couple of events in those early rodeos, but it was not long before cowboys from all over the state were showing up to compete in new events like bronco busting, bull riding, steer roping, and horse racing. Early Payson rodeos weren’t held in fancy arenas, either. The original venue was a meadow near the intersection of Main Street and The Beeline (Highway 87). Wagons and later autos created barriers to form the “arena.” The Payson August rodeo was named the country’s Best Small Rodeo according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which sanctions the event. Always held on the third weekend in August, the rodeo features fearless bronco riders, bull riders, steer wrestlers, specialty acts and clowns. The long weekend includes an old-fashioned parade and gala Wild West events.
10. Arizona State Fair – In November of 1884, a group of citizens in the territory of Arizona wanted to organize an event with the family in mind. The very first Arizona Territorial Fair was held in Phoenix in late fall, near the Salt River west of Central Avenue. Fairgoers of the day were treated to horse, pony, and mule races along with exhibits including agriculture, home economics, and dairy and beef cattle. After statehood was granted in 1912, the State Fair Commission continued the work of the Territorial Fair Commission. With the exceptions of 1921 (cotton crop failure), 1934 to 1939 (Depression era), and 1943 to 1945 (World War II), the Fair has been presented yearly. Today, the Arizona State Fair is held annually in October. If you like the Arizona State Fair, you may also enjoy the Maricopa County Fair which is held annually in April at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.
Luke Air Force Open House/Thunderbirds Air Show – (This doesn’t count as an annual event since is held every other year in the odd-numbered years.) Luke’s “Thunder in the Desert” Open House is a two-day event at Luke Air Force Base and one of the most diverse air shows in America. There are numerous aircraft and ground displays, exhibits, and attractions. The highlight of the show is the U.S. Air Force’s Aerial Demonstration Team, the Thunderbirds, which show off their precision aerial maneuvers demonstrating the capabilities of Air Force high performance aircraft. General admission is free, and off-base parking is available for a fee. The air show attracts over 275,000 people, which means the lines at the security gates get really long. Expect to spend a lot of time on your feet walking around. It can get hot, too, with the sun reflecting off the tarmac and there is limited shade. So come prepared with sunscreen and sunglasses, a hat and comfortable shoes. You can bring a small portable chair, stroller, diaper bag, camera, and water (in clear plastic bottles), but coolers and other items are prohibited. On-site vendors sell food and drink. Hearing protection is suggested for those with sensitive ears. The awesome roar of an F15 is REALLY LOUD!