AZ Central – Carefree and Cave Creek: A tale of 2 very different towns

Carefree and Cave Creek may share the same geographic area, but the Northeast Valley towns want you to know they are not the same.

Cave Creek vs. Carefree

They’re as different as cowboys and caviar. Or bull riding and tea time.

Or are they?

The Carefree Town Council recently employed a marketing firm to assure that the distinction is clear.

In fact, during a presentation to the council, the firm, Owens Harkey Advertising, made the comment that Carefree was a “cowboy town.”

The council bristled.

“We are not cowboy. That’s Cave Creek,” Carefree Councilman Glenn Miller said.

Two years ago, Cave Creek did the same, branding itself with the slogan “Perfectly Uncivilized.” The goal: to define the town’s Wild West culture and libations, as well as its fine dining, art galleries and retail shops that have contributed to Cave Creek’s eclectic landscape.

From the outside, the relationship between the neighboring towns may look adversarial, but Jo Gemmill, owner of Carefree’s English Rose Tea Room, assures that’s not the case. It’s about distinguishing the two communities to attract visitors from across the Valley to shop and dine in both towns.

“It keeps the potential tourist in the north end for longer,” Gemmill said. “If they thought (the towns) were the same, they would be in one and think, ‘been there, done that.’ So they can go to both and enjoy two completely different experiences.”

The perception of Cave Creek as a rough-and-tumble Western outpost to its more refined neighbor has long been a connective fabric binding the towns.

Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West magazine, said the divide comes from a real place — a time when hippies, drug runners and cowboys found refuge in Cave Creek, creating a class resentment that lingers today.

Harold’s Corral, which celebrated its 75th birthday two years ago, is a symbol of the town’s differences and attracted what some may say was an unsavory crowd decades ago.

The restaurant has expanded greatly since area miners and dam builders stopped in for a beer after a hard day’s work.

Cave Creek is more family-oriented now, but it was a rough place in the 1960s and earlier.

“Used to be you could do anything you wanted in Cave Creek. That attracted a sort of desert rat,” Bell said. “But in the 1970s, that changed. Now it’s more genteel on both sides.”

Larry Wendt, owner of the Cave Creek landmark Buffalo Chip Saloon, said the towns have grown more similar over the years, attracting an older and better-educated resident.

Last year’s median home values for Cave Creek and Carefree were 307,038 and 591,000, respectively, according to an Arizona Republic analysis.

Nonetheless, Wendt says, the cowboy is still alive and well in Cave Creek. The Buffalo Chip Saloon holds live bull-riding competitions every Friday night.

“Cave Creek is proud to be cowboy and we’ve always wanted less rules and loved the horse lifestyle,” he said. “But we’re also getting more people who wouldn’t have looked at Cave Creek as the paradise Carefree is. I think more people are looking at Cave Creek like that, but with a lively downtown area.”

Tom Augherton, who served as the first directly elected mayor of Cave Creek, said the towns have always relished in their differences, but looking past first perceptions uncovers that the neighboring residents have more in common than not.

The beauty of the upper Sonoran Desert is why residents on both sides of Black Mountain have chosen the Cave Creek/Carefree area, Augherton said.

“Yes, there are two separate identities chosen by the residents. But we share the same aquifer, the same road and the same mountain,” he said. “These are two separate communities joined by the common acknowledgment of what they value. The people who live here go a little farther to give themselves and their families a different lifestyle. But ironically, in the end, what they find is a sense of familiarity — the smell of the desert after a rain … and opportunity at an intimate relationship with the Arizona desert.

“Living here can change you.”

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