With a pair of popular national parks and glitzy Jackson Hole to the west and Devils Tower up north near Montana, Wyoming is no stranger to visitors. But Cheyenne, tucked into the southeast corner of this Lego brick of a state, holds onto the territory’s cowboy culture and western history with a sense of pride that goes beyond the bucking horse emblem you’ll see on bumper stickers and gift shops everywhere in this state. Locals here wear cowboy hats earnestly, and not as a trendy fashion accessory. They haul horses and cattle in trailers and make plans to stop by local rodeos on the weekends and they also enjoy a good craft beer. But you don’t need a big hat or an understanding of bull riding to feel welcome here.
Only a 90-minute ride north of Denver, the nearest large airport, Cheyenne is a much more approachable city — the state capitol is still the second tallest building. The mix of Victorian-era architecture, public artworks and trollies zooming down the main strip make Cheyenne feel accessible, even as it’s surrounded by acres of rolling hills, grass, dirt and interstates. The Union Pacific put this city on the map in the late 1800s, and while its grand depot no longer shelters wealthy cattlemen from the rain, there are dozens of freight trains that ride through the heart of town. From an Art Deco theater that dates back to the 1920s to a castle-like mansion that’s now a B&B and Big Boy trains on display, Cheyenne might feel like Disney’s version of a time warp, if all of these elements were less genuine. A long weekend in town is split between exploring the city and the open spaces within a 30-minute ride of downtown.
Where to stay
Nestled just outside the intersection of bisecting interstates, Cheyenne sprouts up from the plains as you head north, and it has plenty of chain hotels within striking distance of all that asphalt. But the most interesting spots are the independent stays that offer a more authentic experience.
Just a three-mile ride from the center of town, Little America Hotel & Resort offers bigger rooms than you’d find at just about any other hotel. Built in the early 1950s, it’s rustic luxury with Western style, and the setting for Wyoming’s political scene when legislation is in session at the Capitol a short ride away (the on-site nines hole golf course helps with the wheeling and dealing). While it’s not close enough to walk to from town, it’s a quiet way to finish a day of checking out the city, right off of I80, the first highway that connected New York to California.
If post-war buildings aren’t quite old enough for you, the Nagle Warren Mansion dates back to 1888. Have the run of the Victorian-era mansion’s library and parlors, where you can turn on a phonograph and feel what it would have been like in Cheyenne’s early days when it hosted Buffalo Bill Cody and Presidents Taft and Roosevelt. Afternoon tea is still a thing here, as is Manor Hour after 5:00 p.m. when a staffer will dig into the home gossipy past over cocktails and appetizers. The house’s trademark turret anchors the south end of town, a counterpoint to the Wyoming State Capitol about a mile away on the north end, and staying here puts you within walking distance of shops, museums and local breweries.
What to do
The city’s biggest party, the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days, which happens in late July is, at its core — even as it approaches 130 years old — still a rodeo held north of town. Part nine-day long concert, cultural celebration and livestock show, it’s when locals, wearing real cowboy hats, and tourists breaking in new ones, get together over fried carnival food and beer. The Daddy of ’em All, as the rodeo is called, attracts nearly 550,000 people. Think of it as Sturgis with more horses than horsepower, fewer crazy mustaches and more cultural significance. Need to find common ground with a local? Ask them about the 15,000 or so pancakes volunteers cook and offer to the crowds for free during the week. If you miss Frontier Days, it’s not too difficult to find a local rodeo happening nearby the rest of the year.
While there’s plenty of roping to see, railroads are the city’s backbone. Drive into town, ditch the car and head off by foot to see that history up close. When the Union Pacific came through here on its way west, it marked Cheyenne as a luxurious destination by commissioning what is now the Cheyenne Depot Museum, a grand Romanesque stone building, which was all the rage in the late 19th century. While the locomotives stopped passing through years ago, this National Historic Landmark serves as a train museum and the plaza out front hosts weekly summer concerts and farmer’s markets. Not into trains? Fake it. Come summer Fridays with the sun hanging low in the sky, the Accomplice Beer Company brewery inside means there might not be a better seat in the whole city than sipping a local beer from a plastic cup in the shadow of the Depot’s signature clock tower.
A handful of other museums, mostly within walking distance to downtown, provide insight into how, and who, won the West. The Nelson Museum of the West, a few minutes away from the Depot, is so non-descript that you might mistake it for an accounting office. But inside, it’s more cowboy than train history with military uniforms, horse saddles, firearms that date back to the 19th century, artwork that delves into the history of the Native Americans, and other items reflecting the opulent lifestyle of the city’s early cattle barons, including a mirror that belonged to Buffalo Bill Cody. Learn more about Sacagawea, and other women who helped shape Cheyenne’s ranching and rodeo culture, at the Cowgirls of the West Museum & Emporium, which is full of memorabilia and mannequins.
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Walking around town you’ll notice a few of the 36 boots, each eight feet tall and hand-painted by local artists that, along with an audio tour, dig into a part of the city’s history. It’s an example of the city’s public art that is, for the ones not roped off, easier to interact with than a painting on a wall. You’ll also stumble upon about 50 statues sprinkled around town that provide a snapshot of important figures from Wyoming’s past and its role in the American West.
If those big boots I mentioned have you curious, spend some time in The Wrangler building across the plaza from the Depot Museum. It dates back to 1892 and might be the most Instagramable corner in the city. Now home to a Boot Barn, you can stroll through thousands of square feet worth of boots, hats, jackets and belt buckles only slightly smaller than your average Frisbee. You might not be ready to purchase a cowboy hat or legit boots, but it’s a fun stop if all you need is a new pair of Wrangler jeans and a story to tell every time you wear them.
When you’re ready to ditch the city for a day, or need to get outdoors, Curt Gowdy State Park, named after the longtime announcer who called Boston Red Soxs games in the 1960s and ’70s, is about a 30-minute ride west of town through rolling hills and wind farms. This 3,395-acre playground is where Cheyenne comes to get outdoors to do everything from hiking to SUPing and fishing. Of the 35 miles of trails, the hidden waterfall at the end of Crow Creek Trail is an approachable 3.5-mile out and back route. Bring a mountain bike, or rent one (or a paddle board) from Rock on Wheels, before leaving town if you want to explore the park a bit more. Expect dramatic cliffs, meadows full of wildflowers and plenty of company on the trails.
While there isn’t much wildlife to connect with at Gowdy, you’ll find just that at Terry Bison Ranch. This sprawling, 30,000-acre ranch south of Cheyenne straddles the border of Wyoming and Colorado and, unlike Yellowstone’s bison, you get close enough to see the whites of their eyes here — and toss them a treat. An open car train ride loops you through their habitat where you’ll see dozens of the much-larger-than-they-seem-once-you’re-up-close bison and nearly as many prairie dogs. With a $10 bag of treats, you can feed the aptly named Gene Simmons or the biggest bison of the bunch, Charlie Brown.
If you’re after a bit more verticality, the Vedauwoo Recreation Area has granite formations that reach 500 feet up and clock in at 1.4 billion years old. With over 1,000 climbing routes, and names like Hassler’s Hatbox and Coke Bottle, there is plenty to keep you chalking up. But if belaying isn’t your thing, there’s hiking, mountain biking and bouldering here, too.
What to eat
The Luxury Diner is open for breakfast and lunch under the vintage Cheyenne Motel sign where it’s been slinging eggs since 1926. It’s a small building so get there early for a seat and a shot at some legit chicken fried steak, or an omelet any way you want it. And expect the staff to hard sell you hard on a cinnamon roll from nearby Bread Basket Bakery while the check makes its way to you. It’s the size of a dinner plate, but you might burn a calorie or two by exploring the dining room’s paper map, festooned with push puns and receipts, tacked to the home states of the visitors.
Mix with the locals at The Albany, which has been serving food under one name or another since the first Big Boy trains steamed into town. While the signage out front is right out the Wild West TV shows, the hospitably is authentic — right down to the Rocky Mountain Oysters: deep-fried bull testicles. The desserts are made in-house, but skip them and step outside to the Choo Choo Moo, an ice cream food truck owned by the Albany. Take two scoops of How Now Brown Cow or Salty Heifer, which like all the 13 flavors come from nearby dairy cows.
Justification to hit The Bunkhouse Bar & Grill on the way back into town is reason enough to head out to Curt Gowdy or Vedauwoo. This salon welcomes all comers — those in cars and ones on horseback (there is a sign out front to clean up after your horse post-rackup). The walls are covered in wildlife, the bar has plenty of history to take in between drinks, and the food doesn’t skimp on the portions — even the salad section titled Lettuce and Stuff on the menu. A band gets the dance floor moving on weekends.
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