The American cowboy is often considered a ghost of the past, but in Cheyenne, Wyoming, ranching and the western lifestyle are still every day realities. Ropers (western jeans) are more common than suits here, and western wear leads the fashion trends.
“Home on the range” takes on new meaning in this state located in the wide-open lands of the western-central United States. Locals joke that cattle outnumber people here – and it’s true. There are 2.8 cattle for every one of the 500,000 people who live in Wyoming, a state almost the size of New Zealand.
Cheyenne is the state’s capital and largest city, with just over 50,000 people, and it has a laid-back, small-town atmosphere. But don’t be fooled by the city’s size and casual first impression. Cheyenne has a grand, rich past.
At different times, England, France, Mexico and the Republic of Texas all laid claim to these wind-swept plains. As America pushed west via railroads, Cheyenne became a bustling city filled with wealthy European cattle barons and the cowboys they hired to drive their herds.
Yet as the years passed, commerce gradually moved 100 miles (160 km) south to the bigger city of Denver. Colorado’s gain was Cheyenne’s loss – depending on how you look at it. Today, the Wyoming capital is a quiet place that still cherishes its days in the limelight, yet is quite content – and happy – to take life at a slower pace. It’s an excellent place for a relaxing weekend visit.
The Downtown Historic District is the perfect base to explore Cheyenne and the surrounding region. If you feel like being pampered, the Nagle Warren Mansion (222 E. 17th Street, 800-811-2610), is undoubtedly the place to stay. The Romanesque residence was built in 1888 and years later became the home of Wyoming Governor Francis Warren. Warren loved to entertain, and his guests included American President Theodore Roosevelt.
The historic home has been exquisitely restored and turned into a Bed & Breakfast. And while owner Jim Osterfoss ensures that his guests are treated like royalty, that pampering comes at an affordable price, ranging from US$ 99 – US$ 168 per night. Prices include a large breakfast.
Those who prefer hotels can stay at the Plains Hotel (1600 Central Avenue, 307 638-3311), which is also in the Historic District. This roomy 1911 building has been recently restored to allow guests, once again, to stay in “Cowboy High Style.”
The best introduction to Cheyenne is a walking tour. Downtown is easy to traverse by foot or bicycle. The Nagle Warren Mansion loans out vintage 1954 “Black Beauty” Schwinns to their guests.
Start your tour at the beautifully restored Union Pacific Depot (circa 1886), which is just across from the Plains Hotel. The Depot is the town’s heart, and will soon house a new museum, town square and Visitor’s Bureau.
From there, you can make your way toward the Historic Governor’s Mansion (300 E. 21st Street, 307-777-7878), taking in the dozens of buildings from the 1860s-1930s lining the wide, clean streets. The town is so open that, from the center of Cheyenne, one can glimpse both ends of the city, from the gold-domed capitol building that anchors one end of downtown to the Union Pacific Depot.
If you enjoy exploring historic homes, take the free tour of the Governor’s Mansion (300 E. 21st Street, 307-777-7878). It’s a good way to see what life was like for the wealthy and powerful of Cheyenne.
When you’re hungry, check out the Bread Basket (1819 Maxwell, 307-432-2525) which is popular with the locals, judging from the amount of traffic that flows through the tiny bakery.
For a little afternoon entertainment, you might want to visit one of the least expensive movie theatres in America. It costs just US$ 3 to watch a movie at the historic Lincoln Movie Palace (1615 Central Ave. 307-638-0774). You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back into the 1950s.
In the evening, you might want to sample some of the dining options in the town’s Historic District. The Whipple House (built in 1883) next door to the Nagle-Warren Mansion offers fine dining and higher-end cuisine, while on the other side of the mansion, Lexie’s Mesa Grille, housed in an 1880s home, serves up unique Southwestern Cuisine (try their beer-battered cactus).
Since you’re in cowboy country, you might as well see how the West was won. Perhaps the most striking demonstration of the Old West and today’s thriving western culture can be found at the Terry Bison Ranch (51 I-25 Service Road East, 307-634-4141).
Located on the Wyoming-Colorado border just a 20-minute drive from Cheyenne, the 30,000 acres ranch is an excellent stop for anyone interested in bison (also known as buffalo), trail riding or just plain cowboy culture.
The Terry Bison Ranch runs almost 2,000 head of bison. Visitors can get up “close” with the herd or dine on bison steaks in the Senator, the ranch restaurant.
While the ranch’s “Old West” façade may seem a bit kitschy at first, it’s well worth a visit. Where else can you ride into a herd of bison? Guides take curious visitors out into the bison herds in a bus, where guests can view the massive beasts up close from the protection of a vehicle.
Bison, after all, are still wild at heart. The ranch runs more than 2,000 head. The animals once roamed these lands in the thousands, but hunting brought the numbers down to 500. Today, thanks to ranches like this one, they number around 100,000.
Strangely enough, the ranch also raises camels for enjoyment. It’s said that General Manager Dan Thiel is the only “camel-whisperer” in the West.
Would-be cowboys can enjoy the ranch via horseback, and on-site housing is available for those who would like to stay awhile. Bison steaks are served up (rare is best) at the Senator’s Restaurant, or you can grab a cold one at the Brass Buffalo Saloon.
After a day on the range, head back into town for dinner at Sanford’s (115 E. 17th Street, 307-634-33810), a laid-back establishment with a sense of humor. The restaurant dishes up hearty American-style cuisine and has a car sticking out of the side of the building. (Did we mention that these guys like a good laugh?)
If the day dawns bright and beautiful, you’ll want to explore the area around Cheyenne. The Oregon Trail ran through this region, and there are still four-foot wide (1.2m) wagon wheel ruts in the earth near Guernsey State Park, just an hour north.
Another fascinating find in Guernsey is Register Cliff, a sandstone formation near the Oregon Trail. The stone’s soft makeup allowed hundreds of travelers on the Oregon Trail to leave behind their carvings, a sort of émigré graffiti.
One clear carving says, “Tex, Wagon Master, 1868.” Such tangible proof that the men of legends really lived is rarely available, but that proof is overwhelming here at Register Cliff.
Today’s adventurers may also want to head to Vedauwoo Recreation Area, just a half-hour west of Cheyenne. The park is home to excellent hiking trails and unique rock outcrops, offering some of the best rock climbing cracks in the region. This wide-open country is just one reason to visit Cheyenne.
If you enjoy shopping, reserve your last evening in Cheyenne for taking in what local proprietors have to offer. The Wrangler (201 W. 16th Street) is said to be the best western clothing store in town, while home décor can be found at Wyoming Homes (210 W. Lincolnway, 307-638-2222).
Art lovers will enjoy the Old West Museum (4610 Carey Ave., 307-778-7290), which has an outstanding western art collection. Gallery West (1601 Capitol Ave., 800-786-22580) and Deselms Fine Art (303 E. 17th Street, 307-432-0606) are small but excellent galleries.
For dinner, consider the western-style Albany (1506 Capitol Ave., 307-638-3507) in downtown Cheyenne. Here, you can hang out with the locals – including some cowboys and ranchers who believe that the heaven truly is found in the West. — JLG