Echoes of the past: Exploring Wyoming’s timeless frontier

Mar 26, 2024

In October 1899, Lora Webb Nichols received her first camera—a gift that would inadvertently provide a lasting legacy for the state of Wyoming.

Nichols was 16 years old at the time and living in the mining town of Encampment in Carbon County, located in the southernmost part of the state. Her earliest photographs captured intimate moments of everyday frontier life: her immediate family, workers passing through town and landscape images of the rugged Wyoming terrain.

These images, now on permanent display at the Grand Encampment Museum, serve as a time capsule of a bygone era in Wyoming's history. But they also reveal the hidden and untouched beauty that still exists in the Cowboy State today.

For as much as Wyoming is known for its iconic national parks, there is something equally captivating about visiting the quieter places that dot the state.

Development has been kept to a minimum, blurring the boundaries between past and present. Venturing into a handful of these counties—Campbell, Carbon, Park, Goshen and Johnson, to be exact—offers a chance to experience a different kind of tourism, one that rewards those who travel without checklists and tight-knit itineraries. 

The road less traveled

Exploring these counties is best done by car. If we’re being honest, it’s the only way. Wyoming is the 10th-largest state by land area, spanning over 97,000 square miles, and reaching these remote locations requires flexibility and freedom to appreciate their beauty. Make sure to keep a watchful eye on your fuel levels and pack extra supplies, as services can be limited. 

There is still plenty to do in these respective areas—Yellowstone National Park claims residence in Park County, after all—but the true treasures lie in the hidden valleys, the secluded trails and the off-the-beaten-path attractions that are often overlooked, and thus often stay the same.

At some point during your visit, perhaps while driving along a scenic byway, you may notice a fiery sunset, a weathered barn or a peculiar stretch of nothingness that holds a unique allure. Pull over to the side of the road and turn the engine off, embrace the stillness and take a moment to soak in the silence.

The view before you is not all that different from what the earliest pioneers or indigenous tribes would have encountered, or that Lora Webb Nichols would have seen through her lens over a century ago.

Seminoe Reservoir

Campbell County

To understand and appreciate Wyoming, let's start by exploring what lies beneath the surface. Otherwise known as the "Energy Capital of the Nation," the city of Gillette in Campbell County produces about 40 percent of the coal supply in the United States. Unlike “dirty” coal, Campbell County’s clean coal has low sulfur content, which results in reduced emissions.

Schedule an Eagle Butte Coal Mine Tour during summer weekdays to witness the impressive scale of mining operations and gain insights into the coal industry's history, technology and economic impact on the region.

The "Energy Capital of the Nation"

If coal is the backbone of Wyoming's energy industry, then the bison is the wild and majestic face of its agricultural heritage. The animal depicted proudly on the state flag has been a symbol of resilience and a central figure in the state's history dating back to the Plains Indians, and a visit to Durham Bison Ranch, located 33 miles outside of Gillette, offers a unique opportunity to witness 2,500 of these magnificent creatures up close.

One of the oldest working bison ranches in the world, Durham Bison Ranch is a family-owned operation that spans over 55,000 acres. Founded in 1965 by Armando Flocchini Sr., a meat butcher from San Francisco, the ranch is widely celebrated for producing high-quality breed stock as well as premium bison meat.

Order a Buffalo Ribeye or a Buffalo Flat Iron Steak at the Open Range Steakhouse, or a Durham Buffalo Burger at Hank’s Roadside Bar & Grill. If you're looking for a nightcap, be sure to wet your whistle at Montgomery Bar, where you can enjoy a drink in the same spot outlaw Ray Montgomery once pulled then-mayor Mark Shields out into the street for a showdown that resulted in Montgomery taking over as mayor in 1914.

If your time is limited, a visit to the Campbell County Rockpile Museum serves as a worthy rest stop to stretch your legs along a longer road trip. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the museum tells the story of the Powder River Basin, housing large collections of Native American artifacts, rifles, horse-drawn carriages and a fossilized tree from 50 million years ago. 

The "Hurrah for the Cowboy: Men of the Open Range" exhibit, on display through 2024, chronicles the march of the cowboy across the western frontier, showcasing the rugged spirit and lifestyle that once dominated the region. The museum also celebrates World Atlatl Day on the first Saturday each June, when visitors can learn about and try their hand at using one of the world's oldest hunting tools.

Where the buffalo roam

Carbon County

Once a rugged and untamed frontier covered by the Overland, Oregon and Mormon Trails, Interstate 80 now cuts through the heart of Carbon County in southern Wyoming, offering travelers convenient access to the region's rich history and stunning landscapes.

Seminoe State Park, nestled up against the base of the Seminoe Mountains, is a local favorite for outdoor recreation and located just 35 miles north of Sinclair. The Seminoe State Park Visitor Center features an interpretive walk and area displays that provide a glimpse into the area's past, while anglers can try their luck at the Miracle Mile—a stretch of the North Platte River famous for fly fishing and large trout. Feel free to fish on your own or hire one of many outfitters, such as Hack’s Tackle & Outfitters or Drift fly fishing company.

Medicine Bow Mountain Range

Once you're done exploring on foot, amble along the Snowy Range Scenic Byway (Hwy. 130) and climb up to 10,847 feet in elevation on the route once named "The Great Sky Road" while crossing the Medicine Bow Mountain Range. The Battle Pass Scenic Byway (Hwy. 70), named for a fight between mountain men and Native Americans in 1841, crosses the Sierra Madre Range and offers panoramic views of the rocky peaks and lush valleys below.

Take time to relax and head to Saratoga, home to Saratoga Hot Springs. These mineral hot springs and thermal pools offer a relaxing soak and rejuvenation after a day of exploring the Wyoming wilderness. While you're there, you can book a room at Saratoga Hot Springs Resort and pamper yourself with a full suite of amenities, or enjoy a more rustic experience at the Hobo Hot Springs, which are free and open to the public. Water temperatures range from 101 - 110 degrees Fahrenheit, while the Lobster Pot simmers at 120 degrees.

Hobo Hot Springs in Saratoga

The history buffs of your group, however, may prefer to stay at historic hotels like Hotel Wolf in Saratoga, the Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow or Elk Mountain Hotel in Elk Mountain. Completed in 1911, the Virginian is thought to be named for the famous novel by Owen Wister, who spent time in the area while writing the book.

If you time your visit right, you can enjoy the annual Woodchopper’s Jamboree & Rodeo in Encampment, celebrating its 63rd year June 14-16, or the Little Snake River Rodeo and Grand Encampment Cowboy Gathering on July 6-7 and July 19-21, respectively. 

Encampment, you might remember, is the site of the Grand Encampment Museum and Lora Webb Nichols' photography collection. Carbon County Museum in Rawlins is also worth a visit, especially for those with an interest in the more sinister side of Wyoming's outlaw past. We'll keep details to a minimum, but one exhibit is home to a peculiar artifact attributed to the outlaw "Big Nose" George Parrott: the only man in American history known to have become a pair of shoes after his death.

Park County

One of the most popular roads to Yellowstone National Park, US Highway 14, goes through Park County—a historically rich area and the gateway to one of the great natural wonders of the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt once called the route from the town of Cody to Yellowstone's East Entrance "the most beautiful 50 miles in America," leading many visitors to set up camp or book accommodations on the outskirts of the park when campgrounds and lodges within Yellowstone are fully booked.

Cody takes its name from William Frederick Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill, who helped found the town in 1895. Known for his Wild West shows, Buffalo Bill's legacy is evident throughout Park County, with multiple attractions dedicated to preserving his memory.

Welcome to your first rodeo

An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West houses a comprehensive collection dedicated to this historical celebrity. The museum is, in fact, a sprawling complex of five museums, only one of which is specifically dedicated to Buffalo Bill himself. The others include the Plains Indian Museum, which features a collection of artifacts and exhibits from more than 45 different cultures, as well as a teepee made from 13 buffalo hides. The Draper Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, features interactive exhibits on wildlife, geology and ecosystems that pair well with the visceral experience of visiting Yellowstone and Wyoming's other parks. 

The Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill in 1902 and named after his youngest daughter, is another town institution and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the hotel's cherrywood bar was even a gift from Queen Victoria of England. 

The Irma Hotel

Cody attracts plenty of crowds during the summer months thanks to the Cody Nite Rodeo, which takes place every night from June 1-Aug. 31. The Cody Stampede Rodeo, held July 1-4, showcases some of the best rodeo action in the state and brings in top cowboys and cowgirls from all over the country.

The Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, held Sept. 16-21, features works by renowned artists inspired by the rugged landscapes and rich cultural heritage of the American West. And then there's the Cody Cattle Company, a Western music show starring Ryan Martin and the Triple C Cowboys, which performs seven nights a week during the summer while guests enjoy a cowboy-style chuckwagon dinner.

Once you've had your fill of Bill, head to Meeteetse for a taste of small-town charm and a pair of notable ranches. The Meeteetse Chocolatier, located on Meeteetse's rustic main drag, offers handcrafted chocolates from the town's old Broken Spoke Café building.

The owner and proprietor of the confections shop, Tim Kellogg, is a former bronc rider who first began selling chocolates at the Cody Stampede to buy a new saddle. Kellogg's confections have been praised for their unique flavors and high-quality ingredients; his specialties include custom truffles, Belgian chocolates and tablets.

Goshen County

Goshen County

Goshen County's claim to fame is its historical significance as a vital stop along the Oregon Trail. Fort Laramie, also known as "The Grand Old Post," began as a private trading post in 1834, acting as a meeting point and supply hub for fur trappers and traders, and later transformed into a vital military outpost during the westward expansion.

Today, Fort Laramie National Historic Site preserves the stories of the people who passed through its gates and the events that shaped the region. The Army Iron Bridge, built in 1875, functions as the gateway to this historic site, allowing visitors to step back in time and explore the buildings, barracks and artifacts from a different era.

Tours provide visitors with a comprehensive understanding of the historical significance of Fort Laramie and its role along the Oregon Trail. Live reenactments bring the past to life, and the Fort Laramie Junior Ranger Program offers a fun and educational experience for young visitors; copies of the Junior Ranger book are available at the visitor center, and each completed section earns a Junior Ranger badge.

Fort Laramie National Historic Site

The Rawhide Wildlife Habitat Nature Trail and Confluence National Recreation Trail are great for spotting wildlife, from white-tailed deer to ring-necked pheasants to over 280 different species of birds; or you can get lost exploring interactive ranching experiences like Ellis' Harvest Home pumpkin patch and corn maze, Young's Apple Box Orchard and the Torrington Livestock Markets.

For a more relaxed change of pace, enjoy a Pnut Butta 'N' Jelly Porter or Little Yeller Pils at Open Barrel Brewing Company before catching the Music on Main summer concert series on Wednesday nights throughout the summer. If beer isn't your thing, you can also enjoy a glass of locally produced wine from Table Mount Vineyards—the largest winery in Wyoming. Each wine is made with 100 percent Wyoming-grown products, featuring names like Cowboy Reserve, Stampede Red, Cowgirl Blush and S.O.B. Wine.

Johnson County

Step inside the front door of the Historic Occidental Hotel & Saloon and feel the weight of history envelop you. Buffalo Bill Cody, Teddy Roosevelt and General Phil Sheridan frequented this iconic establishment in its early days, opening in 1880 and quickly announced itself as a premier destination in Johnson County for fine food and hospitality.

The Occidental Hotel

Located in the city of Buffalo in northern Wyoming, this notable hotel situated at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains offers guests a unique opportunity to step back in time and experience the Old West firsthand.

Trace the same route as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who would ride to the Occidental from their hideout at the nearby Hole-in-the-Wall; stay in the same room Ernest Hemingway once occupied and imagine the stories that have unfolded within these walls; or grab a drink at the saloon and consider the lively conversations that took place between legendary frontier sheriffs like Fran Canton and "Red Angus."

The Occidental is just as much a living museum as it is a comfortable lodging option, with an impressive collection of artifacts and memorabilia on display throughout the property. 

Crazy Woman Canyon in Johnson County

Located in a former Carnegie Library building, Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum in Buffalo provides visitors with another opportunity to delve into Johnson County's history. This museum, named after pharmacist and town historian Theodore James "Jim" Gatchell, continues his legacy through the extensive collection of artifacts like firearms, medicine bags, bow and arrows and Native American artifacts.

Gatchell opened his drugstore in 1900, serving not only settlers of downtown Buffalo but members of the Lakota and the Northern Cheyenne. The Cheyenne in turn gave him the name "Turpy," meaning "He who speaks for them." His familiarity with both sides of the frontier struggle allowed him to collect a unique and diverse range of historical items, including an exhibit dedicated to the infamous Johnson County Cattle War.

Prior to that 1890s conflict, Johnson County was the site of several skirmishes between Native Americans and the U.S. military along the Bozeman Trail in the 1860s. Fort Phil Kearny, now a state historic site, was the largest stockaded fort in the West when it stood from 1866-68. The fort offers a self-guided walking tour, and it provides a good starting point for visits to the nearby battlefields for the Wagon Box Fight and Fetterman Fight. While the interpretive center is undergoing extensive renovations, visitors can still explore the grounds and learn about the history of this significant military outpost.

Not short on natural beauty, Johnson County is also home to Crazy Woman Canyon (Bighorn National Forest Road 33)—a scenic drive with towering cliffs and a dark and mysterious history. Or pick a route to match your adventurous spirit among the more than 20 miles of the Clear Creek Trail System that winds through the Bighorn Mountains. Should you go this route, make sure to bring a good pair of hiking boots and a camera to capture the landscapes and wildlife encounters along the way.

Ready to go? Start planning your trip to Wyoming with these accommodation options.  

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