A Scenic Driving Loop Through Northern Wyoming Takes You Back Into The Wild West Days At least once a year a popular travel magazine will publish what is usually referred to as the “best drives in America.” Mostly, this list includes the usual suspects such as Route 1 along the…
ly the next morning I peered out my window to see a small herd of mule deer chomping on the grasses behind my cabin.
Fifteen minutes out of the lodge, heading west through the Big Horn National Forest, we passed a moose walking through a swampy area of forest.
After coming through the forestlands and a peak pass at over 9,000 feet, you descend rapidly into rolling, arid hills. This geography lasts all the way to Cody, which, as you might guess, was named for William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who seemed to have been everywhere in Northern Wyoming.
Travelers often say Cody boasts one of the best museums in small town America. I would report that statement condescends. Indeed, Cody boasts one of the best museums in America, whether in a big city or anywhere else and it is one highlight of the Wyoming loop.
Plan to spend hours at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, because it is actually five museums in one, the most recent addition being anextensive natural history wing. The other “museums” within the museum are dedicated to Buffalo Bill, his life and times; firearms; western art; and saving the best for last, the superlative Plains Indian Museum.
I would recommend saving some time for one other museum in the area. That is the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which was constructed on the site of one of the country’s largest relocation camps for Japanese-Americans, who were displaced from their homes and shipped to remote locations during the World War II years. The site is about 14 miles outside of Cody, and well worth the visit.
A lot of tourists wash through Cody, especially during the summer months, so to keep them entertained into the evening, the city boasts a nightly rodeo. It’s not the professional loop, but it was a first class competition and entertaining even for my wife and I, who consider ourselves city slickers.
After overnighting in Cody, at the historic Buffalo Bill Village, where my wife and I stayed in our own little log cabin, we headed south to Thermopolis, which isn’t really an Old West experience, but is a unique part of the loop because of its famed hot springs.
Hot Springs And More
There is quite a bit to do at Hot Springs Park so save yourself some time for walking and riding about. If you hadn’t yet seen any buffalo on your trip, included in the park grounds are hundreds of acres of rangeland reserved for roaming buffalo. Visitors are allowed to drive through the buffalo preserve.
The Thermopolis Days Inn, a bit of wild animal museum on its own, sits on the edge of the park and if you don’t feel like taking the thermal baths at the park, the hotel offers an outdoor spa that uses the thermal heated water emitted by the hot springs
Thermopolis is not just the hot springs.
The small city proudly brags that it has one of the finest dinosaur museums in the country. I checked it out just to be sure. It’s not the biggest dinosaur museum you’ll ever visit, but it is as good as it gets: great exhibits, great design and great dinosaurs. Well worth the visit.
After a night in Thermopolis, I traveled east on State Road 16 to the Big Horn Mountains and entered the high, forested lands on a road further to the south than the one I took west a few days earlier. Another high mountain pass at over 9,000 feet and another bucolic ride through thick mountain forests. Eventually the road, descended into Buffalo, a small town with a great history.
Collecting Western arcana must have been a big deal in the 20th century because the 1,500-item collection of Buffalo, Wyo., pharmacist Jim Gatchell laid the basis for the town’s robust history museum.
Buffalo is the venue of the Longmire Days festival, because Longmire book writer Craig Johnson lives a few miles outside the town. If one reads the books or watches the television series, someone is always referring to Sheriff Longmire being at the Busy Bee Café. Look for the real Busy Bee on Main Street.
Johnson is not the most famous writer to spend time in Buffalo. The renovated and handsomely revived Occidental Hotel has been around for over 100 years hosting many well-known personages including presidents Herbert Hoover and Theodore Roosevelt, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, the outlaw Tom Horn and the writers Ernest Hemingway and Owen Wister, the latter of which holed up at the Occidental to write the first great novel of the American West, The Virginian.
Try to get the owner of the Occidental Hotel, Dawn Dawson Wexo to show you around. It’s like visiting a museum of the Old West and early 20th century.
There is so much Old West history around Buffalo you might want to spend a few days here. I only had one day, so I chose to visit just one site, the TA Ranch about 20 minutes outside of town.
For anyone who follows the history of the West, one of great cattle conflicts occurred here and is known as the Johnson County War. It all started when a group of cattle barons hired a small army of hired guns to eliminate homesteaders. The homesteaders got wind of the invaders and surrounded them at the TA Ranch. The barn where most of the invaders held up for three days surrounded by a bigger army of homesteaders still stands, but riddled with bullet holes from the “war.”
The barn is on private land so you need to inquire if you want to make the visit.
The land around the TA Ranch consists of rolling hills settled by farmers and ranchers, but in the fading evening light as I drove back into Buffalo, the wildlife had come back around and when you peered at the fields what you saw was not cattle and horses but deer and antelope.
To complete the loop, I drove the next day from Buffalo to Sheridan. If you get off the interstate there’s plenty more history to see, but I had a plane to catch, skipping such sites as the location of the Fetterman Massacre of 1866 or the more civilized Brinton Museum with a surprisingly strong collection of American art.
I guess I’ll just have to come back.
If You Go:
My intention was to make a driving loop through Northern Wyoming. I flew into Sheridan via Great Lakes Airlines (www.greatlakesav.com) where I rented an Avis car (www.avis.com).
In Sheridan, try the Sheridan Mill Inn (www.sheridanmillinn.com). But, if you want to get a head start on the loop, you might head for the Bear Lodge Resort (www.bearlodgeresort.com) in the Big Horn Mountains. In Cody, I stayed at the historic Buffalo Bill Village with its individual log cabins (www.blairhotels.com). When in Thermopolis, the Thermopolis Days Inn boasts a uniquely natural history-like décor (www.daysinn.com/thermopolis). Finally, when in Buffalo head to another historic building, the Mansion House Inn (www.mansionhouseinn.com), where your hosts make a great breakfast.