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Shows, rodeos, and the 'Smithsonian of the West'

Cody, Wyoming

Cody, Wyoming, is known as the “Eastern Gateway to Yellowstone Country.” But this authentic Old West town makes a great destination in itself, especially in summer, when each evening brings a selection of dinner/music shows, a shootout, and a rodeo. Don’t miss the five incredible museums that make up the “Smithsonian of the West.” My favorite stop: the final resting place of the real “Jeremiah Johnson.”

  • The Buffalo Bill Center of the West comprises five museums: The Cody Firearms Museum, Plains Indians Museum, Draper Natural History Museum, Whitney Western Art Museum, and Buffalo Bill Museum. The combined effect of the exhibits gives you a broad understanding of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the evolution of American guns and their effects on the European settlers’ confrontations with the Plains Indians, and the subsequent re-interpreting of the West by showmen and artists. The Center truly deserves its nickname, “The Smithsonian of the West.” Photo courtesy BBCW.
  • Cody’s Yellowstone Regional Airport lies just 10 nautical miles east of the imposing Absaroka Mountains, with peaks that rise well over 12,000 feet msl. Attempting to fly over this mountain range was one of only two times we’ve ever had to turn back and quit. As we approached the Absarokas from the east, westerly winds pushed clouds higher and higher over the peaks. We climbed higher too, but our Cessna 210 couldn’t outclimb the clouds and we quit at a bit over 17,000 feet, spending the afternoon and night in Cody. The next morning, we enjoyed clear skies and calm winds. For short stops, the airport has a café and a crew car with a two-hour limit. Photo by Elias Imadali.
  • A “shootout” takes place in the street outside the Irma Hotel every evening at 6 p.m., except Sunday. I wouldn’t argue with this lady, would you? Photo by Peggy Poggio.
  • “Buffalo Bill” Cody was a pioneer of the western show, bringing Sitting Bull and “Wild Bill” Hickok to the stage. The showmanship is still on display in Cody at the Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo, Cody Nite Rodeo all summer, and at numerous dinner/western music shows in town. Shown here is Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue, located in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s new dining and entertainment pavilion. Photo courtesy BBCW.
  • Fantastic horsemanship on display. If you want to see an authentic Wyoming rodeo, Cody (aka "The Rodeo Capital of the World") offers a sure thing. An extra couple of bucks—pun intended—gets you a seat just above the chutes in the Buzzard's Roost. Photo by Lily Simon.
  • The 6,000-seat stadium sits above the Shoshone River west of town—a nice spot beneath the stars on a cool Wyoming evening. Once a year, some of the nation's top rodeo competitors show up for the Fourth of July Cody Stampede. Before the rodeo, there's a kiddie area with rides, games, and rodeo activities. Photo by David D.
  • Women’s Fancy Shawl Dancer Coral Melting Tallow dances during the Plains Indian Museum Powwow. Check the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s online calendar for special events. This powwow, a cultural celebration and competitive dance competition with over $25,000 in prizes, takes place each June. Visitors shop for authentic Indian jewelry, beadwork, quillwork, clothing, basketry, pottery, paintings, sculpture, Native foods, and more at more than forty vendor booths. In August, 120 people can participate in the annual Buffalo Bill Shootout, which fuses firearms history and present-day shooting sports. The public is invited to observe at the Cody Shooting Complex. Photo courtesy BBCW.
  • Rocky Mountain Dance Theatre presents "Wild West Spectacular!" This original live musical is offered on select days in July at the historic downtown Cody Theatre. You'll meet Annie Oakley, "Wild Bill" Hickok, Frank Butler, sharp shooters, can-can girls, and more, as Buffalo Bill Cody’s dream of becoming the world’s greatest showman comes to life. Photo by Melissa Thompson, courtesy Rocky Mountain Dance Theatre.
  • Poster, ca. 1887: “Wild West in London” show poster in the Buffalo Bill Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Mary Jester Allen Acquisition Fund purchase. Buffalo Bill performed for Queen Victoria, who gifted him with the cherry wood bar still in use at the Silver Saddle Saloon inside the Irma Hotel. Photo courtesy BBCW.
  • Photograph, ca. 1903: William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody in Wild West show tent. Original Buffalo Bill Museum Collection.
  • The Wells Fargo Wagon at the Buffalo Bill Center. One of the highlights of the Wild West show was the wild chase of this coach around the arena by “authentic wild Indians.” For the Indians, it was a living off the reservation, however demeaning. Bill Cody even got the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief Sitting Bull to appear with him for a year. Cody and Sitting Bull reportedly became friends. Sitting Bull was like a grandfather to tiny Annie Oakley, dubbing her "Watanya Cicilla" — “Little Sure Shot.” Cody used the nickname in all subsequent advertising. Photo by Charles Haacker.
  • I own no guns, yet I found the Cody Firearms Museum to be endlessly fascinating—from long flintlocks of the type favored by Davy Crockett, to minute handguns a poker player could quickly proffer if things weren’t going his way. The Cody Firearms Museum features the most comprehensive collection of American firearms in the world, stepping beyond the popular “gun that won the West” mythology to explore 500 years of firearms history. Photo courtesy BBCW.
  • Visitors stand on the mosaic tile map of the Greater Yellowstone region at the base of the rotunda at the Draper Natural History Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West. You will leave this museum with a comprehensive understanding of the land and wildlife of this region, from its sagebrush plains to alpine mountains, that will greatly enhance your appreciation of Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy BBCW.
  • Located just west of Cody, Old Trail Town is a collection of historic western buildings and artifacts, dating from 1879–1901. Trail Town began in 1967 through the efforts of Bob W. Edgar, an archeologist who worked for seven years at the Buffalo Bill Center. Trail Town has more than 25 buildings, some 100 horse-drawn vehicles, and an extensive collection of memorabilia of the Wyoming frontier. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Less than 12 miles east of Yellowstone National Park, the Elephant Head Lodge offers 15 log cabins that house two to eight guests; five have kitchenettes. The restaurant offers breakfast and dinner off the menu, sack lunches, and house-made cinnamon rolls. The lodge can arrange tours, horse rides, fishing within walking distance, river rafting, rodeo tickets, and more. Photo courtesy Elephant Head Lodge.

Cody’s Yellowstone Regional Airport lies just 10 nautical miles east of the imposing Absaroka Mountains, with peaks that rise well over 12,000 feet msl. If you’re flying in from the east and plan to visit Yellowstone, stopping in Cody also means you can cross the Absarokas early in the morning, with a better chance for a smoother ride. Flying to Cody from the west, you’ll be high over the pass. Especially with westerly winds, give yourself plenty of time to let down. Instead of forcing the airplane down just west of the mountains, descend well east of Cody—your passengers will thank you.

“Yellowstone Falls” by Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902); Whitney Gallery of Western Art Collection; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Taggart. Visit this museum to see true Western masterpieces—paintings, sculptures, and illustrations by the likes of Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, C.M. Russell, and more. Photo by Crista Worthy.

When “Buffalo Bill” Cody helped found the town that bears his name, the year was 1895. Cody felt the beauty of the area and its proximity to Yellowstone National Park made it a perfect spot for a town. I like to make my first stop at the locals’ favorite, Wayne’s Boot Shop. Since 1959 when Wayne Lundvall bought the business, this family-owned shop has dressed Cody in the finest cowboy boots, hats, and buckles. Properly attired, mosey over to the street outside the Irma Hotel around 5:30 p.m. Funny thing, a gunfight always seems to break out there around 6 p.m. (except Sundays). Bad guys vanquished, head inside to the Silver Saddle Saloon for a cold Buffalo Bill Beer. Note the original cherry wood bar, a gift to Buffalo Bill from Queen Victoria of England. The historic Irma Hotel, built in 1902 and named after Buffalo Bill’s youngest daughter, is open for tours, overnight stays, and dining, including their year-round Cowboy Music Show.

After wandering for years in the mountains of Wyoming and Montana, mountain man John Johnston (portrayed by Robert Redford as “Jeremiah Johnson” in the classic 1972 film) died in a California veteran’s home in 1900. In 1974, when a class of middle-school history students found out he was buried next to a Los Angeles freeway, they were outraged and worked for two years to have him reburied near the mountains he loved. The case escalated to the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, became national news, and set off a legal battle between Wyoming and Montana over Johnston’s remains, but the kids prevailed in the end. Redford and his son were among some 2,000 people who attended the re-burial at the Mountain Man Cemetery in Old Trail Town, Cody, Wyoming. Photo by Fred Worthy.

If your heart’s set on the rodeo, choose Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue, located in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s new dining and entertainment pavilion. Your ticket includes a 5:30 p.m. dinner, followed by the 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. show so you can make the Cody Nite Rodeo, which begins at 8 p.m. (buy rodeo tickets online or at retailers all over town). The July 1 through 4 Cody Stampede includes parades and the huge Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event, where some 800 contestants vie for a purse over $400,000. Downtown—and also timed to let you attend the rodeo—the Cody Cattle Co. is an ultra-casual live country western music show and chuckwagon dinner buffet where adults and kids sit at picnic tables. Don’t want the show? Try the local family-owned Bubba’s Bar-B-Que for the best in Western slow-smoked meats. Perhaps the best show (but no dinner) is the Wild West Spectacular, which runs during July in the Cody Theatre. Dancers, actors, and singers introduce you to Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickock, and other legends of the West. Action, romance, humor, perils, fights, toe tappin', hoots, and hollers are all part of the fun.

I saved Cody’s best for last. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West comprises five museums that radiate like spokes on a wheel from a central restaurant and focus on firearms, Plains Indians, natural history, Western art, and Buffalo Bill himself. Admission is good for two days, which I needed—see photos for more on this amazing place! We finished our visit in Old Trail Town, just west of Cody, a rare collection of authentic structures, including original cabins used by Old West outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and a Wyoming saloon frequented by Cassidy's "Hole-in-the-Wall Gang." At the end of the street I was thrilled to finally see the grave of mountain man John “liver eating” Johnston, portrayed as Jeremiah Johnson by Robert Redford in the classic film. The true story of how he was moved from his original burial site beside a Los Angeles freeway to Cody is the subject of a rollicking book from a time I well remember.

Are you driving to Yellowstone from Cody? The Buffalo Bill Dam and Sleeping Giant Zipline are both on the way; plus, you can ride horses, dine, and sleep at the historic Bill Cody Ranch. Another good choice just east of the park is the Elephant Head Lodge. Opened by Buffalo Bill Cody’s niece in 1910, its log structures have been modernized, yet retain their original charm, while the restaurant dishes out legendary cinnamon rolls, steak dinners, and sack lunches for your day.  

Cascading from a 590,000-year-old rhyolite lava flow in Yellowstone Canyon, Lower Yellowstone Falls is the largest-volume waterfall in the Rocky Mountains. At 308 feet, the waterfall is nearly twice as high as Niagara Falls and one of the highlights of Yellowstone National Park. Compare this photo to the Albert Bierstadt painting above. Photo courtesy Park County Travel Council.

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Crista Worthy
Crista V. Worthy
Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: U.S. Travel

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