Now that Cheyenne Frontier Days 2015 is over, it’s a wonderful time to spend a weekend in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Not that there’s anything wrong with Frontier Days. The 119-year-old rodeo, the “Daddy of ‘em All,” is a bucket list event – the largest rip-roaring outdoor rodeo in the world. But if you want to go, start making reservations now for the July 22-31, 2016 event, because reservations fill up early.
That’s the challenge. With 400,000 visitors and big-name concerts from Blake Shelton to Aerosmith, the huge extravaganza turns Cheyenne into a 10-day boom town that buries many of the city’s simple pleasures. And there are many simple pleasures to enjoy.
More than any other single place, Cheyenne is the center of the Old West. Gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok got married here. (So did Ernest Hemingway…to his third wife). Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Luke Short and “Calamity Jane” all called Cheyenne home, and the legendary murderer Tom Horn was hanged here – the last man hanged in Wyoming (at least legally).
The famous Deadwood Stage started in Cheyenne, covering the 300 miles to the gold fields in South Dakota in three days of bouncing on rough dirt tracks through outlaw and Indian country. Old West history is everywhere – in the western wear shops, galleries, museums, and architecture. But make no mistake, Cheyenne knows how to have fun, too. Wyoming was the last state to ratify prohibition and prostitution was legal until 1938.
Today in compact Cheyenne, there are two outstanding breweries and a dozen bars, several with live music. Bring the bikes and there are 37 miles of trails, many of them weaving through historic neighborhoods of great old wood mansions. The best way to experience Cheyenne’s history it is on a trolley tour. Seemingly every third building was a bordello or gambling hall and on this 90-minute ride, you get an overview of some of the more exciting events in the city’s history.
Cheyenne began when the railroad was being built across America in 1867. The chief engineer of the Union Pacific, Maj. General Grenville Dodge, decided this was as far west as the railroad could get before winter, so he picked out a place at random to build a fort to provide protection against Indians. Following practices that said no liquor could be sold within four miles of a fort, he laid out a town exactly four miles away. Within weeks, the “town” of Cheyenne had 90 saloons and gambling halls, mostly in large portable tents, as well as 400 “ladies of the evening,” 4,000 residents and 23 hangings. Cheyenne boosters will tell you this is where Cheyenne got its nickname, “Magic City of the Plains,” because the city just sprang up overnight like magic. But at the time, most people referred to it by an equally descriptive name: “Hell on Wheels.”
When the railroad moved west in the spring, Cheyenne should have moved with it, but the Union Pacific built railroad roundhouses here and a substantial city was built around them. Some 75-100 trains still roll through downtown Cheyenne every day. Later, Cheyenne became a cattle town and it was said that because of rich cattle barons, Cheyenne was the wealthiest town in the world on a per capita basis. Many of the mansions on Cattle Baron Row still survive. The fort grew into Warren Air Force Base, which today maintains 150 Minuteman II Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. This is probably as close to 150 atom bombs as you’ll ever get.
In addition to learning about Western history, downtown Cheyenne gives you a chance to live it with Western shopping, eating and drinking. Wrangler is the place for hats, boots and belts; Wyoming Home has western furnishings, rugs, jewelry and gifts; and Just Dandy has women’s western-wear fashions. There are two great breweries in the downtown historic district. Freedom’s Edge Brewing Company has the usual tasting room with roll up walls, patio seating and a fine selection of changing brews. Try the 1890 IPA, a medium American IPA with citrus and grapefruit flavors. If the High Noon Chili Ale is on tap, it’s made with Alapeno, Serrano and Habanero peppers for a spicy Old West kick.
The Cheyenne Brewing Company has the best location in town in the 1887 Union Pacific Depot, a National Historic Landmark and one of the finest railroad stations in America. Like Union Station in Denver, it’s been beautifully restored and today you can sample more than 20 craft beers and dine on high-quality pub food while looking out arched windows at passing trains. The historic 1911 Plains Hotel across the plaza has welcomed many guests at its historic bar, including Harry Truman, Ronald Regan, Ted Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Since the railroads made Cheyenne, there are several railroad sites worth seeing. The “Big Boy,” the world’s largest steam locomotive, is parked in Holliday Park, which also has a beautiful lake and bike trails. The powerful locomotive was designed to pull 3,600-ton coal trains. There are only eight remaining in the world (a second is in Cheyenne under restoration).
Another world-record train is on the second floor of the Cheyenne Depot Museum, only this one is much smaller. Railroad modeler Harry S. Bunk of Clarkson, NE, worked on building an HO model railroad of Colorado mining towns for 30 years. His layout became one of the most famous in the world, featured in more than 100 model railroad magazine articles, but because it was in his home, hardly anyone had ever seen it in person. Today, the setup has been relocated and rebuilt in the Depot. It’s a kick to see model trains pass over the Georgetown Loop and chug into incredibly detailed models of Central City, Black Hawk, and Idaho Springs.
If you want to ride a train, one of the strangest in the world is located 7 miles south of Cheyenne on the Wyoming-Colorado border at the Terry Bison Ranch. A custom built and very funky private train pulls passengers on standard gauge tracks across rolling grasslands to the middle of a herd of 2,500 buffalo. There’s also horseback riding and a famous buffalo and steak house restaurant.
Where to Stay:
The Nagle-Warren Mansion 1888 B&B is more like a small inn with 12 luxurious rooms with all the amenities (TV, air, private bath, Wifi) but sharing incredibly beautiful public rooms with ornate staircases, polished wood, and antique furnishings. The included breakfast is worth a trip alone. The mansion is literally the biggest home in Cheyenne, purposely built by Nagle to be the biggest (replacing the former biggest home next door that now is El Charrito Mexican Grille). Francis E. Warren, who was a U.S. Senator and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, later bought the mansion and entertained many notable people here, including President Teddy Roosevelt.
If you go: Cheyenne