Seeing the Frontier in Cheyenne

Curt Gowdy State Park offers a number of hiking and biking trails at various levels

Curt Gowdy State Park offers a number of hiking and biking trails at various levels

Since its start as a spot on the westward expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad, Cheyenne remains connected to its frontier legacy. Yet this Wyoming city has been ushering in offerings that appeal to just about any outsider: craft breweries, innovative cuisine, and hiking and biking trails. From outdoor excursions to Western gear stores, there is a lot to explore in and around Cheyenne. And every summer there’s what’s known as the “Daddy of ‘Em All”: the Cheyenne Frontier Days. So saddle up.

Cheyenne Frontier Days

Since 1897, Cheyenne Frontier Days has been presenting a two-week bonanza that’s called the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration. Held every July at Frontier Park, Cheyenne Frontier Days includes longstanding traditions, family-friendly activities, and, of course, its main event: the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Rodeo.

Cheyenne Frontier Days continues to be an annual western extravaganza, bringing crowds out to Frontier Park

Almost 1,500 contestants participate in the PRCA Rodeo, striving to win more than $1 million in money and prizes. There are three types of competitions in which a contestant’s score depends on both him and the bull or horse’s performance. They are timed events including roping, barrel racing, and steer wrestling; roughstock events, which involve bull riding, bareback riding, and saddle bronc riding; and other competitions such as a wild horse race and an all-around competition.

Contestants from different parts of the United States come to Cheyenne to compete in Cheyenne Frontier Days’ various timed events

To get a behind-the-scenes look at how this rodeo runs, take the free “Behind the Chutes” tour. It brings you all around the arena and down to the chutes where riders, bulls, and broncs emerge from, as well as near the place where contestants get ready. In furthering your frontier day experience, you can also explore Old Frontier Town, a replica of a village complete with storefronts, and watch a demonstration of dances and storytelling by American Indian performers inside the Indian Village.

The “Behind the Chutes” tour takes you all around the Cheyenne Frontier Days Arena

Though the rodeo is the focal point of Cheyenne Frontier Days, ongoing community events also add to the celebration. A number of Grand Parades happen in downtown Cheyenne, featuring marching bands, state officials and CFD supporters on horseback, military personnel, and floats replicating symbols of the city’s history. Other festive offerings include the Midway Carnival with amusement rides and fair food; free and hugely popular pancake breakfasts; and an air show by the USAF Thunderbirds. If in search of a souvenir or last-minute accessories, find well-stocked vendor tents lined around Frontier Park.

From roping to bareback riding, there are a number of time competitions during Cheyenne Frontier Days

And nights are buzzing with entertainment as well. The Frontier Nights series features concerts by major headliners, where advanced ticket purchases are a must. The list of names on the 2015 schedule explains why: Aerosmith, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, and Big and Rich.

Outdoor Wonders

Wyoming may be known for its prairie views, but there’s more to the scenery than that. Take a 30-minute drive west from Cheyenne to Vedauwoo, a stone-centered area within Medicine Bow National Forest. Vedauwoo is a rock climber’s joy, due to having tons of Sherman Granite formations dating back to 1.4 billion years ago. Cautious amateurs and experienced ramblers can walk around these boulders or slabs and then pull or step up on them for higher views. There’s also a seasonal camping area here.

Vedauwoo is a recreational playground for rock climbing

Another good outdoor option is Curt Gowdy State Park, about 25 miles from Cheyenne. Named for the late sportscaster and Wyoming native, this state park has 35 miles of hiking and biking trails at various rated levels, plus sections for horseback riding and even archery. Start off your day with a stop at the park’s visitor center to pick up a map or learn more about this state park.

If you’re looking to do some horseback riding, one place to stop at is Terry Bison Ranch. The ranch offers one-hour or full-day trail rides with some slight hill climbs. If you’re a bit horse shy, you can opt to go on a train ride instead. Before or after your ride, get some grub at the ranch’s Senator’s Restaurant. The Bison burger with just about any topping to choose from is quite nice.

Exploring Cheyenne

You can walk around downtown Cheyenne, but the best way to get your bearings is by going on a historic trolley tour. Departing from the Depot Center, these tours take you through Cheyenne’s historic sections, where enthusiastic guides will spout off rousing tales relating to different areas they’re passing through.

A historic trolley tour will take you around Downtown Cheyenne

My guide/driver, Val, entertained us with stories about Cheyenne’s early rowdy days and eye-opening tidbits about how Wyoming gave women a lot of firsts. It’s the first state (or still then a territory) in the Union to give women the right to vote and own property—and have the first woman governor. The tour drives through a division that was once a millionaires’ housing row for cattle barons and by places such as the Capitol Building, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, and Frontier Park.

In Cheyenne, fixing your craving for steak, ribs, or barbecue comes pretty easy.

At the Rib and Chop House, a local restaurant chain in downtown Cheyenne, you can order falling-off-the-bone-tender baby back ribs or premium cuts. When en route back from Curt Gowdy State Park, the family-friendly The Bunkhouse Bar cooks up comfort food specialties including chicken-fried steak and various sandwiches and burgers.

Yet if you’re seeking a different flavor, Morris House Bistro is all about lowcountry cooking. Based in the former home of a Cheyenne suffragette, this bistro serves up seasonal Southern dishes inspired by chef Dameione Cameron’s family recipes with some added Wyoming ingredients. His grandmother Mitzy came up with the recipe for Cameron’s crab cakes, and other relative delights include smoked chicken wings in a tobacco sauce, shrimp ’n’ grits, mac and cheese, and fried okra.

As craft beer is booming, Cheyenne has its share of local suds. The family-owned Freedom’s Edge Tap House Brewing Co. produces small-batch brews at its location inside the Tivoli Building, which in its heyday operated as a saloon. There, you can order a glass or flight of on-tap creations such as the Java Jolt Coffee Amber ale or the spicy High Noon Chili ale.

Craft brewery has come to Cheyenne, with success stories including Freedom’s Edge Brewery

For a good cocktail, head to The Suite Bistro for flavored martinis such as the WY Campfire, a marshmallow vodka and Kahlua mixture, to go with their fine dining menu. And if you’re seeking some nightlife, catch it at The Outlaw Saloon. With a main dance floor, pool tables and dartboards, an outdoor backyard setting with a stage, and even a mechanical bull, you’ll be quite entertained at this nightclub.

The Suite Bistro serves up flavored martinis such as the WY Campfire

Downtown Cheyenne has a number of shops and businesses for finding Western-minded goods or souvenirs. If you find yourself in sudden need of cowboy gear, especially during Cheyenne Frontier Days, The Wrangler is the place to be—and buy from. With a selection of nearly 500 hats plus a plethora of boots, belts, bejeweled jeans, and other ranch wear, customers can get help from sales personnel to make sure their hat brim fits just right. To fix that, a hat can be custom shaped by steaming it.

The Wrangler is the best shop for finding that perfect cowboy hat

For other finds, Wyoming Home has furnishings that fit a frontier taste, from bedding and house fixtures to jewelry and knickknacks plus edible treats. With the ladies, Just Dandy carries women’s fashions and accessories.

During Cheyenne Frontier Days, hats, boots, and other Western gear are in full force

Directly or just outside of downtown, visitors have some options for lodging that really provide a true feeling of staying in Cheyenne.

Be charmed by the Nagle Warren Mansion B&B. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, this well-to-do Victorian home turned bed and breakfast features 12 bedrooms graced with antique furniture. The mansion still holds touches from its past—a butler’s pantry and an elegant sitting room and parlor—but has received modern-day amenities, including a workout facility and sauna. An afternoon English high tea is served there from 2 to 4 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. And added warmth comes from Jim Osterfoss, its gracious innkeeper.

Just outside of downtown Cheyenne, the Little America Hotel & Resort offers luxury accommodations surrounded by 80 acres of prairie views. The property also has a nine-hole golf course, a heated outdoor swimming pool, a private lounge area, a boutique gift shop, a café, and Hathaway’s restaurant. The hotel caters well to business needs with well-sized conference rooms and event spaces.

The Historic Plains Hotel has welcomed famous guests including former US president Richard Nixon and actor Jimmy Stewart

Back downtown, the Historic Plains Hotel, another National Historic Landmark, has welcomed notable guests since opening in 1911 as Wyoming’s first luxury hotel. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were here, and so were Debbie Reynolds and Jimmy Stewart. There’s also some neat trivia: The walkway that connects the hotel lobby to a main avenue was nicknamed “Peacock Alley,” where men would allegedly try to make a move on ladies coming in from the nearby theater or street. Its restaurant, the Capitol Grille, features a wide range of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options with Wyoming ingredients.