Authentic Wild West activities for all ages and a world class museum draw families to Cody, in the area of northeastern Wyoming known as Yellowstone Country.
Drive into the small city of Cody, Wyoming on July 4th, and you won’t believe the traffic. Every year, families gather here from the surrounding wide open spaces for the Cody Stampede, a celebration with parades, fireworks, and, a prerequisite for this town — rodeos. The aura of spectacle throughout Cody, strongest at this time of year, is a testament to its history: Wild West Show legend Buffalo Bill Cody founded the city in 1896, and ever since it has continued its cowboy charm. During the Stampede, cars, pick-ups, and SUVs fill streets that look like they are still meant for stagecoaches and lone riders.
Nearby are both the oldest National Park (Yellowstone opened in 1872) and the oldest National Forest (Shoshone) in the United States, available year-round for outdoor activity. Buffalo Bill himself helped create the first road between Cody and Yellowstone, and his hunting lodge just outside the park, Pahaska Tepee, is still standing and open to visitors. Cody is known today as the “Rodeo Capital of the World” with good reason, since the Cody Nite Rodeo runs every single evening in the summer months. If you’re looking for the quintessential Western getaway, this is probably a good bet, especially on the way to or from Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons.
Western History 101 at Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Besides rodeo in the summer, the centerpiece of Cody’s attractions is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Your family will want to spend at least half a day at this impressive collection of five museums, located just on the edge of downtown. All five sections of the center, the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Plains Indian Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, and the Draper Museum of Natural History, are family-friendly in their own way, but leading in this department is the Draper Museum. Here, the natural history of the region comes to life through interpretive exhibits of flora and fauna. The Draper Museum’s spiral design simulates a descent in elevation as visitors walk from the alpine environment of bighorn sheep and mountain goats through the forest, meadows, and down to the plains and basins.
The Draper Museum’s interactive quality is what really makes it a hit for younger children. Upon arriving, kids can pick up an Explorer’s Guide full of activities and a passport for gathering various animal stamps. They can stop in a “naturalist’s cabin” for a briefing before venturing out among the lands of the bear, moose, and wolf. One of the most interesting displays allows visitors to write comments about the presence of wolves in the Yellowstone area, and a nearby bulletin board posts many different opinions from this comment box side-by-side. Wolf reintroduction has been a heated issue, with conservationists often at odds with local ranchers, and the variety of perspectives on this animal is fascinating.
Western Art, Native Americans & More at Buffalo Bill Center
A close runner-up for kid accessibility at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is the Plains Indian Museum. This museum seeks to both capture the history of native tribes like the Lakota, Crow, and Cheyenne and to emphasize that they are still alive and well today. Interactive features coexist with artifacts like ceremonial clothing, headdresses, beadwork, tools, a full-sized teepee, and a sweat lodge.
The other museums in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West are high quality as well. The Buffalo Bill Museum provides a haven for Western history buffs, displaying paraphernalia from the life and Wild West Shows of Buffalo Bill Cody. The Cody Firearms Museum houses the largest collection of American firearms in the world, while the Whitney Gallery of Western Art contains the likes of Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell.
Moseying Around Town in Cody
Cody is a wonderful town for walking, especially since historical fact and interpretation seem to happily coexist here. Fun stores, art galleries, a winery and restaurants will satisfy the window shopper, but make sure to plan a special stop at the Irma Hotel whose history is almost as old as Cody itself, since Buffalo Bill built it and named it after his youngest daughter in 1902. It’s still a working hotel and restaurant today, but even if you don’t stay long, take a peek at the priceless cherry wood bar or browse the quirky gift shop. In the summer, you might catch a free evening gunfight reenactment in front of the Irma, thanks to the Cody Gunfighters. Nightly except Sunday these enthusiastic volunteers perform lighthearted skits depicting the rough-and-tumble life in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, while stressing the importance of gun safety to the younger members of the audience.
Cody Trolley Tours provide another way to see and learn about the city while giving your feet a rest. Two lively onboard guides use photos, pass-around objects, and audio clips to enhance the 60-minute historical tour. Packages are available with admission tickets to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Passionate locals contribute so much to the culture here, that we can recommend another offbeat attraction. The Old Trail Town/Museum of the Old West is a collection of 26 authentic frontier buildings – including one used by Butch Cassidy and his gang. After seeing everything in miniature, your family will enjoy seeing the way Cody residents lived way back when.
By the way, Cody is also a popular base for adventures year round. There’s wildlife watching, especially in fall when visitors can see huge male elk sparring to get the attention of female elk, or hear elk bugling to warn competitors away. The hilly countryside is popular for scenic road trips, mountain biking and hiking. In winter, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, snowcoaches in Yellowstone, ice-climbing and ice skating are other ways to get around. Best yet, rates are much less than during the busy summer.
Cody Rodeo & Other Cowboy Events
Rodeo may be a somewhat controversial sport but for many people it represents a way of life. Rodeo events are based on the tasks of working cowboys and cowgirls, and nowhere are they more embraced than in Cody, which boasts the longest-running nightly rodeo in the world. The Cody Nite Rodeo pretty much guarantees that you’ll have a chance to go if you visit in the summer, and includes special children’s activities like face painting, trick roping, and chasing after young steer. The wild Cody Stampede, annually from July 1-4, is an especially lively time to participate, and if you’re not from Out West, attending a rodeo is a great people-watching opportunity.
If rodeo isn’t your family’s thing, however, other events throughout the year maintain Cody’s festive and historically conscious atmosphere. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West hosts two other major happenings: a celebration of Cowboy Songs and Range Ballads in April, and the Plains Indian Museum Pow Wow in June. The Cowboy Songs and Range Ballads program combines performances, discussion sessions, and workshops (which in the past have included yodeling and harmonica lessons). The pow wow features competitive dance, drumming, and craft vendors from various Northern Plains tribes.
For more of cowboy culture, there’s Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue from May through September, in which Miller and his band perform favorite CW favorites. Country stars come to Cody all winter, too, to perform in the locally produced “Cody Wild West Show.”
Exploring Yellowstone Country
If you have time to really explore this fascinating part of the country, then the efforts of the Park County Travel Council should not be ignored. They market the towns of Cody, Powell and Meeteetse as well as the valley east of Yellowstone National Park.
Powell houses one of the country’s most unusual, yet moving, historical testaments, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, opened in 2011 to tell the story of the government’s wartime relocation and imprisonment — at this spot — of Japanese Americans. Memorabilia, photos and oral histories combine to bring to life the 14,000 people interred between 1942-1945. Yellowstone National Park, another must-see, is 52 miles from the East Gate and 90 minutes’ drive from the Northeast Gate. This “Yellowstone Country” resource makes lots of useful information available and easy to find. Take a look at this site for a variety of lodging outside of town, too.
Laying Your Hat in Cody
When you’re finally all tuckered out, there are many lodging options in Cody, no doubt built to accommodate all those rodeo-goers. These include both independently owned operations and well-known chains like Best Western and Holiday Inn.
A property that has earned top reviews from visitors is the Cody Legacy Inn on Mountain View Drive. And there is quite a legacy to fulfill — the co-owners of this property are Buffalo Bill’s great great granddaughter and her husband. Lodgepole pine bedframes are one of many thoughtful rustic touches put into the Inn’s design, and guests have praised the staff’s friendliness and attention to detail. Breakfast is included in the moderate nightly rates and high speed Internet, cribs, rollaways, and popular, spacious family suites — sleeping up to six — with refrigerators are available.
Other in-town lodging ideas and other practical information are available through the Cody Chamber of Commerce. Notably, Cody is also the home of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, which includes ranches from all over North America but can help you learn about what’s nearby.
And don’t forget, the country’s first National Park, first National Forest, and some of the most scenic roads and outdoor recreation opportunities in the United States are a simple drive away.
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