By Debi Lander
Wyoming evokes images of cowboys, ranches and wide-open spaces. I headed for the least-populated state in America for a meeting in its northeastern corner, and stayed on to explore the mountains and plains.
I jumped right into a saddle at Eaton’s Ranch, a dude ranch 18 miles from Sheridan. Eaton’s didn’t disappoint. The 135-year-old family-run establishment continues to please guests with relaxing vacations featuring the best of the West on horseback. Eaton’s strives to accommodate all ages and abilities and provides everything needed except a pair of blue jeans — they’ll fit you with a saddle and lend you a pair of boots. Wranglers, the barn employees, assess your ability and choose an appropriate steed.
Group trail riding is the favorite activity, although experienced equestrians are free to roam the hills. On my final day, a guide led us across a small river and high up the mountains for a stunning view. I left feeling like a real cowgirl. If you want to experience the west, a dude ranch will do it, partner.
The city of Sheridan, population 20,000, offers a wide variety of experiences. If you think the West uncultured, think again. The Brinton Museum houses one of the finest western art museums anywhere. In addition to paintings, photography and sculpture, it includes an outstanding collection of exquisitely designed leather craft.
Sheridan’s downtown looks as I expected of the Old West: wide streets from the days when horse-drawn wagons needed space to turn around, and many original brick buildings. A walking tour took me past City Hall, a stone courthouse, a shoe store featuring hundreds of colorful cowboy boots, and a furniture store selling a bed hiding a secret compartment for a rifle. Everyone ends up at the famous Mint Bar, a 1907 saloon redecorated in the 1940s. The Mint attracts with a vintage neon exterior sign and game mounts (stuffed animal heads) along the walls. You can’t miss the set of horns measuring seven feet from tip to tip centered behind the bar.
The Sheridan Inn, a member of the Historic Hotels of America, hosted Buffalo Bill Cody’s auditions for his traveling show. Its saloon maintains the wooden bar Queen Victoria gave to the famous cowboy showman.
Sheridan’s historic aura suits the era it calls to mind, but attractions like the Koltiska Distillery and Black Tooth brewery add to today’s craft scene and a vibrant nightlife.
I drove more than two hours to see Devil’s Tower, a National Park Monument, also considered a sacred site by Native Americans. Its massive, otherworldly, and strangely geometric presence confounds visitors. You might remember it as the massive stone tower from the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Most tourists hike the trails around it; braver souls attempt to climb the 867-foot tower.
Fans of the “Longmire” TV series are drawn to the town of Buffalo, the city that author Craig Johnson used as a model for Absaroka County. The town and cast members annually celebrate Longmire Days. The restored Occidental Hotel captures the rip-roaring essence of the ranch era. Period furnishings fill the lobby and photos of former guests like Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy and Teddy Roosevelt line the walls. Mosey up to the 25-foot long bar in the iconic saloon.
Although a section of Yellowstone Park within Wyoming lures visitors, I headed south toward Cheyenne, the state capitol resting an hour and a half from Denver’s airport. Cheyenne draws acclaim for its rodeo and railroad hub. I returned to Florida via Denver with a new pair of boots and a hankering for line dancing. There’s no “Why” in Wyoming; better to ask yourself why not!
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander