Driving the American West: Cody, Wyoming

“Contemporary Sioux Indian” is one of the exquisite paintings by Wyoming artist James Bama on display in the Western Galleries at Cody’s Buffalo Bill Historical Center

 

Continued from
Driving the American West: Central to Northwest Wyoming

 

I had originally intended to drive to Yellowstone National Park from Western Colorado, but in late winter there’s an important wrinkle to consider: ’round this time of year, the south and east entrances to the park are closed.

So, enter my well-traveled mother-in-law’s excellent suggestion of Cody, Wyoming as an alternative.

The town and its Buffalo Bill Historical Center provide a vintage snapshot of the Old West, replete with Indians, bucking broncos, gunslinging and cattle. But there’s also locally-made wine. And sweet cream pancakes.

I was only in town for 20 hours, but I’d happily go back in spring or summer to drive the 50-mile Northfork Highway to Yellowstone. By all accounts, it’s full of bighorn sheep — and absolutely gorgeous.

Heading all the way north to Cody required an overnight stop in central Wyoming and a fascinating drive up Routes 789 and 120, but the childhood fan of Buffalo Bill that lurks within my heart felt it was worthwhile. Happily, I wasn’t disappointed.

I cruised into town at about noon on a Saturday, and had no problem finding a $70 US room in the historical wing of the Irma Hotel, financed by Buffalo Bill in 1902. (There are several modern rooms at the Irma for about $60 US, but really? I felt like it was important to go all the way, and I’m glad I did.) My room had a comfy bed, modern versions of vintage bath fixtures, and was nice and quiet with plenty of space.

The one major drawback is that smoking is permitted in the Irma’s restaurant and bar, so a trip through the lobby doesn’t smell great; fortunately, though, parking is free, exits are handy and it’s smack in the middle of the downtown drag.

After settling in, I climbed back in the car and headed over to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which is the greatest museum of Western art and artifacts that I’ve ever seen. Entrance fees allow you two days to visit, which is brilliant; I spent three hours here and only managed to explore a little over three of the five galleries. I was wowed by the art and impressed by an almost-freakishly detailed recreation of Frederic Remington’s studio. I learned to distinguish the chants of different Native American tribes, gaped at complex beadwork, and was fascinated by the live birds of prey that are rehabilitated and briefly presented at the Center.

I regret not going back to the Center the next day (wanderlust called), but at least I made the most of my evening. For dinner, I ponied up to the bar at the Rib and Chop House in search of buffalo steak, and found myself seated next to a twenty-something couple who’d just moved out to Cody four months earlier from San Diego. The parents of four kids under the age of eleven, they seemed genuinely happy to share their date night with a traveling stranger, though I was reluctant to horn in on their potential for canoodling.

Aside from the fact that the husband, clad in a black cowboy hat, plaid shirt and leather boots, works on an oil site three hours away and only comes home on weekends, and his wife runs a day care for several children (aside from her own) they painted a picture of Cody as a peaceful idyll with sparse traffic, wide open spaces, clean air and close-knit neighbors. They both mentioned that it’s a pain to have to wait for simple, common goods to make their slow way to the local Wal-Mart, but it was worth it to have a lifestyle they love.

I left the restaurant that night and immediately looked up at a clear sky full of glittering stars, wondering how I might fare out here in the Wild West.

The next morning, after pancakes and coffee and a stroll through town, I debated venturing 20 miles away to visit Heart Mountain, an encampment used to essentially imprison Japanese-Americans during World War II. Knowing I already had a six-hour detour south and west to Jackson Hole, though, I opted out.

Gotta tell you, I was more than a little smitten with Cody  — and I’m glad to have reasons to return.

In case you’re not quite sure where you are, this sign greets you at the end of the Northfork Highway

The huge, hand-carved wooden bar at the historic Irma Hotel was a gift to Buffalo Bill from his friend Queen Victoria

Bighorn sheep used to run scared in Cody — and specifically, at the Irma Hotel — but their numbers are now bouncing back

The architecture in the city of Cody is a mix of Old West and 1950s kitsch

The local scene at Peter’s Cafe in downtown Cody presents a great sense of the folks here

My first buffalo steak, prepared beautifully at the Rib and Chop House in downtown Cody; it came with a delightful salad, and no, I didn’t eat this whole potato…because it was vast

Buffalo Jump Wines are made in Cody, and their Cab, which I tried at the Rib and Chop House, is pretty darn delicious

Neon signs like this one for The Saddlery light up the main street in downtown Cody

One travel writer and three locals pointed me towards Bubba’s BBQ for their pancakes, which are made with sweet cream…and turns out, are as big as your head

A bronze statue of Buffalo Bill stands proudly — and fairly enormous — outside the Buffalo Bill Historical Center

The artwork in the Center’s Western Galleries ranges from historic to modern, like Bill Schenck’s 1994 “A Flight from Destiny”

A big display at the Historical Center explain how bronzes, like this one of Teddy Roosevelt, are made

I could have looked at the view from the Center’s reading room all day

The Firearms Gallery at the Center features vehicles, paintings, photos, and of course, antique guns

Teasdale, a Great Horned Owl, is one of four wounded birds of prey that are presented for a half-hour each day at the Center

An entire pioneer cabin, including this antique stove, is on display at the Center

The Plains Indians Galleries at the Center were amazing, both educational and evocative

The Center’s Plains Indians Galleries feature an extensive array of handmade leather-, feather- and beadwork

The Bighorn Mountains surround Cody, creating gorgeous vistas on the outskirts of town

 

RESOURCES

Cody info on Wyoming’s official tourism site
Buffalo Bill’s Yellowstone/Cody Country
Irma Hotel
Rib and Chop House
Buffalo Bill Historical Center
Academy Award Winning Story at Heart Mountain

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Soon continued in
Driving the American West: Jackson Hole & the Grand Tetons

Comments

  1. Glad you had such a good time in Cody! We love the pics–especially our resident great horned owl, Teasdale. We certainly look forward to a return visit! Here’s a great video that sort of sums up who we are and what we do. http://youtu.be/F2RHQ_UbB_M

  2. Thank you so much for this video — and your comment! I look forward to a return visit to the Center someday. 🙂

  3. Great Photos. I highly recommend the Western Art Gallery its the best collection of this type I have seen anywhere. Nice comment from them on your post.

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