The Best of the West: Heritage Travel

Franciscan Brother Simeon Schwemberger began his passion for photography of the Four Corners region after his discovery of a surplus large-format 5×7 glass-plate camera at the St. Michaels Mission near Window Rock, Arizona, in 1901. His poignant 1908 photo of a public Jemez Pueblo ceremony in New Mexico reflects his sensitivity for the Native peoples he photographed.
– Courtesy Library of Congress –

 

For millions of would-be travelers to the American West, 2020 will be remembered as the year that might have been. For those who did venture out West this past year, spontaneity and flexibility were the watch-words for successful heritage travel experiences. While many museums, restaurants, saloons, historic sites, parks, lodges and hotels are still following ever-changing safety guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, intrepid Western travelers quickly realize great photo opportunities, hikes, roadside rests and spontaneous, seize-the-moment experiences.

While traveling during the pandemic last summer, we quickly appreciated the spontaneity of our route West: from the grassy plains of Kansas’s Flint Hills; meeting fellow travelers from Iowa in front of Dodge City’s Boot Hill Museum; a respite at Great Bend, Kansas’s Santa Fe Trail monument; delicious home-style Mexican food at Vero Tacos in Hugoton, Kansas; the kindness of a Good Samaritan gas-station owner opening his rest rooms as he was closing at midnight in Clayton, New Mexico; and the Las Vegas homeowner who made us a special deal on his Airbnb. Each of these experiences  might seem small, but when remembered together, the Western travel adventure is as rich and rewarding as a weekend in a five-star resort.

True West’s annual Best of the West Travel honorees are the dedicated men and women across the West who have worked hard to keep the welcoming spirit of Western hospitality alive in their communities for today’s and tomorrow’s generations. Without their passion and dedication to their community heritage—a true partnership we at True West are honored to recognize—much of our history would be lost. We encourage you to plan your next trip, knowing full well that “spontaneity and flexibility” will need to be your traveling mantra as you head on down the Western trail to make memories of a lifetime. —Stuart Rosebrook

 

Native Western artisans, such as this Zuni potter photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1903, are
appreciated for their timeless craft, born out of ancient necessities and now an acclaimed
artform that is collected, curated and studied.
– Courtesy Library of Congress –

 

Best Place to Live Like an Old West Cowboy (Winter)

Prescott, AZ

The original Territorial capital of Arizona, Prescott celebrates its heritage throughout the year at local museums, hotels and restaurants. The mile-high city has mild winters with plenty of indoor and outdoor activities, including the popular Historic Downtown Prescott Walking Tours, the Annual Prescott Chamber Christmas Parade titled “A Hometown Christmas,” the Annual Courthouse Christmas Lighting and Sharlot Hall’s Annual Frontier Christmas, “The Spirit of Christmas Past Visits Prescott.” If you stay for the summer, don’t miss Frontier Days, the Frontier Days Rodeo Parade and the World’s Oldest Rodeo every Fourth of July. Visit-Prescott.com

Readers’ Choice: Amarillo, TX

 

Best Place to Live Like an Old West Cowboy (Summer)

Cody, WY

From the great outdoors to museums, Cody is one of the West’s most Western towns in which one can live like an Old West cowboy. Start at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, then head downtown to tour, shop, eat and drink. Don’t miss the Cody Nite Rodeo, Irma Hotel Gunfights, Old Trail Town and trail-riding at one of the local stables. Hang your hat at Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel downtown or contact the Cody Chamber of Commerce for information on booking a once-in-a-lifetime cowboy experience at one of the local historic guest ranches. CodyChamber.org

Readers’ Choice: Pendleton, OR

 

Best Old West Gunfighter Town

Deadwood, SD

Put on your boots and hat and walk on down Deadwood’s historic Main Street and enjoy famous restaurants, museums, saloons, shops and haunted hotel tours at the Historic Bullock Hotel and the Historic Fairmont Hotel and Oyster Bay Bar. In the summer, don’t miss the Trial of Jack McCall drama, six nights a week, and the Deadwood Alive’s Main Street Shows and Shootouts. Learn more about the infamous gunfighters, shady characters, ladies of the night and lawmen who made Deadwood famous at the Adams Museum. Deadwood.com

Readers’ Choice: Tombstone, AZ

 

Frontier photographer William S. Soule had serendipitously set up his studio at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, during the Indian Wars of the 1870s, and his portraits of the Plains tribal people , including these Comanche women, are considered some of the best record of the era. Today, travelers interested in learning more about the former “Lords of the Plains” should tour the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center in Lawton, Oklahoma.
– William S. Soule, Courtesy Beinecke Library, Yale University –

 

Best Preserved Re-created Pioneer Town

Old Cowtown, Wichita, KS

Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum is one of the premier living history centers in the state of Kansas. Dedicated to recreating the atmosphere of the frontier town’s Wild West past when hundreds of thousands of cattle flowed into the city’s stockyards off the Chisholm Trail, Cowtown reconnects visitors with history through artifacts in its 10,000-piece permanent collection. Cowtown’s history programming recounts the story of Wichita’s transformation from a frontier settlement to a modern city. Docents and staff bring Wichita’s past to life for visitors of all ages through hands-on daily activities, special events and living history programs. OldCowtown.org

Readers’ Choice: Museum of the Mountain West, Montrose, CO

 

Two Blackfoot women and a child with a horse and traditional travois are bundled up against the chill of the Montana winter. The woman on the left is shrouded in a wool trade blanket, possibly a Pendleton or Hudson’s Bay.
– Richard Erdoes Collection, Courtesy Beinecke Library, Yale University –

Best Old West Art Town

Santa Fe, NM

Over the decades, the oldest state capital in the United States has become both a haven for writers and artists as well as an international tourist destination known for its historic ambiance, gourmet restaurants, elegant lodging, top-rated museums and world-class art galleries. Art events that should be on everyone’s bucket list include the Santa Fe Society of Artists’ Outdoor Fine Arts Shows, Santa Fe Studio Tour, Santa Fe Opera, International Folk Art Market, Traditional Spanish Market, Indian Market and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. SantaFe.org

Readers’ Choice: Fort Smith, AR

 

Sporting heavy-duty batwing chaps, a Navajo cowboy, circa 1920s, is all tacked up on his Navajo pony and ready to ride round-up in the rough, high-desert country around Ganado, Arizona. Cowboying is still a way of life across the Navajo Nation today, and visitors should consider attending the July 4th Celebration and Rodeo held every year in Window Rock, Arizona.
– Frederic Williams, Courtesy NYPL Digital Collections –

Best Town for Historic Entertainment

Deadwood, SD

During the summertime, Deadwood, South Dakota, is one of the busiest, fun-filled cities in the West. With gunfights and the Trial of Jack McCall six days a week, plus entertaining living history programs in Outlaw Square, visitors are guaranteed to catch some Old West action most days. Every summer the city also hosts Wild Bill Days and ’76 Days, including two parades and its award-winning rodeo in the historic Days of ’76 Arena. In the fall, ticketed stagecoach rides, weather permitting, are offered on the half-hour from the Celebrity Hotel from noon to 5 p.m. Deadwood.com

Readers’ Choice: Sheridan, WY

Best Architecturally Preserved Western Town

Oatman, AZ

Historic Oatman sits astride Old Route 66 in the Black Mountains of Arizona’s Mojave County. Well-known as a popular Old West tourist destination, Oatman started in the 1860s as a gold-mining camp that did not hit major paydirt until the early 20th century. While the town boomed for close to a decade, a major fire hit the town in 1921, burning many of the gold camp’s original buildings. Two Oatman buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are the 1902 two-story adobe Oatman Hotel (originally The Durlin) and the 1915 Oatman Drug Company. Visitors strolling the boardwalks of the frontier-styled storefronts with the city’s famous burros will quickly discover an Old West ambience that harkens to Arizona’s legendary mining past. VisitArizona.com

Readers’ Choice: South Pass City, WY

 

The Hopi people of northeastern Arizona live in some of the oldest continually inhabited communities in North America. Their signature adobe-stone pueblos are located on three mesas, including Old Oraibi on First Mesa, founded sometime before 1100 A.D. Visitors to the Hopi Nation should begin at the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa and inquire about guided tours, public events and rules for visiting the pueblo community.
– Edward S. Curtis, circa 1906-07, Courtesy NYPL Digital Collections –

Best Living History Farm Museum

Grand Encampment Museum, WY

Dedicated to the history of the Upper North Platte Valley, the Grand Encampment Museum is home to one of the finest collections of pioneer buildings in the state of Wyoming. A tour of the living history museum and the 12 historic structures tells the region’s rich history of ranching, timber and copper mining. Visitors who tour will also learn about day-to-day life and the cultural heritage of the Encampment area pioneers. GEMuseum.com

Readers’ Choice: Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm Historic Site, Olathe, KS

 

Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Crow fought against Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn. One of Sitting Bull’s leaders, Crow accompanied the chief and the Lakota people who found refuge in Canada from 1877-81. For a deeper understanding of the Great Sioux War and the aftermath of Custer’s defeat, visit Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
– Courtesy National Park Service, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, LIBI_00011_07150,
D F. Barry, “Crow, Hunkpapa Lakota,” date unknown –

Best Historic Town Tour

St. Joseph, MO

St. Jo takes a great deal of pride in its rich and storied heritage and role as a gateway to the West. The Convention & Visitors Bureau has helped develop ways for visitors to discover the city’s great history through architectural tours of downtown, walking tours of the city, driving tours of its museums (don’t miss the Pony Express National, Patee House and Jesse James Home museums) and individual specialized tours available at the Historic St. Joseph Emporium. StJoMo.com

Readers’ Choice: Lavender Jeep Tours, Bisbee, AZ

 

Best Promotion of a Historic Place

Dodge City, KS

Visitors to Dodge City, Kansas, will quickly discover that the infamous frontier outpost is one of best in the West for Old West aficionados. From the Boot Hill Museum to the Dodge City Trail of Fame, tourists will love walking and exploring the historic town while staying at the Boot Hill Casino and Resort. Summertime guests who buy the Marshal Pass can also attend the daily World Famous Gunfight, Country Style Dinner and the Long Branch Saloon Variety Show. VisitDodgeCity.org

Readers’ Choice: Deadwood, SD

 

Native peoples’ trade goods have been part of the New Mexico economy since Spanish times, but after the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company began building rail stations and promoting tourism across the Land of Enchantment in the 1880s, Indian artisans have found visitors to the state eager regular buyers of their jewelry, pottery, basketry and textiles.
– Courtesy Library of Congress –

 

Best Old West Town to Live In

Tombstone, AZ

Tombstone, in Cochise County in southeastern Arizona, is within driving distance of multiple historic towns and sites, including Benson, Bisbee, Douglas, Sierra Vista and Wilcox. “The town too tough to die,” with its historically significant downtown, restaurants, saloons, shops, museums, hotels and annual Old West festivals, is the ideal Western town to live in if you want to live and breathe Western history 365 days of the year. TombstoneChamber.com

Readers’ Choice: Prescott, AZ

 

Kiowa chief Lone Wolf (Gui’pago) and his wife had their portrait made in 1863 at Matthew Brady’s studio while in Washington, D.C., for peace negotiations between Southern Plains tribes and the U.S. government. Although the Little Arkansas Treaty was signed two years later, peace was fleeting on the Southern Plains, and Lone Wolf eventually was incarcerated as a prisoner of war in Florida. Learn more about the history and heritage of the Plains tribes at the Smithsonian’s National Museum
of the American Indian in the District of Columbia.
– Courtesy Library of Congress –

 

Best Historic Railroad of the West

Georgetown Loop Railroad, Georgetown, CO

Built in 1884, Colorado’s Georgetown Loop Railroad is one of the engineering wonders of the Rocky Mountain state’s historic narrow-gauge rail lines. Passengers will enjoy the thrill of riding on historic rolling stock pulled by a steam-driven locomotive across the new High Bridge. Many specialty trains are planned throughout the season. After the exciting highline rail trip, enjoy a mine tour, gold panning and a tour of historic Georgetown. Check regularly with the railroad for changes in the schedule to COVID restrictions. GeorgetownLoopRR.com

Readers’ Choice: Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Durango, CO

 

Best “Who Slept Here” Hotel

The Occidental, Buffalo, WY

Visitors to Buffalo, Wyoming, should consider spending the night and dining at the Occidental Hotel, where Owen Wister may have written part of his famous novel, The Virginian. Famous former guests of the historic hotel include Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Theodore Roosevelt, Calamity Jane, Tom Horn, Buffalo Bill Cody and Ernest Hemingway. While in town, visit the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum’s exhibits that chronicle local history, including the Johnson County War. Just outside town is the TA Ranch, a historic guest ranch that was the site of a major conflict during the cattle war. Don’t miss Longmire Days every July in celebration of writer Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire mystery novels and television series set in Big Horn Country. OccidentalWyoming.com

Readers’ Choice: Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel, Cody, WY

 

Best Heritage Hotel

Strater Hotel, Durango, CO

The Strater Hotel in the historic district of Durango, Colorado, is the perfect place to stay when vacationing in the Animas River Valley city made internationally famous by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Opened in 1887, the Strater is a landmark hotel, luxuriously maintained and preserved with antiques throughout the historic inn and its well-appointed rooms. Don’t miss an evening in the Diamond Belle Saloon and dinner in the Mahogany Grill. Strater.com

Readers’ Choice: TIE: Hotel Colorado, Glenwood Springs, CO/Copper Queen, Bisbee, AZ

 

Misidentified as a Paiute family by photographer Daniel Berry Austin, circa late 1880s, the mother, child and father are actually members of Yosemite’s native tribe, the Ahwahnechee, or better known today as the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.
The Tuolomne Rancheria reservation is just outside Yosemite National Park. Yosemite’s grand lodge Ahwahnee Hotel is named in their honor, as is Yosemite’s recreated 19th-century Ahwahneechee Village.
– Courtesy NYPL Digital Collections –

 

Best Dude Ranch of the West

The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch, Shell, WY

Located east of Greybull, Wyoming, in Shell Valley near the entrance of awe-inspiring Shell Canyon, the Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch operates on a 100-year-old cattle ranch. The lodge is well known for its Old West cabins, casitas and homes, relaxing Western atmosphere, gourmet meals, well-trained horses, dramatic trail riding and a great variety of non-riding activities, including wilderness photography, scenic tours, fly-fishing and hiking. TheHideout.com

Readers’ Choice: Tombstone Monument Ranch & Cattle Co., Tombstone, AZ

Best Heritage Bed & Breakfast

Rancho de la Osa, Sasabe, AZ

Three centuries of history await discovery at Rancho de la Osa, a high-desert retreat just north of the Sonora, Mexico, border. Located on a Spanish land grant, the guest ranch has on its site, according to ranch records, “the oldest continually used building that was built at the Indian village around 1720 by Jesuit missionaries who had traveled with Father Kino (Kino died in 1711).” The ranch retreat has been popular with dignitaries, celebrities and politicians since noted archaeologist Louise Wetherill opened it in 1926. All-inclusive dude ranch packages include lodging, dining and horseback riding. RanchoDeLaOsa.com

Readers’ Choice: Michael’s Mansion, Fort Smith, AR

 

The Oomiak racers’ competition was just one of the spirited events held in honor of Independence Day in Nome, Alaska, on July 4, 1915. Before the 1898 gold rush, Native Alaskan Inupiat people had lived in the Nome area of the Seward Peninsula since prehistoric times. Today, Nome still benefits from the economy of gold mining, but also from tourism, including a port for cruise ships. Visitors can learn more about the region’s history at the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum and the Kawerak Katirvik Cultural Center.
– Courtesy Library of Congress –

 

Best Heritage Guest Ranch

Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch, Winston, NM

Looking for a great Old West escape from the day-to-day grind? Want to relax in one of the most scenic and historic regions of New Mexico? Then take the Geronimo Trail National Scenic Byway to the Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch, south of Beaverhead in southwest New Mexico. Located in the heart of the mountains of the Gila National Forest, the unique guest ranch offers guests the opportunity to immerse themselves in a relaxing Western experience with first-class accommodations. Guided trail rides take guests into the canyons and mountains to explore the Mimbres cultural sites adjacent to the ranch. GeronimoRanch.com

Readers’ Choice: White Stallion Ranch, Tucson, AZ

 

Best Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Durango, CO

The popular poetry gathering was ready to celebrate its 32nd year the first weekend of October 2020—with its traditional trail ride, chuckwagon breakfast, cowboy poet train, parade and, of course, the world-class cowboy poets entertaining crowds day and night—but had to postpone until 2021. Circle the date on the calendar and plan for an exciting return next year. DurangoCowboyPoetryGathering.org

Readers’ Choice: National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, NV

 

In 1870, William Henry Jackson made this dramatic image of a Shoshone village in a valley of the Wind River Range of west-central Wyoming. Today, the Eastern Shoshones’ home, still near the Wind River Mountains, on the Wind River Indian Reservation, is shared with the Northern Arapaho people. Visitors are welcome to stay at the popular Wind River and Shoshone Rose casinos and tour the tribal cultural centers.
– Courtesy Library of Congress –

 

Best Cowboy Music Gathering

All American CowboyFest (Formally Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium), Ruidosa, NM

Founded by legendary New Mexico cowboy singer Ray Reed in 1990, the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium was rebranded as the All American CowboyFest in 2020. It has grown from its humble roots in Glencoe, New Mexico, to one of the biggest annual festivals celebrating the cowboy way of life. Held at the Ruidoso Downs Race Track & Casino every October, the three-day event in 2020 was going to celebrate its 31st anniversary, until it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival offers attendees three days of world-class country music, a championship chuckwagon cook-off, mounted shooting demonstrations, a rodeo and much more. AllAmericanCowboyFest.com

Readers’ Choice: Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering & Western Swing Festival, Fort Worth, TX

 

Edward S. Curtis’s 1899 poignant portrait of a Vancouver Island Indian woman is from the photographer’s timeless study of North America’s Native people. Today, visitors on a heritage and cultural tour of Vancouver, B.C., start at the Indigenous Tourism BC office in West Vancouver to learn about all the wonderful sites dedicated to Canadian Indian history in British Columbia.
– Courtesy NYPL Digital Collections –

 

Best Old West Mounted Re-Enactment

Pendleton Round-Up/Happy Canyon Night Show, Pendleton, OR

Since 1910, the Pendleton Round-Up has been held in the same location with no in-arena advertising. The Oregon Heritage Culture Event continues as the “epic drama of the West” with its wooden chutes and unique, timed run-down alley. The Round-Up is always held the second week of September, with the popular Westward Ho! Parade on Friday and Happy Canyon Pageant held every night Wednesday to Saturday. PendletonRoundUp.com

Readers’ Choice: Little Bighorn Battlefield, Crow Agency, MT

 

Nez Perce leader Yellow Bull sat for this portrait by Edward S. Curtis in 1905. Yellow Bull was instrumental in the tribe’s defiance of the U.S. in 1877, and his son, Walaituts, was involved in the murder of white settlers who helped to start the war. Travelers to Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana, who are interested in Native history and the cultural role of the Nez Perce people in the region should consult with rangers at the Nez Perce National Historical Park to plan a trip to the most important tribal parks and public sites in the four states.
– Courtesy Library of Congress –

 

Best Old West Re-Enactment Group

Prescott Regulators & Their Shady Ladies, Prescott, AZ

Members of the Prescott Regulators & Their Shady Ladies, Inc., an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, are the “Official Old West Ambassadors” of historic Prescott. They host the annual Shootout on Whiskey Row, participate in re-enactment events and parades throughout Arizona, donating all profits to locally based charities. PrescottRegulators.org

Readers’ Choice: Six Guns & Shady Ladies, El Paso, TX

 

Best Wild West Show

Old Abilene Town, Abilene, KS

After a tour of Old Abilene Town’s historic buildings and “downtown” storefronts and attending the Old West gunfighters show, don’t miss the Can-Can Girls, who kick up their heels on the Alamo Stage every Saturday night from late June to late August. OldAbileneCowtown.com

Readers’ Choice: OK Corral, Tombstone, AZ

 

Son of influential Osage Chief Black Dog, Black Dog II was photographed wearing a bear claw necklace during the Hayden Geological Survey of 1880, the same year he became a principal chief. Learn more about the Osage people along the Santa Fe National Historic Trail and at the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
– Courtesy of the National Park Service, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, LIBI_00312_11125,
Hayden Survey of the US. Geological Survey, “ circa 1880 –

 

Best Historic Western Rodeo

Cheyenne Frontier Days, Cheyenne, WY

Wyoming’s world-famous annual Cheyenne Frontier Days are scheduled for July 23 to August 1, 2021. Considered “the daddy of them all,” the rodeo started in 1897 and includes two parades, a carnival midway, nightly entertainment and an American Indian Village. Don’t miss the rodeo’s famous pancake breakfast and the four-day Chuck-wagon Cook Off that celebrates the heritage of chuckwagon cooking on the open range during cattle drives that brought cattle from Texas to the Cowboy State. CFRodeo.com

Readers’ Choice: The World’s Oldest Rodeo, Prescott, AZ

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